Appropriation of Asian food — or any ethnic food — is a touchy subject. Oftentimes, self-proclaimed ethnic “food connoisseurs” assert that they simply are enjoying the fine delicacies of the continent — that they have a right to duplicate or take inspiration from a culture. After all, it’s just food, right?
That’s what two white South African men thought when they opened up an Asian-inspired restaurant, that serves ramen, Korean barbecue and poké in Johannesburg. Even more problematic is the restaurant’s original name, Misohawni (which sounds innocuous at first listen), a crude reference to Vietnamese sex workers during the Vietnam War.
“Me love you long time” is a sexual innuendo targeted at Asian women, but during the Vietnam War era, the phrase was tied to Vietnamese women — namely, sex workers — who spoke fragmented English to American GIs. Today, Asian women still remain targets of hypersexualization, fetishization and acts of sexual violence.
Beyond the restaurant’s ignorant and tasteless namesake is the true problem: mindless replication of Asian cuisine for capitalistic gain, without a shred of cultural respect or understanding of those ethnic foods’ roots. This argument applies to the food of all global cultures.
While there are strong arguments that food should not belong to anyone, that a worldly, mixed palate is the result of cultural globalization, especially in Western countries, cultural respect is necessary, even when profiting off foods central to an ethnic group’s identity. The Washington Post published an article titled, “Should white chefs sell burritos?,” which asked a controversial, yet important question.
Food represents an ethnic group’s rich culture — it is a central part of its soul that ties generations of people together. From pho to bun bo Hue to thit kho, I feel like I know my native country despite having never set foot in it. Growing up, my parents took me to Vietnamese restaurants, and my mother cooked authentic dishes for dinner every night.
It’s a part of my identity, and when individuals outside my ethnic culture try to replicate Vietnamese cuisine in an “Americanized” manner, I feel robbed.
For example, a white chef went viral on Bon Appétit Magazine’s Facebook page for hosting a video showing the internet how to properly eat pho from his own Asian fusion restaurant in Philadelphia. Although the video can be construed as well-intentioned, the chef has previously shamed Asian-owned restaurants for their techniques in cooking pho in a now-deleted Instagram post. This imperialistic righteousness needs to end.
Admittedly, although fusion eateries and variations of ethnic foods have become widely popular, it’s necessary for chefs and restaurant owners to pay respectful homage to the culture that inspires their creations.
Think of it as artistic plagiarism when a chef or a restaurant owner blatantly disregards the ethnic source of culinary creation. I have no problem with people who immerse themselves into different cultures to learn about their foods, the culinary techniques and social significance of what’s made in the kitchen, but there must be respect from those bred outside the culture. They must recognize they are outsiders here to observe and potentially contribute, but only because that culture opened its doors to them.
In addition to respect, there is another controversial factor when a non-ethnic person begins to profit off ethnic cuisine at the expense of its original community. These communities are often marginalized and disrespected for their immigrant lifestyles and strange foods, while Americanized versions of their cuisine are usually embraced as hip and fresh.
In a city like Los Angeles, there’s a never-ending list of the new eateries, some fusion, some solely inspired by ethnic foods, some original (although, what’s original in L.A.?). Yet, the city is still dominated by pockets of marginalized ethnic communities, and The Post article’s question, “Should white chefs sell burritos?” is a loaded one, considering the effects of gentrification and rising land prices in the city. A non-ethnic person should consider the consequences of opening up a restaurant in a location near authentic competitors, which are usually family-run.
Eat the food, but respect the culture and the people.
Terry Nguyen is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the news assignments editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Fémmoirs,” ran every other Monday.