Catie has degrees in English and secondary education and is currently working on her master's at Simmons College.
Pho: The Oldest, Latest "Thing"
Food is an inherent part of culture. The foods we eat are native to our country, and often the way we prepare them is native to our country as well. We live in a globalized society, but there are still foods that are local to certain countries.
Take pho for example. It’s a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup often served with some kind of protein and with the option of adding Thai basil. The flavors that are used in the dish (hoisin, ginger, and lemongrass) are traditional to Vietnamese cuisine. Despite the fact that pho is currently served all over the world, there’s still something to be said about authentic pho from a Vietnamese restaurant, run by Vietnamese people, that just feels more right than getting pho from Whole Foods or any number of purveyors of white-people pho.
I use pho as example for a few reasons. First, it’s an up-and-coming food trend. Much like kale or bacon, you can hardly turn a city corner without finding a new pho restaurant. The difference between pho and kale is that kale does not belong to a specific nationality. Though kale has its own socioeconomic issues (I could, and probably will, write an entire article about the ramifications of kale as a “trendy” food,) the issues with pho don’t end with its price, they’re rooted in cultural appropriation.
The most glaring example of this is a recent Bon Appétit article about how to properly eat pho. Why, you might ask, is an incredibly recognizable food magazine under fire for telling its readers how to eat a traditional Vietnamese dish? A white chef is the one instructing readers on the proper consumption of a Vietnamese dish. Let me say that again for the people in the back: a white chef is telling readers how to eat a Vietnamese dish.
White Man Explains Pho
One of the instructions that seems to be the most incendiary amongst readers is Chef Tyler Akin’s substitution of traditional hoisin or siracha with jalapeño peppers. One Facebook user put it best by saying “You mean you don’t put sauce in your broth?...when Asian food becomes hipster all authenticity is lost.”
One of the great joys of eating global cuisine is the ability to experience another culture through their food, to eat ingredients and dishes that you would otherwise not be able to experience. Authenticity is a critical part of any global cuisine experience.
Why It's Not Okay to Appropriate a Culture's Food
By riffing on an ethnic dish as a white person, you are doing two things wrong:
- First, as was stated in the article that accompanied Chef Akin’s video, you’re trying to "elevate" a dish. By saying you’re “elevating” an ethnic dish, you’re implying that the original dish is somehow wrong or that it’s not as intelligent. This is especially insulting as a white person cooking an elevated dish that comes from people of color as there is a long history of white people not only stealing things and claiming them as their own from people of color as well as a long history of implying that culture from people of color is somehow less than white/European culture.
- The second thing that’s being done is that by saying that he can elevate a traditional cuisine, Chef Akin is implying that he can produce a better dish than the people who created the dish in the first place. That’d be like trying to riff on Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon and saying you did it better than she did. Except you’re not just saying it to one person, you’re saying it to an entire country.
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Now I’m not saying there’s no situation where a white person can cook cuisine from a culture of color, that would be preposterous. One of the ways we’ve been able to connect and understand each other is through food. Cooking ethnic food as a white person is just like being in a conversation about race as a white person: you need to be aware of your privilege, understand when you’re meant to listen instead of speak, and make sure when you do speak not to dominate the conversation because it’s not about you.
Pho Is the New Ramen?!
One of the other mistakes the Bon Appétit article makes is that it claims that pho is the new ramen, as if one Asian noodle dish can only exist at a time. Before we move on, let’s turn our attention to another noodle based international cuisine: Italian food. Take a second to think, how many different kinds of pasta can you name? Off the top of my head right now I can name seven: fettuccini, linguini, bucatini, ravioli, fusili, pene, and farfalle.
I can do this because for centuries European cuisine, especially French and Italian, have been heralded as culinary ideals. Julia Child wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking with the idea that if one can master French culinary techniques, one can master any cuisine. This is another example of white privilege in the culinary world: because European food is considered the cream of the crop as far as food is concerned it can be found anywhere. It’s ubiquitous in our country. I could go to any grocery store in America and find dried pasta.
But what if I needed fish sauce, a staple in Asian cuisine. I’d probably find myself downtown in Chinatown at some specialty market. I might get lucky, because I live in a city and urban areas tend to be more diverse, and find it in my local stop and shop. But I bet if I lived in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, I’d be hard pressed to find fish sauce.
By implying that pho is the new ramen a white chef is marginalizing an already heavily marginalized cuisine.
The last, and most obvious misstep is the fact that Bon Appétit’s website is global. Meaning that a white chef was instructing Bon Appétit’s Vietnamese readers how to eat pho. He’s also instructing Bon Appétit’s Vietnamese-American readers and the magazine’s Asian readership. Though Chef Akin runs a pho restaurant, he has no authority instructing the originators of pho on how to consume it properly.
Hipster food trends and food cultural appropriation is not news. It’s happened with ramen, bahn mi, and countless other dishes. Hell, we call Taco Bell Mexican food but you’d be hard pressed to find a single Mexican who would claim a Taco Bell taco is anything authentic.
One reason this happens is flavor profiles. Not to say that European food is bland, but it certainly lacks spice. By spice I mean hotness. You don’t commonly find chili peppers or jalapeños in French cuisine. Often when global cuisine becomes popular in America, flavor profiles have to be altered to accommodate a palate used to European flavor profiles. Dishes become so warped and changed that they’d be hardly recognizable to someone who grew up in the dish’s country of origin. Chinese food is the poster child for this. American Chinese food is a wholly different animal than traditional Chinese cuisine.
The point is that we tend to take things from people of color and warp them until they suit our specific needs, when we’re through with them or something new and shiny comes along we toss them aside with no respect for them. Food trends do this every single day. Some new dish will come on the rise, hipsters in Greenpoint will love it for a few months and then toss it aside for something new. The worst part is, the food that’s served to us often doesn’t come from someone from the culture of origin. It’s often done by some white chef who riffed on a traditional cuisine and is passing it off as their own.
Food is an inherent part of culture. It’s often overlooked in the conversation about cultural appropriation. Food is so ubiquitous in our world, we encounter it multiple times per day. It’s as natural to us as breathing. So it’s no wonder this is an overlooked conversation. It’s strange to think about something we see and do so much being cultural appropriation, but it can be. So the next time you get a hankering for pho, support a traditional restaurant run by Vietnamese people with a Vietnamese chef. Enjoy your ability to learn about another culture the most delicious way.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.