Food Can Be A Cultural Landmine

by syaffolee

Not long after I wrote my previous post, I came across this article where the magazine Food & Wine apologized for messing up some traditional cuisine just because they wanted to interject their own aesthetics into the picture. Which made me wonder if my attempts at kolokythopita was an exercise in exerting my “privilege” (which seems very strange to say since I’m not a white dude and almost no one ever listens to me anyway) over an ethnic cuisine. I ultimately decided that my attempts at cooking was not the same thing because: 1) I admit I’m no expert at cooking, 2) I make no claims on authenticity and readily admit to any changes I made with the recipe, and 3) I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone else that my adjustments to the recipe made it better, aesthetically or otherwise.

These days, if food tastes good, I’ll eat it. I think it’s because I live in a place where there is an ever present mingling of cuisines  in  pretty much any location that sells food. And I think everyone knows intuitively that it’s a fusion. No one’s seriously claiming to be an expert at an authentic cuisine–instead, everyone’s claiming to be the new hot thing. I think, too, that the blending of cuisines happens because there are the intersections of culture. While food can be a marker of identity, it’s also an easy way for different cultures to start understanding each other. 

Arguing about food’s authenticity is another matter. For example, I’ve had an antipathy for Chinese American restaurants because I didn’t think the food was authentic and it contributed to the stereotype that Asian Americans, and particularly Chinese Americans, liked this type of food and had the lifestyle that these restaurants conveyed. Of course now, I understand that the owners of these restaurants were just trying to earn a living like everyone else. And if they had to Americanize their menu to get the orders in, then that was what they were going to do. These days, I would argue that Chinese American cuisine is its own distinct entity.

But for the experienced chefs and other food experts of a particular culture who have spent a significant part of their lives mastering and understanding their own culture’s authentic cuisine? It would be terrible to override their knowledge just because you thought that your way was better. I don’t think this is any different than some prudish editor bowlderizing a work of literature or some new age guru misrepresenting a non-Western religion just to make a quick buck.