All food is culture appropriation

All food is culture appropriation

I don’t know that the term “culture appropriation” can be applied to food or cuisines. It refers to a situation in which a person adopts some part of another culture for themselves, claiming it as their own, and I understand that failure to credit the source is the main sin, as in a WASPish person in Indiana wearing a kimono without marking it as a celebration of Japanese culture.

But food is a much harder target to nail down because the entirety of food is, by definition, an appropriation of some other culture’s lunch, and then the lines within the lines get blurred.

Chinese food served in American Chinese restaurants is not the Chinese food eaten in China. The dishes we know are, with few exceptions, creations for an American palate. As I heard a Chinese restaurant owner say recently, “If we serve Chinese food here, no customers.” White America is just not prepared for gelatinous chicken feet, braised deer tendons and live octopus.

So Chinese immigrants came to the United States and appropriated the flavors of their own cuisine, combining those flavors with commonly available and palatable-to-Americans ingredients to create something very different, designed for a different market.

I can’t recommend highly enough the Netflix series, “Ugly Delicious.” The seven-episode season, hosted by Korean chef David Chang, looks at several mainstream foods and explores their history and adaptations over the years, traveling internationally to trace the story. For a foodie it’s all fascinating.

There’s the story of fried chicken and how it is linked to various cultures, spreading so fully across the globe that every cuisine has some kind of version. Kentucky Fried Chicken is so huge in Asia that a bucket from The Colonel has become the main treat for Christmas dinner and the main reason for observing Christmas.

One restaurant, operated by an African American family in Tokyo, serves genuine southern soul food, and the line to get in winds around the block. There are episodes covering tacos, pizza, barbecue, fried rice, shrimp, crawfish and other bits of deliciousness we all love.

The one that really made me think about the amazing stories told by food was the shrimp and crawfish segment.

Remember the Vietnamese “Boat People” in the ‘70s at the close of the war? Many of them ended up in Houston, Texas and did not find a very warm welcome, to say the least. But as so often happens when a new population blends with the current flow of humanity, they proved themselves through hard work and, in no small way, through the food they began offering in small restaurants.

The show was about crawfish, so it took us to New Orleans, of course, where they like their crawfish boil simple and traditional: Lots of spice and that’s it. But the large Vietnamese population of Houston got hold of some crawfish and adapted it to their own cuisine, creating something they called “VietCajun,” boiling the crawfish in plain water, then adding garlic butter and a mix of Cajun and Asian spices afterward to form a gooey red gravy over the little devils.

It’s enormously popular there. And here’s the part I love: Vietnamese-descended cooks in Houston took the idea back to Vietnam, introducing what? A dish that grew from French and African Gullah cooking into soul food that traveled to Texas and back to Louisiana, then flew to Vietnam, where VietCajun is now a thing.

This story allows us to see, in a short span of 30 or so years, how the same thing has played out across all food and over millennia. Spices from Turkey end up in Rome. Noodles from China make their way to Germanic tribes.

All food, everywhere, is culture appropriation, and it’s a beautiful thing to see, and taste.

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