Several years ago an ex-boyfriend’s mother offered to prepare the appetizer for a dinner I was cooking. Her dish, once assembled, was a salad. Yet it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The top was sprinkled with stiff pegs of noodle and raw radish slices, and it smelled like sesame oil.
I asked with genuine curiosity what was in the dressing and she fired off a strange list with the likes of mayonnaise and soy sauce. If food is a means of communication — which I certainly think — then what she was saying with this was, Hey, you’re Chinese so I want to impress you by making ‘Chinese Chicken Salad.’ I know that she had only good intentions. But despite this rational knowledge, I was somewhat offended by the salad.
How can we respectfully represent other people’s food when we’re an outsider? It’s a tricky question at best, and it’s not answered by any one-size-fits-all solution. So I wanted to explore the topic more in a piece on Civil Eats published today, reflecting on these questions and more that have been brought to mainstream attention recently via a series on The Sporkful radio show.
The question at heart of the programming is, “Is it okay to make food from ‘other peoples’ cultures?” and it’s an excellent jumping-off point for further discussions around race and representation in the media. Maybe there are more resources than ever today that we can glean from to respectfully and knowledgeably interpret all types of cuisines. Maybe we ought to make sure all kinds of voices are integrated into not just our conversations around race and food, but our conversations and media around food, period. How does having more people of color — or the lack thereof — in food media impact our perspectives on other peoples’ food?
Getting back to the question of, ‘Is this food racist?’ I’m just not sure we need to keep circling around pointing fingers and asking, “Is this okay?” Would it be better if you’re making other peoples’ food with a deep knowledge of the cuisine? Probably. But you might say that we live in a post-ethnic food culture, where chefs all know their gochujang from n’duja and mix and match freely. It’s something that NYU professor Krishendu Ray spoke very optimistically about on The Sporkful podcasts and elsewhere. I’ve made plenty of dumplings, for instance, with the likes of Buffalo chicken and cheeseburger fillings — is that appropriating my mother’s dumplings? I don’t know. Chitra Agrawal makes South Asian achaar with non-traditional local ingredients like rhubarb. Is that anything besides awesome?
To be sure, I had no beef with my ex’s mother, personally, over making a vaguely Chinese (or perhaps, just “Asian”)-ish food thanks to less-than scrupulous chefs and cookbook authors of yesteryear whom she trusted to translate the cuisine to her. But maybe today it’s different.
Head over to the article on Civil Eats, and many thanks to Chitra, Nicole Taylor, Dan Pashman at The Sporkful and Kim Chou at Food Book Fair for their honesty and boldness in moving the conversation forward.