Finding your way through the “jungle curry”

The lack of Indian representation at Muhlenberg was a bit disheartening when I first applied, but the campus’s various other attributes made up for it: a cognitive neuroscience research opportunity, an immense rose garden just a block away, and the chance to host my own radio show. While my parents planned trips up and down the east coast, I would drive my friends to Muhlenberg and give the “Michelle Rajan Tour” of campus every other week. My favorite part of that summer was doing work inside of Seegers, sitting at a booth in GQ.

In November 2017, I applied to Muhlenberg College as an Early Decision applicant — and was accepted two weeks later. It was the only school I applied to.

Despite having only lived here for roughly six months, campus feels more familiar to me than my own hometown — until the dining hall started serving “Indian food.”

After frequenting the dining hall regularly and tasting dishes of various cuisines, one night I noticed the Magellan’s monitor displayed an Indian menu. My eyes trailed down the options, passing over basmati rice and landing on “jungle curry.”

I was confused. After eating Indian food for nineteen years, not once had I ever heard of “jungle curry.”

At first glance, the issue seems trivial. But I’m a neuroscience major; the trivial matters are what most interest me — especially when it comes to minority issues.

It’s not enough to simply include the marginalized — the representation must be accurate as well. According to studies conducted by Tufts University, Disney has used African-American and Latino voices for the “lackeys” in their movies and these portrayals affected children’s behavior towards marginalized groups as they grew up. Jennings Bryant’s research volume, “Media Effects: Advances in Theory & Research,” illustrates how televised portrayals of minorities influence majority group members’ real-world perceptions. The same reference volume states that African Americans are four times more likely to be the suspect in a crime show than the police officer. Our environment, even its subtleties, ultimately shapes our way of thinking, and we’re letting it get the best of us. We’re letting it take root in our dining hall.

The phrase “jungle curry” paints a picture of my country with which I am unfamiliar. It contains a stereotype within its wording, reaffirming the false narrative that India is underdeveloped and impoverished. And as long as this item remains on Magellan’s menu, Muhlenberg perpetuates this depiction.

A friend of mine wrote a complaint on the napkin board that called out the menu item as racist. The dining hall responded and explained that “jungle curry” is not racist — you can nd it on Wikipedia as a Thai dish.

But if it’s Thai, then why was it on the Indian menu?

The fact that the dining hall tries to incorporate a variety of cultures emphasizes one of our core values here: while we may be a predominantly white institution, we recognize the presence of all backgrounds. Trying to accurately incorporate all cultures can be a difficult feat for those unfamiliar with them in the first place. You can’t get it right every time, and you’re going to occasionally step on a few toes. But when you step on someone’s toe, you should never justify as to why you did it; you acknowledge it and apologize. The same goes for a mistake in the dining hall.

I commend Muhlenberg for its attempts to be more inclusive; after all, its my love for the school that fuels my criticism. If the dining hall would like to include this dish on the Thai menu, I’d be thrilled.

But I think we should start calling it by its actual name: kaeng pa. And while a quick Google search will also prompt you to say “jungle curry,” keep in mind who actually named it that.

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