On Portland’s Saffron Colonial

In 1943, India experienced a devastating famine that led to the death of an estimated three million people. India was still under British colonial rule and the then British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, showed no remorse.

“I hate Indians,” Churchill said in response to the death of millions. “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” When asked why so many Indians died in the famine, Churchill said it is because Indians were “breeding like rabbits.”

For many, Churchill’s name still invokes a painful history of pillage, racism, and imperialism. My grandparents were born in colonial India and were made to think of as inferior to white colonialists.

It is odd then — and profoundly offensive — that a new restaurant has opened here in Portland, Oregon with the name Saffron Colonial that plans to serve a brunch dedicated to Winston Churchill.

The restaurant was started by Sally Krantz, who founded a series of bakeries called Saffron Café in Hong Kong. According to its website, Krantz’s new Portland restaurant plans to serve “English and Colonial breakfast” with items like “Burmese Golden Curry” and “Huevos Rancheros.”

Krantz’s restaurant is located in Northeast Portland, an area that is rapidly loosing its diversity. According to the Washington Post, the northeast of Portland was once 84% black but today it is only 30% black. During the years 2000 to 2010, one in four black residents left the Northeast quadrant. (Watch this video to hear black residents talk about what it is like to live in Portland today.)

Online, the backlash against Saffron Colonial has already prompted several on Yelp to write scathing reviews like this one: “Wow you know what really makes me hungry? Thinking about British empire as a force of violence, genocide, and pure evil for over 100 years.” (Some of these reviews have been taken down.)

I reached out to Krantz via her website for her reaction but she did not respond. I cannot, therefore, say for certain why she chose her restaurant’s name or why she believes “Huevos Rancheros” fits on a menu dedicated to former British colonial states. After Willamette Week ran a short piece about her new restaurant, Krantz told the publication that she cannot understand the backlash and that she is not a racist.

“I’m not trying to incense anybody. I’m just trying to make food,” Krantz said.

On Friday, the Oregonian published an article in which Krantz doubled down on her restaurant’s name.

“A lot of people are confused,” Krantz said. “Colonial is used on a lot of things: to describe a period of time with food, architecture and literature…It seems like some people have confused that word with American slavery.”

It is unfortunate and disappointing that instead of listening to people’s criticisms, Krantz chose instead to dismiss her detractors as “confused.”

Al Sedaghat, the sous chef at Saffron Colonial, even went so far as to say on Facebook that people should “get a job.” In an exchange with me and others on Facebook, he said not everything the British colonial state did was bad. (The comments have since been deleted.)

In the week since Saffron Colonial has opened, I have heard many people say, “It’s just a restaurant” or “Colonialism was long ago.” I am often tempted to respond: did you lose anyone in your family because of British colonialism? Have you been pushed out of your home because of your skin color?

I have never forgotten or taken for granted this simple fact: I am the first in my family not born under British rule.

Because for many of us, colonialism is not a cute dress up game or a brunch theme. Colonialism is about being told that we, as people of color, are lesser human beings because of the foods we eat, the traditions we follow, and the people we love. I can’t imagine what it would be like to dine with my father at Krantz’s restaurant, a man who was born in British controlled Tanzania.

What colonialism did to my father, he taught me, was to make him feel like a lording white presence was something he should be thankful for, that it was a “civilizing, benign force,” that he had no right to tell his own life’s story.

To speak of colonialism as an irrelevant event in the past misses the point about what violence does to a people. Growing up in Sacramento, one of the things I learned from my best friend Joshua is that the Holocaust must not be viewed as a distant memory. It was the horror Joshua’s grandparents endured, a horror they then spoke about to Joshua. It shaped his life and it would be insulting to think otherwise just because Joshua was “not there.”

Part of the reason this restaurant’s name, Saffron Colonial, ignites such passion, I suspect, is because it is difficult to be a person of color in Portland. I just moved here last fall and I am surprised by the ability of white people to walk around this city so often without consequences. I see it in the men who have long beards and keep knifes in their jean’s pockets. It is something that I — with my skin complexion and my name — would never do, even though I was born and raised in the US.

Krantz said she just wants to make food and I find nothing wrong with the idea of a person making food from a culture not of their own. But food can also create rifts, especially when its preparation is not accompanied with empathy for other cultures.

At an event on black history last month, I heard a Kenyan woman tell a mostly white audience that she is always asked by her white colleagues to cook Kenyan food for them. However she is seldom asked at these same gatherings to share her experiences as an immigrant in Portland. When she tries to speak about being a black woman in Portland, her white colleagues tell her, “We just want to celebrate the food tonight.”

Her colleagues mean well. I have no doubt about that. And I know they are not racist. And I believe Krantz is not a racist. I believe Sedaghat is not racist.

But it still hurts, especially right now.

As Donald Trump surges in the polls, I wonder how far have we really come from the idea that there should be, as Churchill once said, “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race”? So much of this election, and indeed restaurants like Saffron Colonial, is about a creepy nostalgia for the past that people of color cannot afford to espouse given what we were forced to endure and in many cases, still continue to endure.

We live in a frightening time: there are a disturbing number of voters in this country who believe the internment of Japanese Americans was a good idea and that blacks should not have been freed.

Some days it is hard to turn on the news. Hate crimes are at a dizzying level. In the past two months in Oregon alone, an Afghan American man was beaten to death and a Buddhist monk was attacked, both incidents allegedly committed because these men looked “foreign.”

Sedaghat suggested on Facebook that we are complaining.

We are not. What we are doing is urging people, especially white people, to be more considerate, to be more conscious, to be more respectful, about experiences they may not have had.

Krantz, I hope, will change her restaurant’s name. But the issue here is about more than a name. It is about taking a people’s food and décor but caring so little about their pain.