Written by Jessica Truong
Food is an important thing that we can enjoy from another culture. Food brings people from all over the world together. Food is the first thing that my mom offers to my friends when they come over. Food was also something that I was cautious to bring to school as a 4th grader, because I was afraid that my peers would make fun of my cơm and thịt kho (rice with Vietnamese braised beef)… and me. So, when did Vietnamese food become “cool” all of a sudden? It is one thing to appreciate diverse food, but I believe it is another to make phở a “just add water” meal and call it good.
Let’s say that there is a hypothetical person named, Alex. This piece is not about whether Alex has a right to cook phở (Vietnamese soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat) or put together a bánh mì (Vietnamese single-serving baguette, filled with various meats, daikon, cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, pâté, jalapeño and mayonnaise). If all the ingredients are used and all the intricate steps and prepwork are considered, I’m going to eat it and be grateful that they have an appreciation for Vietnamese food. An article I came across stated, “It’s not that you can’t cook another culture’s food. It’s the lack of examination of the complex power structure that surrounds that appropriation that’s unsettling” (Kim, 2017). This statement resonates with me as it encapsulates my feelings whenever I am faced with questioning the authenticity of my food.
This is about Alex not taking the time to know that this famous Vietnamese noodle dish is pronounced as “fuh”–not “foe”–and not understanding the painful historical context behind Vietnamese food. These special dishes were one of the things that connected my family to an enriching heritage since fleeing the war torn country of Vietnam. Taking from a historically oppressed, marginalized group and claiming dishes that have been around for centuries is also unacceptable. The case of individuals trying to claim, trademark a food dish, and then going to great lengths to sue other Vietnamese restaurants who use it in their name is an example of this behavior (Chandler, 2013). That would include my favorite places from home such as, Phở 75, Phở 96, Phở Le, etc., being bullied and possibly driven out of business if this were to happen to them. It’s equally disappointing to see food mislabeled and lumped as one pan-asian or pan-ethnic category, when clearly many cultures exist and should be able to retain their unique qualities. I don’t mind a college dining hall offering a pulled pork sandwich on ciabatta bread with coleslaw, but don’t call it a “bánh mì station” (Friedersdorf, 2015). Even spelling of food is often overlooked, when a quick google search shows how bánh mì is spelled. This is an easy courtesy to food origins. One of the most controversial cases in food appropriation is the infamous Bon Appetit video where Vietnamese like myself and many non-Vietnamese viewers were told how one should be eating phở. While a formal apology letter released stating that it was “not their intention to offend anyone”, there are some who view the letter as dismissive. Clickbait titles and framing authority of authentic dishes to those not from the culture is a practice that should be outdated and avoided. Regardless of their intention, it is a lesson to just be courteous and aware when it comes to culturally significant foods.
This narrative is similar to many non-white ethnic groups. Many people from various backgrounds have moved to a new country with nothing. Starting a business in the restaurant industry was feasible because cooking food from their home country was a skillset they knew and did well. However, it is more than just creating food to sustain life in a new country; the livelihood of many family owned restaurants holds an invaluable and sentimental sense of pride and joy. The food and preparation reminds them of home. Being able to get together and share a “family-style” meal brings warmth and a feeling of belonging. Being able to recreate and produce love for others is just as rewarding. Food brings us back to our roots and reminds us of our culturally rich background. These dishes play into our identity, so it hurts when a new restaurant moves into the neighborhood claiming to have an authentic menu when it should be labeled as a fusion restaurant. The new twist on recipes with non-traditional ingredients end up being something totally different than my grandmother’s dish. It’s authentic to the creator’s interpretation, but not authentic to the roots. David Chang, an Asian chef, exams the line between tradition and innovation with food in his Netflix series, “Ugly Delicious”. During a trip to New Orleans, he explores the evolution of boiling crawfish and what is considered appropriate and legitimate practices. The chef making the crawfish told him the way he’s preparing is a must because it’s tradition. Where does the line get drawn for putting a creative spin on dishes?
“Food is meant to be explored and discovered, experimented with and shared. Imitation is flattering, and creativity is exciting…But when we position ourselves as an authority, we can’t separate food from its cultural context if we want to explain or represent it, or we lose its meaning. Food, like culture itself, is a living thing; people live and relate to it, share it, communicate tacitly through it” – The Washington Post.
Although it’s great to see people enjoying different ethnic foods, many marginalized communities face apathy or a disregard for their historical context, and its connection to bigger issues. Taking a broad look at the North American social landscape, issues surrounding immigration and deportation are often overlooked or reduced to simple summaries rather than a deep dive on many situations. Many minorities are lumped together and labeled negatively. The lack of critical analysis affects Southeast Asians from ownership of food, to being a targeted group for deportation in the United States. Many people who fled from war and genocide are being forced back to countries they have little or no memory of since moving here at a young age. I pose this question: Would the United States have staples like potato dishes, hot dogs, tacos, or phở if we did not accept any communities like the Irish, German, Mexican, or Vietnamese refugees? Probably not. Cultures influence the food we eat, and food is a vital part of one’s culture and identity. This issue of appropriation goes beyond just a dish.
This video (starting at 12:42) examines the complexities of cultural appropriation. While it is explained that the term itself is neutral, cultural appropriation is the action of taking an element of one culture to use from members of another, there is not a clear line between positive representation and harmful cultural appropriation. Thus making it hard to not relate the enjoyment of culturally significant foods when that group is being oppressed and marginalized because of their culture. As mentioned before, this piece is not about who gets to cook a specific food. It’s about understanding the history, cultural importance, proper labeling, and not claiming elements so things like food, can be shared with all.
Sources and Interesting reads:
- We’re Having the Wrong Conversation About Food and Cultural Appropriation
- What raising multicultural sons has taught me about food and appropriation
- Brockley family restaurant Mo Pho in forced name change by Pho chain ‘bullies’
- How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy
- A Food Fight at Oberlin College
UNAVSA is launching a new mini series called: Food For Thought! Preparing and cooking food is a way to preserve tradition and culture. Many cultures, like the Vietnamese, showcase the diverse cuisine because food is a symbol of pride. This series takes a deep dive into not just food but the social connotations surrounding the topic.