Cultural appropriation: why is food so sensitive?

Composite showing a Chinese takeaway box and a bubble with angry characters

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Earlier this week, a restaurant in New York made the headlines for rather unfortunate reasons.

Lucky Lee's, a new Chinese restaurant run by an American-Jewish couple, has been touted as offering "clean" Chinese cuisine with healthy ingredients that would not give the impression that people are getting along. would feel "bloated and faded the next day".

"There are very few places in the US and China that are as attentive to the quality of the ingredients as we are," he said.

This provoked a fierce reaction on social media from those who accused the restaurant of racist language, cultural appropriation and lack of understanding of Chinese food.

The restaurant's Instagram account was cluttered with thousands of furious comments, some of which questioned the references of a white couple heading a Chinese restaurant – as well as comments from supporters accusing the "online slacktivists" of being easily offended and simply targeting restaurateurs because of their race.

The debate became so polarized that the Yelp rating site placed an "unusual activity" alert on the restaurant page after being flooded with positive and negative ratings, many of which seemed to come from people who had not been to the restaurant. restaurant.

Since then, Lucky Lee's published a statement in which he stated that it was not "negative comments about all Chinese dishes … Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse and includes many flavors. (generally delicious in our opinion) and health benefits ".

He added that he "would always remain attentive and thoughtful" to take into account "cultural sensitivities".

Owner Arielle Haspel told The New York Times: "We are really sorry, we have never tried to do anything against the Chinese community, we thought we would add incredibly important food to meet certain dietary requirements. . "

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Lucky Lee

The uproar is the latest in a series of discussions about food and cultural appropriation.

Famous American chef Andrew Zimmern has been criticized for stating that his restaurant, the Lucky Cricket, would save people from "standard low restaurants" posing as Chinese dishes in the Midwest. have been condescending to the small restaurants run by immigrant families and he later apologized.

In the United Kingdom, the supermarket chain Marks and Spencer was accused of cultural appropriation after producing a new biriyani-based vegan package, while the Indian dish was normally served with rice and meat.

And Gordon Ramsay's new London restaurant, Lucky Cat, has been criticized for being sold as an "authentic Asian home" – though not having an Asian chef.

When has food become so sensitive – and why is it provoking such strong reactions on both sides of the debate?

Food can be closely related to identity

For many people – especially those from ethnic minorities – food can be both personal and political.

Second- and third-generation immigrants often "feel like they are losing their own culture: they wear Western clothes, their language is Western, and food is almost the last area of ​​culture they keep alive," said Krishnendu. Ray, a sociologist and professor of culinary studies at New York University, tells the BBC.

Many Americans of Chinese origin said that they had grown up, for example when their classmates were making fun of the food in their lunch box.

Luke Tsai, a food writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, said, "We grew up in the United States with some sort of intermediate status between our identity." Were we Americans? "Were we Chinese? dominant.

He recalls being "slightly ashamed" of Chinese food when he was younger – "I did not want to bring Chinese food for my lunch at school – I wanted a sandwich or pizza to incorporate."

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"People would say, 'Why are you eating this stinky thing? It's disgusting!'"

"But for many of us as we get older, we remembered the food our parents prepared for us, and this became a great source of nostalgia for us – in a way, embracing that encompassed the Asian and immigrant side of our identity. "

Many Chinese restaurants have deliberately adapted their menus to serve more fried dishes or thickened sauces, as they were better known elements of the "traditional white audience," he added.

"The reason they opened these restaurants was not because they could not cook their" real "Chinese food, it was because that was what it was. they had done to survive and satisfy their audience.

"So, see this now and ask a white restaurateur to open a restaurant and say," We are not like those Chinese American restaurants you know, we serve clean Chinese food … " is particularly offensive and offensive to many people. "people."

There is also a historical context to this. In the 1880s, the United States passed a law prohibiting Chinese workers from immigrating to the United States. Only a few categories have been exempted – including restaurant owners – and historians say this has contributed to a boom in Chinese restaurants in the United States.

Yet, "the US exposure to Chinese food has been mostly cheap Chinese food," and the cuisine has been associated with "some kind of disdain" because of the presumption that it is associated with " cheap ingredients and a low-skilled workforce, "says Prof Ray.

"Very few Americans realize or know that China had probably the most sophisticated food culture in the world at least 500 years before the French."

Who is the food anyway?

Some of the most vivid criticisms from both sides have concerned the property.

Some negative comments from social media about Lucky Lee have focused on the fact that the owners are white – while critics have responded that it would be ridiculous to suggest that only Chinese people are allowed to cook Chinese dishes.

Francis Lam, host of the radio show The Splendid Table, believes that much of the concern about cultural appropriation and food is due to a "disconnect in the conversation" .

"I think that if you are a chef or restaurateur, it is fair to say that you are probably investing a lot in your business and that you do not want to hear it when you think people are saying," You do not want to hear it. are not allowed to do it. "this & # 39 ;."

However, he thinks that for those who oppose cultural appropriation, the problem is "not knowing who is allowed or not to do things", but rather how things are done. are made.

"If you want to make yourself known as a cook or food vendor from a culture in which you have not grown up, I would say that it's also your responsibility to yourself." make sure you do it in a way that truly respects people who: grew up in culture – and people who have frankly invented some of the things you do. "

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Andy Ricker says chefs need to be respectful – but also have thick skin

Andy Ricker, an award-winning chef and best-selling cookbook writer, spent 13 years learning Thai cuisine, getting familiar with the ingredients and language, before launching the Pok Pok restaurant chain.

He is recognized as an expert in North Thai cuisine and his approach has been praised by Asian chefs and food critics alike. However, others also wondered why a white chef was considered the authority in Thai cooking, rather than Thai.

He suggests to leaders "to become aware of the importance of language" and to try "to be as accurate and faithful as possible".

"I can not say that I prepare authentic dishes because I have no right to that."

The most important thing for chefs like him, he says, is to "show respect and not pretend to anything." Do not apply etiquette to food. Do not add chillies, basil and peanuts to something and call it Thai "put something in a sandwich and call it Banh Mi … you play clichés that are not beautiful".

He also stated that it was essential that the leaders "develop a thick skin – that what matters in your heart or that you pay attention to what you say does not matter, some people will simply have not that skin "

Meanwhile, Chris Shepherd prepares several cuisines at UB Preserv in Houston, Texas, but points out that it's important for him to showcase and cherish the cultures that inspired him.

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Julie Soefer


Chris's dishes include "May Siu Pudding" – a version of a Chinese dumpling type

The bills in his restaurant are accompanied by a list of his favorite local restaurants and the message "we would love to see you again at UB Preserv, but we politely ask you to visit at least one of these people first."

He acknowledges that his restaurant attracts more funds and advertising than many small businesses, but says his goal is to "bring in people who would not normally travel" to these places, or to try different cuisines, to "visit these restaurants and be part of them". community".

Why is it difficult to separate food and politics?

Nowadays, there seems to be a constant debate about identity politics and a never-ending stream of incidents provoking outrage. It can be tempting to preserve the politics of food.

But commentators argue that the food sector, like any other business, is tied to power structures and privileges – and that conditions are not equal for everyone.

"If you open a business, you already communicate with the public, you decide who you hire, who can afford to eat in your restaurant, what will your staff look like – there are hundreds of decisions you make that will have a impact on society, "said Tsai.

Meanwhile, Professor Ray says his research suggests that some ethnic minority leaders may face specific obstacles.

"Chinese, Mexican and Indian chefs in America tend to" ghettois "to cook" their own food ", while white chefs have more ease in crossing borders" and are considered "artistic" when They do it.

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Kwame Onwuachi, 29, was nominated for awards for her cooking

Kwame Onwuachi says in his memoirs that a television producer told him at a casting session that the American public would not be prepared to see a black chef like him doing fine cooking.

Similarly, chef Edourdo Jordan has already told GQ that some people have trouble believing that he owned a restaurant serving French and Italian dishes.

Mr. Ricker agrees that white chefs have advantages when they cook in the West.

"Of course, in the predominantly white culture, whites always come out with more than others, but I would also say this: if you are a Westerner trying to cook in Thailand, you are faced with skepticism. Huge and sometimes downright derision … I think it's human nature for the dominant culture to pigeon people who are not of their culture. "

It all boils down to money

These perceptions also have financial implications that affect restaurant results.

In one study, Professor Ray found that the dishes in some kitchens were considered more prestigious, which allowed restaurants to charge more.

For example, an average meal at a French or Japanese restaurant listed in Zagat costs about $ 30 more than an average meal at a Chinese or southern restaurant listed in Zagat in 2015, according to his research.

Chef Jonathan Wu met him when he opened an upscale Chinese restaurant, Fung Tu, in New York.

The restaurant has received excellent reviews, Bloomberg calling the kitchen "genius" and the New York Times giving it a "very good" two-star review.

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Paul Wagtouicz


One of Fung Tu's dishes – poached egg whites in broth with Toona sinesis leaves

But Wu said he received a lot of "blowback" for his awards, with complaints that the restaurant was "too expensive for what it is."

Fung Tu closed in 2017 and reopened under the name Wah Tu name, a discount dim sum restaurant.

Mr. Wu said that there was always a "expectation that Chinese food is cheap".

He compares how handmade Chinese dumplings are sometimes sold at "five for a dollar", while a plate of high-end ravioli can be sold at "$ 45 a plate".

"If you tried that for a plate of meatballs, people would panic."

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What would you pay more for?

Do things change?

In a way, the whole debate on cultural appropriation is also "the symptom of a highly visible, assertive and assertive" middle and professional class of people belonging to ethnic minorities. in the United States, explains Professor Ray.

And American perceptions of Chinese food could be radically different in 20 years, due to China's economic boom and the growing presence of the Chinese middle class in US cities.

According to Professor Ray, a similar process took place from the 1980s with Japanese food, the culture becoming associated with immigrant groups or affluent businessmen.

In the meantime, the debate on cultural appropriation is likely to continue – but not everyone thinks it is a bad thing.

"We have growth difficulties over the course of this whole conversation, but overall, it is amazing to see the expansion of the American palace and to accept more and more stories and contexts. different, "Lam said.

"These conversations can seem frustrating and tedious, but you must have them."

Mr. Ricker agrees. "There is a lot of anguish, anger and defense out there, [but] it is important that people understand the sensitivity of food and culture because they are very powerful things. I do not think it's comfortable for anyone, but it's certainly necessary. "

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