Today more than ever, people are quick to raise their hands and eyebrows not just in matters of national pride but, surprisingly and more so alarmingly, also in food.
In a private liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio, for instance, international students complained when the dishes served in its multiple dining halls were thought to be cultural misrepresentations of traditional food. The Vietnamese banh mi, which typically came as grilled pork, pate, and vegetables lodged in a crispy baguette, ended up as a pulled pork and coleslaw sandwich. And the Indian tandoori was made with beef, something many Hindu people avoid eating for religious reasons. Their complaint was a deafening cry for change, not because the food was substandard (that’s a given in school cafeterias), but simply because it was not the least bit authentic. Though their issues were heard and addressed by the administration, the students at Oberlin were consequently ridiculed by other people and the national press. They were called too sensitive and hell-bent on being politically correct.
“Cultural appropriation or misappropriation is a deeper discourse worth looking into as issues such as food security and sustainability, the environment, poverty and malnutrition, and fair trade make food a highly political and moral issue worth talking about,“ says Myke “Tatung” Sarthou.
Food magazine Bon Appétit faced the same appropriation controversy when it got slapped with a case of cultural misappropriation. Its online published piece, aggressively titled “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho,” drew flak from readers who questioned why Tyler Akin, a Caucasian chef, was spreading the gospel on how people should eat food not of his ethnicity. Many questioned what made him more of an authority over a Vietnamese native who lived his life eating the famed noodle soup. Following the outrage, the magazine rectified the story and took down the video.
With such protests, has our food become racist? And if that’s the case, should chefs be more wary when it comes to marrying cuisines?
Food for thought
Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture borrows from another. In a broad sense, there’s nothing offensive about it. Actually, it’s flattering because it signifies a deep liking of that certain element. But when it is exploited, used to bastardize or make fun of, then that’s when the sleeves get rolled up and the serious conversation starts.
Food has gone beyond the edible. It has come to represent a lifestyle and an extension of one’s identity. And to mock it would be a personal insult, a jab at someone’s history and race. So if you want to treat food with respect, then don’t take advantage of exotic cuisines by using them as a lame excuse to make your restaurant stand out. The mere addition of mandarin oranges won’t make the salad “Oriental,” in the same way that mariachi and margaritas won’t make the shop Mexican.
Myke “Tatung” Sarthou, who has become among the active advocates of Filipino cuisine, finds the matter quite complex. “I would say that one should always dine with an open mind and learn to appreciate what is served to them. One cannot be too obsessed with authenticity. It’s really an idea that is difficult to pin down. However, cultural appropriation or misappropriation is a deeper discourse worth looking into as issues such as food security and sustainability, the environment, poverty and malnutrition, and fair trade make food a highly political and moral issue worth talking about.“
“It’s our job to push it as far as we could while keeping the integrity or soul of the original dish,” says Mikel Zaguirre.
Locavore’s Mikel Zaguirre, the chef responsible for making sizzling sinigang and kimchinigang possible and popular, believes that food authenticity is territorial. “You get to claim it only if you are in that culture and location.” And that such matter, along with traditions, shouldn’t stop a chef from exploring the depths of their creativity and capabilities. Instead, these should inspire them. “It’s our job to push it as far as we could while keeping the integrity or soul of the original dish.”
“There should be no boundaries for creativity,” adds Sarthou. “But it has to conform to a proper form for it to make sense. This is where a master and a novice chef differ. A master is able to edit himself and choose elements that only make the intention of his dish clearer and sharper, while a novice will fall in love with the idea and wallow in a diary of fragmented emotions and flavors on a plate.”
Back to the roots
As chefs showcase their ingenuity and glamorize ethnic foods, they should also respect the culture by first understanding the flavors and processes, along with the history behind it, rather than taking the easy route and labeling dishes that aren’t what they truly are. There may be a thin line separating the appropriation of cultural food and a new creation borne out of food marriage, but it’s definitely something not hard to tread. It just takes a more conscious effort, something Sarthou has displayed throughout his career.
“I have become extremely obsessed with becoming more culturally appropriate with my cuisine,” he says. “And it has been a difficult process, learning and unlearning at the same time to be able to distill my thoughts and express my ideas more clearly in my food.”
The industry has reached an era in which chefs are being forced to walk on eggshells to avoid discriminating cultures and disregarding individuality. In a way, it’s a good reminder of where they should stand. But it shouldn’t be daunting to the point that courtesy is already suppressing creativity and restricting possibilities.
As for Zaguirre, being culturally appropriate is the least of his worries. “Being able to express, tell a story or translate memories, emotions, and stories into flavors, tastes, and textures is of utmost importance. That’s why I kind of call it expressionist cuisine. It is how I express my craft,” he says.
The industry has reached an era in which chefs are being forced to walk on eggshells to avoid discriminating cultures, averting appropriation, and disregarding individuality. In a way, it’s a good reminder of where they should stand. But it shouldn’t be daunting to the point that courtesy is already suppressing creativity and restricting possibilities. In the end, yes, they should pay respect to tradition, but never should it compromise their imagination.
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 13 No. 6