Decolonising the chocolate biscuit (with recipe)

2 December 2012

Decolonisation walnut surprise I grew up making and eating Afghan biscuits, and until recently I hadn’t given them a great deal of thought. Then, a few years ago, a baker at a café told me about a tourist patron who was highly offended by the biscuit’s name. When I heard this, I realised that the Afghan implicitly makes a reference to skin colour, with its name and chocolatey hue.

I didn’t eat Afghans for some years after this incident (though this wasn’t intentional). Then, at a recent family gathering, one of my uncles managed to procure the most delicious Afghans I’d ever tasted from the local Four Square. As well as being surprised that some of the best biscuits ever to enter my mouth came from a Four Square of all places, I was also reminded of how tasty Afghan biscuits are. And yet, I was still troubled by their name. So what is to be done about this delicious yet offensive food?

When I speak to people about this, one of the first things they ask is: was the biscuit’s name initially intended as racist? Their point, I think, is to look at the author’s intention and use this as a guide for how to deal with the biscuit. I don’t think that this is the most important question to be asking, but I will oblige curious readers with a summary of what little is known about the biscuit’s origin. Unfortunately, the only sources I was able to find were a discussion on Wikipedia with broken reference links, and another page which looks to have taken all its content from Wikipedia anyway. History students, this would make a great master’s project!

The Afghan first appeared in the Edmonds cookbook: not in the 1907 first edition, but definitely in the 1940s edition. There are several competing theories as to how the biscuit got its name. One possibility is that the biscuit was thought to resemble an Afghani male, with the base representing skin, the icing hair, and the walnut a turban. Wikipedia favours the theory that the biscuit was given an exotic eastern-sounding name inspired by the Anglo-Afghan Wars, much like Khyber Pass in Newmarket. Alternatively, the biscuits may have been invented by a New Zealand woman to send to her beau, who was posted in Afghanistan during a war. However, as Wikipedia notes, the biscuit seems to pre-date World War II, Afghanistan was a neutral territory in World War I, and New Zealand forces did not participate in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Other more far-fetched theories include the suggestion that the biscuit was named for its resemblance to the craggy, mountainous landscape of Afghanistan; and, my personal favourite, that “an Afghani gentleman went to New Zealand and made such an impression on baking day that a biscuit was created in his honor”. Whoever came up with this one clearly believed that New Zealand is small enough to have had a single designated “baking day”, where everyone in the entire nation had a chance to make an impression. Wikipedia calls this particular theory “pure speculation”.

In short, the origin of the name is unclear. As I said though, I don’t think that this is the most important question to be asking. However the name was intended, what seems important is how we interpret the biscuit today. Perhaps the Afghan was not intended maliciously when it was first created. Does it matter? Let’s say the title was given just because it sounds exotic. That doesn’t change the association between the title and skin colour that the biscuit has now. Whoever named the biscuit had not lived to see widespread civil rights action, and had probably never even met anyone from Afghanistan. So, being a product of their times, how were they to know any better? The point is not that they should have known better. The point is that we should know better.

On this note: who do I mean by “we”? To be clear, I do not naïvely believe that the Afghan biscuit is a part of the cultural tradition of all New Zealanders. It was quite obviously invented by, and is still largely baked by, Pakeha. So by “we” I mean people who consider the Afghan a part of their culture and heritage. Because I think of myself as part of this group, I feel an obligation to reflect on what the biscuit tells the world about my values and beliefs. And I don’t think the Afghan gives a particularly good impression. The link between the biscuit’s title and skin colour is pretty obvious, whether it was initially intended or not. Certainly everyone I’ve spoken to about the biscuit’s title makes this link, even if they try to deny that it is offensive. And even if you don’t interpret it that way, the name still compares the people of Afghanistan to a biscuit, which is at best a caricature.

Obviously, not everyone will agree with me, but unfortunately there has been very little public discussion of the Afghan. Since I think it is useful to consider the kinds of objections that might be raised against my suggestion that the biscuit is problematic, I would like to examine some ideas that were brought up during public debates over another offensive New Zealand food: the Paskall Eskimo lolly.

To begin with, I would like to state that I am aware of significant differences between the Afghan and the Eskimo lolly. Most importantly, the Eskimo is a lot more offensive. Not only is its name widely used as a racist slur, but the lolly is shaped like a long-standing and no doubt highly offensive caricature. To add insult to injury, it doesn’t even taste good. So while the Afghan is a bit troubling, the Eskimo invites us to feast upon the marshmallow flesh of Canada’s indigenous peoples.

Now that I have made that clear, let me embark on a bit of discourse analysis. To set the scene, what inspired the “Great Eskimo Debate” – which erupted back in 2009 – was the offence taken by a Canadian tourist, Seeka Lee Veevee Parsons. As Ms Parsons told the Taranaki Daily News: “I was taken aback. When I was a little girl white kids in the community used to tease me about it in a bad way. It’s just not the correct term.” Daniel Ellis, the communications manager of Cadbury Australia and New Zealand, responded that “Pascall Eskimos are an iconic New Zealand lolly and have been enjoyed by millions of New Zealanders since they first hit shop shelves way back in 1955”. He then quoted some statistics about how well they sell, the implication being (I guess) that since the lollies are popular they can’t possibly be racist. What interests me here is Mr Ellis’s implication that since the lollies have been around for ages they represent some kind of national tradition. This perspective was more overtly stated by an columnist writing for the Waikato Times: “It’s a contradiction in terms, but the marshmallow Eskimo has become something of a Kiwi tradition. Last year we ate 19 million of them. The Eskimo lolly has already stood the test of time, and it should not be condemned on the basis that the word is not as popular as it once was. What would come next? Parent groups complaining about jelly babies, ginger groups getting heated up about gingerbread men and Aucklanders demanding Cadbury stops selling Jaffas?”

Ah yes, the old “tradition” card. I’ll try not to labour the point, but anthropologists and historians have recognised for some time that objects and practices don’t have inherent traditional-ness. Rather, the word “traditional” is used for particular reasons. Some things might be labelled traditional because they are highly valued, others because they are seen as under threat and in need of defence. Anyway, with regard to the Eskimo I think the “tradition” claim is a load of bunk. Leaving aside the whole “tradition is a relative term” problem for a moment, I think that the Eskimo is an especially bad candidate. It’s the proprietary intellectual property of a private company: a company that isn’t even New Zealand-owned. Also, there’s the whole issue of whose tradition we’re talking about here. This one seems to apply specifically to Pakeha New Zealanders. And even if the lollies are traditional, does that justify keeping the racist little marshmallow men around? It seems to me that this is yet another case of “tradition” being used as a trump card to justify the existence of something pretty offensive.

Back to the Afghan. The point I wanted to make with the Eskimo example is that some people might bring up tradition as a way of defending the Afghan biscuit. I think that this idea has some validity. As I’ve said, I feel like the Afghan is traditional within my family, and I suspect that some other (mostly Pakeha) New Zealanders feel the same way. Also, the biscuit isn’t privately owned, so for me there’s an element of personal connection and nostalgia that can’t happen with a purchased lolly. Plus, they’re delicious, and I think it’s pretty neat that such a tasty treat was invented in New Zealand. I’m not going to come out and say definitively that the biscuit is “traditional”. It’s a difficult term, doesn’t apply to everyone, and so on. But for me, the Afghan is more than just chocolatey and crunchy: it tastes of my childhood. So I think that the “tradition” card can be played more legitimately in the case of the Afghan compared with the Eskimo. However, the crucial question to me is: is the name essential? Unlike the Eskimo – which is offensive for both its name and shape – the Afghan looks like pretty much any other chocolate biscuit, but has been given an unfortunate name. It’s dark, but that’s nature of chocolate, and most chocolate desserts aren’t interpreted as racist. And the walnut on top looks nothing like a turban. No doubt some will argue that the name is part of the tradition of the biscuit, but for me it’s the only sour note.

So, I have a proposal: let’s reappropriate the Afghan biscuit for the project of equality, by renaming it. By reappropriate, I mean that we should transform the symbolic meaning of the Afghan biscuit from something negative (racism, colonialism) to something positive (decolonisation, civil rights, equality, rainbows, puppies). A good example of successful reappropriation is the word “queer”, which was an offensive slur that LGBTI activists reclaimed to symbolise equality and pride.

Now, some might accuse me of “PC gone mad” at this point. After all, the Afghan is just one little biscuit, which is probably unheard of outside New Zealand. So what does it matter if it has a slightly offensive name? As I have tried to explain, I don’t think that this should be about whether or not Afghani people (or anyone else, for that matter) take offence. In reality, I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone will publicly condemn the Afghan anytime soon. But I don’t think we should sit around waiting for this to happen. For one thing, if a public outcry were to erupt in a few decades, we might risk losing the biscuit altogether, which to me would be a tragedy. More fundamentally, I prefer to think of this as a project of self-reflection. I for one do not support the ideas that the Afghan stands for, and I would rather not have these values reflected in my food culture.

So I say: Let’s decolonise this chocolate biscuit! But what to name it? Decolonisation Walnut Surprise? Or perhaps something a bit more banal and descriptive, like Chocolate Walnut Biscuit? Whatever we choose, I vote for keeping this delicious treat around but disassociating it from its offensive name.

On that note, here is my recipe. I decided to base this closely on the Edmonds cookbook recipe, but made a couple of tweaks. First, I’ve always found it disappointing that you have to eat all the way to the middle of the biscuit before you finally get some walnut, so I incorporate chopped walnuts into the dough. Second, the Edmonds chocolate icing is not the best: it seems to have been designed primarily to be economical, since it doesn’t contain any real chocolate. I use plenty of dark chocolate to produce a richer, smoother icing.

  • For eighteen to twenty biscuits:
    220 g unsalted butter, softened
    ½ cup castor sugar
    1¼ cups flour
    ¼ cup cocoa
    2 cups cornflakes
    45 g chopped walnuts, plus extra halves for decorating
    1 tsp butter
    70 g dark chocolate
    1 cup icing sugar
    1 tbsp cocoa
    3 tbsp boiling water
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Cream 220 g butter and castor sugar until light and fluffy, then sift in the flour and ¼ cup cocoa and mix well. Stir in the cornflakes and walnuts.
  • Roll the mixture into balls and arrange on baking trays. Flatten the balls with a fork, pop the trays into the oven, and cook for about 15 minutes.
  • For the icing, melt 1 tsp butter and the chocolate over a gentle heat, then remove from the heat and whisk in the icing sugar, 1 tbsp cocoa, and boiling water. When the biscuits are completely cool, ice them and decorate with walnuts.
  • Serve with a nice cup of tea and some lively debate.