In my small town there are four Asian Restaurants. Two of them are the sort of Chinese place you’d find in any town anywhere -- glossy pictures of food on the wall, general tso’s, eggrolls, crab rangoon, four small tables on tile floor, overhead fluorescent lighting. The type of place you can walk out of for under $15 full, perhaps too full, riding a monosodium glutamate high. The other two establishments ain’t that. They’re posh, dimly lit, serve cocktails and ambiance and $20 plates of noodles. Their pantries are Asian -- fish sauce, miso, shaoxing and scallions -- but their patronage, their owners are white.
What should we make of this? Are they Culture Vultures? Gentrifiers? Appropriators?
What about the food? Should the ethnicity of the chef reflect on the food’s value? What if it’s genuinely delicious? What if the flavor is more pronounced, more ambitious, more unapologetically Asian than the Americanized-Asian food offered by owners who tone down their cuisine so white people will like it? Is it possible that in some cases, the more ‘authentic’ flavor could come from a white guy in chef’s whites, or is that colonialism all over again? Elvis stealing the blues, Brooklyn turned into a bike lane.
Full disclosure, I am one of those white guys cooking asian food for a living. I don’t have a personal history with the cuisine or culture of Asia. I barely ate Chinese as a kid. I don’t have a frame of reference outside the US for how this food should taste, but every night I find myself seasoning with fish sauce, chili oil, and chinkiang, plating laab, laksa and mapo, my only reference point being -- is it delicious? And it is. The chefs I work for know this food. They love the flavors. People love the food they sell. The only problem -- we’re all white.
On an episode of the excellent “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix, David Chang discusses the cultural appropriation of food. “I see a lot of white guys making Korean food and it pisses the shit out of me -- because it’s everywhere now, kimchee this, kimchee that, [but] you weren’t ostracized in elementary school because everyone thought when they visited your house it smelled like garbage, you didn’t endure emotional hardship, and now it’s cool [...] I can’t like it, it’s impossible for me to like it.”
Apparently in some cases, the reference point is not taste at all, but rather the chef’s personal, emotional history with the cuisine. You didn’t suffer the way I did. My identity was wrapped up with this food and Americans used to find it strange, and now that it’s hip, you want to make money off it?
I see his point. I see why it is emotional. But I just can’t believe it actually changes the way the food tastes. And isn’t that what we’re all after? Good food.
I think people (at least the food adventurers among us) can relate to the following scenario. We find ourselves at a new “ethnic” restaurant eager to encounter new flavors, eat something we have never had before. We survey the dining room. Lots of folks whose ethnicity seems to match the ethnicity of the food. That’s a good sign, we tell ourselves. We see these patrons gleefully sharing bowls of delicious looking mysteries. That, what they’re eating, that’s what I want, we tell ourselves. But when we tell the waiter, I want what they’re having, the waiter is upset. It’s not on the menu, he tells us, its special for them, you won’t like it. Stick to the menu, that’s what we sell. Wait, what? Is this because I’m …. white?
I’m not using this scenario to evoke pity or pretend this is somehow emotionally significant. It’s just annoying. A lot of us are eager to discover true food cultures because our own are so lacking, and so we seek out new places, new flavors, new cuisines. But in the past, these new places thought they had to tone down their food or create new dishes that white people would like, and in doing that they failed to satisfy the original craving -- to experience true culture, not what you think I want, the real thing.
So when a Mission Chinese or a Pok Pok comes along and offers unbridled, aggressive examples of regional cuisine, something we’ve truly never had before, we eat it up. We don’t care that Pok Pok is owned by a white guy, Mission Chinese by a Korean-American who grew up in Oklahoma. And I would argue we shouldn’t. We should care about the food, about the culture preserved in it and about the gateway experience eating at these places can provide. Maybe you’ll head out to Flushing after getting turned on to Szechuan at Mission Chinese. Maybe you’ll seek out Malaysian fare after digging the Thai flavors at Pok Pok.
My childhood consisted of Kraft Macaroni, Hamburger Helper, and Hot Dogs. No, I wasn’t teased about it, I didn’t have emotional trauma connected to my school lunches, but I sure as shit don’t want my kids eating the same way. I’d rather give them Kimchee. I’d rather introduce them to the traditions that have nourished cultures for centuries, I’d rather learn from those cultures and preserve, even if it means my kitchen might smell like rotting cabbage.