Everyone loves an aromatic curry, a hot pad thai, or a crispy falafel. Well, that is what I thought until I realized that these dishes have become so far removed from their cultures.
Have you fallen in love with the authentic version of a dish or the one that has been appropriated?
Food has a special place in the hearts of people of color. It ties generations of immigrants together. After years of hearing people complain about the strong odors of our food, it’s both odd and satisfying to see people tuck into an Asian, Middle-Eastern, Mexican, or Caribbean dish every now and then. But there’s a catch to the popularity of these cuisines in western countries. They are often adapted to suit white, western taste-buds. And when they’re adapted so often, dishes lose their cultural resonance, becoming just an ethnic option on the menu of a takeaway or restaurant.
Where do we draw the line between appreciation of our food and turning it into something entirely different?
Is your favorite cuisine, really your favorite?
Have you ever craved a Chicken Tikka Masala curry? Ordered some General Tso’s chicken?
Yeah, they’re not really Asian. What you’re technically eating is fusion food, disguised as authentic. Chicken Tikka Masala has British origins and was allegedly created in the 1970s by a Bangladeshi chef in Glasgow, who added a mild tomato-cream sauce to please a customer. Eerily similar is the origins of General Tso’s Chicken, created by a Taiwanese chef in the 1950s while serving a group of US Military Members.
There is a pattern in the creation of these Western-influenced Asian dishes – the need to cater to a Western palate is obvious.
Of course, thousands of recipes are changed to suit the needs of different people. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s when these recipes become saturated with so many adjustments that dishes become almost culturally indistinguishable, and are eventually preferred over more authentic versions.
Re-inventing food from different cultures
The problem isn’t with changing a recipe, but rather with white-washing its authenticity. In 2018, Gordon Ramsay’s television show Uncharted attracted controversy before it even went live. Following a similar trajectory of many travel/food documentaries that follow globetrotting chefs, Ramsay was criticized for wanting to ‘show locals he can cook their cuisines better than they can’ by ‘pitting his own interpretations of regional dishes against the tried-and-true classics.
And Ramsay is just one chef in a list of many who have been accused of culturally appropriating, instead of culturally appreciating food. In the same year, Jamie Oliver came under fire for his ‘punchy jerk rice,’ a microwavable product that was criticized for lacking the actual ingredients needed to create a Jamaican jerk marinade. Nutritionist and lifestyle blogger Arielle Haspen received backlash for opening her restaurant Lucky Lees in New York, touted as being ‘clean Chinese food’ and an alternative to ‘icky American Chinese takeout food that usually makes people feel bloated.’
Can someone please show me the rule-book where it states that ethnic cuisines can only be high-brow if they are westernized?
The need for approval
Why do the foods of people of color have to be re-invented for the approval of white, western tastebuds? Can our dishes be eaten without being called too spicy, too salty, or too oily?
As said by sociologist Krishnendu Ray, ‘food is almost the last of the cultural domain that second or third-generation immigrants retain a vivid memory of.’ But of the many things that people of color are racially bullied for, food definitely happens to be one of them. There are stories upon stories of children who have been teased and mocked for their ‘strong-smelling‘ lunches, leaving them embarrassed to eat home-made food in public.
In wanting to make their western neighbors fall in love with the food of their cultures, immigrant grandparents and parents did not want their children to start hating it instead.
How can you help?
Contrary to the concoctions of many Western chefs and food franchises, you don’t have to completely change something to enjoy it. It is possible to appreciate the food of other cultures without appropriation. In fact, I find that food is even more enjoyable when we’re aware of the journey it has made historically, together with the stories of people who migrated from one continent to another. Go for something more authentic the next time you order take-out or better yet, support local businesses instead of mainstream franchises. Take the time out to understand that the plethora of dinner options available today wouldn’t have been possible if not for the contributions of immigrants.
You can love the food and appreciate the culture it originates from. It’s not hard. Try it next time you eat out or cook something different.