Culinary Appropriation

Michelle Xu, art by Marcella Cheng | @marcell.arts

Food nourishes us — this is a fairly universal sentiment. We are blessed to have extremely easy access to a great range of foods from many different cultures. Food is also an Instagram star now, and every second person is posting photos of their anniversaries at Quay; more than ever, ethnic food is getting trendy. Broadsheet lists ‘ramen’, ‘Korean’, and ‘Malaysian’ as recommended searches now. There are Asian-fusion themed bars like Sugarcane Coogee, which is owned by someone who seems… really white.

All of this has led some to call out instances of cultural appropriation and gentrification in the food space. There is also a common rebuttal that cultural foods have always been influenced by foreign factors, and we’re only witnessing that today. It might seem to be a positive that ‘ethnic’ food is more mainstream now, indicating some greater acceptance of the racial diversity of our communities.

But it’s about context.

Most of us don’t want to feel like they’re in the wrong for their Sushi Hub habit, and for the most part, a lot of daily cultural food consumption might not be problematic — for example, a lot of us buy and consume dumplings and bao from establishments run by actual Chinese people in Chinatown. I’d also like to believe that most people don’t say or do racist things while participating in this consumption.

Cultural appropriation of food is deeply connected to who is in a position of privilege in a given society. Those privileged enough to pick and choose what foods traditionally belonging to a minority racial group are now to be celebrated in the food scene often make no effort to engage with the history of the food, let alone with the people who have grown, cooked, and eaten that food for decades prior. For example, Indigenous communities don’t typically benefit from the culinary acclaim that many Australian chefs garner from using native Australian ingredients in their food. And recent poké establishments fail to make a meaningful connection to the traditional Hawaiian dish, and tend to be exotic salad bowls rather than actual poké, which celebrates high quality, fresh fish with much fewer toppings.

Food gentrification seems to be a persistent problem now too — kale and quinoa were some of the first trendy foods a few years back, now coconut water is everywhere, and avocado is almost unavoidable in Sydney cafes. The consequences of these food trends are far-reaching. In the case of quinoa, the Peruvian and Bolivian communities that have traditionally grown and eaten quinoa suffered on two levels. Not only did an initial rise in prices of quinoa due to increased demand mean locals could no longer afford a staple food, when supply caught up with demand and prices leveled off, local producers couldn’t compete with larger agribusinesses now supplying quinoa. A single food trend can cause long-lasting harm to the communities that have traditionally depended on them.

It’s not that white people shouldn’t be allowed to eat or cook foods from other cultures — it’s just that they’re more likely to profit from those foods than the people of colour who have always cooked and eaten those foods. There are plenty of white chefs who claim to have done their duty and travelled and learnt the craft from local chefs that have allowed them to set up successful establishments. Often those people who have a long history with the foods being appropriated — the locals they learn from — do not even benefit economically, going without any compensation for sharing their cultural knowledge.

The truth is, we all love food. We need it to nourish and sustain us. We also use food as a vehicle for celebration, to express love, to share with one another. These are inherently good things. We just don’t need food to be another way through which minority groups in our societies are exploited and oppressed. If you’re fortunate enough to have a multitude of cultural food options open to you and you’re making a choice about where to put your money, think about who you’re paying, not just what you’re paying for. Think about who is working behind the counter, who has farmed or harvested the ingredients, and whose recipe it really is.