Breaking Down Culinary Cultural Appropriation: Perspectives from the 518 Asian Alliance


Catalyzed by the Atlanta spa shootings and over a year of surging anti-Asian hate crimes, a group of women came together in March 2021 to form the 518 Asian Alliance, the first women-led, inter-generational support and advocacy collective for Asians and Asian Americans in the Capital Region. In a region with less than 5% Asian population, the 518 Asian Alliance’s mission is to amplify Asian voices, businesses, and experiences by organizing events that center education, women empowerment, and cultural celebration. The 518 Asian Alliance stands in solidarity with all grassroots organizations fighting for the liberation of all marginalized people. The collective’s vision is a Capital Region where all BIPOC communities are free of oppression and have opportunities, resources, and relationships to thrive.

Van Tran Nguyen and Siwei Song

Recently, numerous incidents, events, and products in the Capital Region’s culinary scene have put the spotlight on the issue of culinary cultural appropriation. Culinary cultural appropriation has a particularly significant impact on Asian communities, as the deeply hurtful insults and ridicule of our food and culture we and our families have experienced our entire lives are now juxtaposed with the increasing interest and popularity of Asian foods among non-Asian diners.  Past local forums, discussions, and efforts to understand why culinary cultural appropriation is egregious and offensive have only created false equivalencies, distractions from the actual questions at hand, and more barriers to understanding.

Rather than listen to and trust Asian voices on our personal experiences with cultural appropriation, these attempts have been conducted in ways that pit Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) chefs and proprietors against one another; ignores the burden of assimilation experienced by immigrants and children of immigrants; entirely glosses over inexcusably racist actions and silencing tactics deployed by those who have been called out for cultural appropriation; and seeks absolution rather than education.

For generations, BIPOC have been required to bear the burden of proof to convince the white majority that their views, policies, exclusion, and violence are deeply harmful to BIPOC communities, far beyond that of hurt feelings or imagined slights. If we as a society are to dismantle systems of white supremacy in our institutions, culture, and lives, we must move away from a white-centric point of view. Because Asian voices have not been provided a sufficient opportunity to speak and be heard during recent discussions in the Capital Region, the 518 Asian Alliance convened the voices of a few of our members to provide our perspectives on culinary cultural appropriation, our deep connection to the food of our culture, and why cultural appropriation causes harm to us, our families, and communities. Asians are not a monolith and therefore we do not purport to speak on behalf of all Asians or cultures. Our purpose is not to defend our points of view, but to make it clear to those who seek to be our allies of ways that the behaviors of a structurally racist society harm us.

WHAT IS CULTURAL APPROPRIATION, ACCORDING TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED THEIR CULTURE APPROPRIATED

Cultural appropriation is often defined as claiming ownership of other cultures while profiting off them “without permission.” This is an oversimplification. Basing the discussion on permission infers that some people have the authority over others to grant such permission. Certainly, there are circumstances where permission can be granted (such as an event where a certain dress or dress code is required or encouraged), but the fact of the matter is that there are no assigned individual gatekeepers of culture, especially when it comes to something as complex and diverse as Asian cultures. Just because someone is BIPOC, their race, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion does not automatically grant them an intrinsic understanding of what cultural appropriation is and the ability to identify when cultural appropriation occurs. Distilling the subject down to the simple question of “approval” or “permission” from a BIPOC is, in fact, a prime example of tokenism.

Culinary cultural appropriation exists on the basis of an imbalanced power structure, often with either a misrepresentation or no acknowledgement of a food’s cultural context and without the participation of those of the appropriated culture. Culinary cultural appropriation can only be carried out by those who have the power of economic and social resources and the privilege of time, space, and money to “explore” other cultures and exploit them under the guise of entrepreneurship. This is because for the original creators and makers, food is a means of survival — either as nourishment or a means of livelihood. When we choose to dismiss or ignore the history and impact of cultural appropriation on BIPOC communities, we are deliberately choosing one dominant voice over a multitude of those who have been historically underrepresented and marginalized.

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS WHEN IT COMES TO CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

One cannot base a discussion on cultural appropriation on the questions of “appropriation or appreciation?” or “who can cook what?” These questions presuppose a binary, as though some imaginary line between appreciation and appropriation exists. Our engagement with cultures not our own should not exist in a simplistic framework of permission. Searching for hard-line rules of engagement is an unproductive distraction from discussing the actual harm cultural appropriation causes BIPOC. Questions of culture are complex and require nuance, historical and sociological context, and — most importantly — self-reflection and the humility to evolve and grow as culture itself evolves and grows.

Contrary to popular belief about racist behaviors and attitudes, hate or malice is not a prerequisite of cultural appropriation. By creating an imaginary line between appreciation and appropriation, apologists create the false narrative that so long as one “appreciates” something from a culture, one is then immune from cultural appropriative behaviors. In fact, without an appreciation that is rooted in cultural understanding, demystification, and continued education, cultural appreciation can quickly become the exoticization or fetishization of a culture (or components of it), which has no effect other than the dehumanization and humiliation of an entire community of people.

The questions we ask about culinary cultural appropriation should not be asked through the lens of “who gets to cook what” and what is “not racist.” Questions like these muddy the water, continue to center the white experience, and are deployed to protect the presumed innocence of white passion or admiration. Rather, we should contemplate questions of power, oppression, and position. For example, when BIPOC are asked — by a white person, in particular — how they are justified in cooking and profiting off the food of a culture that is not their own (e.g., Chinese-American owned sushi bars), a false equivalency is created. Simply put, the majority of people from historically underrepresented and marginalized communities do not have the same societal position to carry out the methods of appropriation equal to that of white chefs and proprietors.    

Additionally, we cannot ignore how expectations of assimilation inform the conversation on cultural appropriation. Assimilation asks non-white people — particularly immigrants and the children of immigrants — to reject, change, or adapt one’s food and culture in order to survive and “become American.” While BIPOC chefs and restaurateurs grapple with the expectation to assimilate to Western preferences and tastes, cultural appropriation ignores the significant psychological impact of assimilation on BIPOC and cherrypicks “appealing” aspects of a culture for gain.

FOOD IS PERSONAL

Food is part of our identity. Food is deeply personal for all of us. Our relationship with our food extends beyond profitability, marketability, and popularity. For many of us, as first-generation Americans or the children of immigrants, some of our closest connections to and reminders of our Asian heritage and culture is food. Some of our fondest memories revolve around the intimacy of time-honored dishes and traditions, served with stories of ancestral kitchens and the adaptations and substitutions of ingredients required to recreate our cuisine in new lands. Simultaneously, we have countless memories and experiences of feeling deep shame after being told that our food was gross, inedible, weird, or looked or smelled too different from a Western-based society and palate. We have been accused of eating dogs, rats, and vermin; passing on disease; or participating in inhumane or unsanitary practices. As a result, in the pursuit of societal acceptance and assimilation, many of us have experienced the painful journey of loving, rejecting, losing, and rediscovering the food of our families and ancestors.

Adding insult to injury, “Asian” restaurants owned by non-Asians (specifically white owners) market their renditions as “clean, “fresh,” or “elevated”, perpetuating the racist stereotypes that our food is inherently unhealthy, cheap, or dirty and further stigmatizing our people. At the same time, dishes or ingredients that are considered “authentic” are a new form of culinary conquest for those “least squeamish,” as if tolerating or favoring the “strangest” food of them all should earn one a foodie badge or cultural honorific. Yet, equating “authenticity” with “bizarre,” “foreign,” or “exotic” only perpetuates tired stereotypes about Asians. These stereotypes are not harmless; we have seen the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes much due to racist conspiracies and misrepresentations propagated through conversations around Asian people, foods, and food practices. 

We’ve also witnessed an increase in non-Asian chefs and proprietors shelling misrepresentations of the food that binds us to our culture, such as selling curry as “chickpea stew”, offering kimchi as “Asian slaw,” or labeling a one-hour noodle soup “pho” or “ramen.” Notable white chefs and owners have accumulated professional credibility and wealth from what they have taken from non-white culture; meanwhile non-white chefs, food writers, and restaurant owners have long been silenced, marginalized, and excluded – both in terms of industry recognition, critical acceptance, and by consumers. Culinary education is predominantly white, Western- and Euro-centric, thereby creating a culinary “standard” that BIPOC are expected to abide by in order to thrive in the industry.  Restaurateurs who engage in culinary cultural appropriation reinforce the idea that it takes a reputable white person to transform our food and cater to a white audience, usually by marketing the non-white cuisine as trendy or cool.

Food — and what it represents — is a real and powerful symbol characterizing culture, identity, and values. Therefore, chefs and restaurateurs owe it to their customers to respectfully serve Asian foods or products – whether traditional or modernized – in a way with our culture and heritage in mind and not fetishized, exploited, or exoticized. 

WHAT, THEN, IS A RESPECTFUL APPROACH?

When contemplating cultural appropriation, the questions we ask ourselves should seek to inquire if one’s actions — regardless of intention — have been ill- or misinformed and have caused harm. While we will not engage in attempting to delineate between appreciation and appropriation or answer “who gets to cook what?”, we will clearly establish this: listen to us when we speak about our lived and firsthand experiences and assume a posture not of defensiveness, but of curiosity, empathy, and humility. 

Asians have been considered perpetual foreigners or “a race too different” for far too long to assume the role of gatekeeper and continue a culture of exclusion. Rather we seek to include others and encourage them to approach our food with an intent of respect and dignity to its origins, the cuisine, the culture, and our stories. As such, we also leave you with a few recommendations:

  • If you are going to profit and capitalize off our food (or from any other culture), especially ones that have been historically exploited, oppressed, or marginalized – it is your responsibility to do so in a way that honors, respects, and uplifts the cultural origins of the food and culture. Serve our food with cultural context and specificity (“Asian Chicken Salad” is not, in fact, specific). Honor our heritage, donate to our organizations, show up for us, uplift other local Asian chefs and restaurants when your work is spotlighted to understand your larger positionality in the food industry, and pay homage to the history and techniques that make our food so unforgettable. Challenge false narratives and misrepresentations and have difficult conversations with your colleagues and industry peers.
  • In this moment, we must also acknowledge and recognize the escalated anti-Asian hate, racism, and violence that has taken lives and rattled our communities. Issues such as the cultural appropriation of our food — and the stalwart defense of the practice — only continue to add to our collective pain and grief.
  • Culture, cuisine, history, and heritage can be taught and adopted sensitively and respectfully. However, when profit and capitalism are involved — especially at the sake of the underrepresented culture —  it is reminiscent of white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, power, and privilege. There is no right formula for approaching culinary cultural appropriation, but ask “why is this person the authority on this cuisine?” If they are not, what are they willing to learn, discuss, or uplift as part of the specific culture/cuisine? Is the culture/cuisine the person is engaging with directly and solely benefiting from their work in any way (even if it is not financial)? 
  • Authenticity of our food is not what we want. In fact, the pursuit of authenticity is a dangerous conversation as we are not monolith; families and communities differ in methodologies. Moreover, the demographic categorization of “Asian” contains a multitude of ethnicities, cultures, dialects, and regional practices. Additionally, our food and cultures have their own complicated histories of intra-cultural/ethnic colonialism, imperialism, and oppression and hard stances on authenticity often perpetuate this violence.
  • Consumers, diners, food aficionados: do your research on the restaurants you patronize. Hold them accountable when they double down with their defense against claims of cultural appropriation thereby centering their own experience over that of community voices. Move your direct financial support to BIPOC-owned and operated restaurants and bars. Learn about the origins of the cuisines you cook at home and appreciate the families, owners, and chefs who make the food from their respective cultures. 
  • Value culture over commodity. Dismantle systems of capitalism and profit within yourself and recognize that not everything good must be commoditized for maximum profit.
Patrick Dodson