Cultural appropriation of food: Why it’s so personal

White-led businesses like the Breakfast Cure continue to engage in the same formulaic cultural appropriation. In this post, we unpack why it’s so harmful, and often feels so personal.

The problem with the Breakfast Cure’s misappropriation of Asian food

A few weeks ago, I received a slew of texts from my friends with the same link to an article: “Karen, Queen of Congee Slammed for Attempting to ‘Modernize’ Asian Congee,” followed by a chorus of eyeroll or facepalm emojis. Our embittered response is a reaction that much of the Asian community feels right now – we’re sick and tired of seeing yet another case of casual cultural appropriation.

This time around, a real-life Karen (yes, that’s her actual name) has “modernized” congee because it’s “sort of a weird thing” that requires specific instructions to make (read: boiled rice and water), unaware that this continues to add to the perception that Asian cuisine is inferior–until a white person enhances it with coconut and blueberry toppings

Yet again, this cultural erasure for the Asian community continues to generate widespread frustration and does nothing to dismantle the ongoing anti-Asian racism that has wracked our community. The stereotype that we’re the “perpetual foreigner” or “tribal” is furthered by the Breakfast Cure’s cultural appropriation of congee. 

The blatant ignorance, disrespect, and profitization from (almost always) a white person towards a marginalized culture, is an offence that is committed over and over again — when will it stop? 

And more importantly, why do white people continuously engage in this formulaic, repetitive behaviour that continues to harm our community?

See also: Cultural appropriation: Moving beyond public apologies
See also: Dear corporations – it’s time to actually be anti-racist with actions

A familiar insult: Asians are “unsanitary

Asian people are constantly shamed for their cuisine. It’s often stereotyped as inferior, unsanitary, grotesque, or foreign — something that needs to be saved or modified.

I remember being teased in elementary school for my smelly and weird-looking bánh mì that my mother made for lunch. The embarrassment and shame that I felt from my peers was enough to make me refuse it as a menu item in my lunch bag. 

Now, it’s incredibly popular and sells for a whopping $15 at a white restaurant (and often misspelled as “bahn mi”) when it’s traditionally sold at half that price at a Vietnamese shop. The prestige of bánh mì is notably different when it’s created and offered at a white restaurant. 

Arielle Haspel, founder of Lucky Lee's, denounced for insulting Chinese cuisine as gross or unhealthy while boasting its own "clean" American-Chinese cuisine.
Arielle Haspel drew outrage when she opened Lucky Lee’s in 2019 boasting “clean” American-Chinese cuisine while denouncing Chinese cuisine as “swimming in globs of processed butter, sodium and MSG”
Photo credit: The New York Times

“While it should be noted that Asian cuisines have always deserved recognition and higher value, chef Christine Nguyen notes, “white chefs endorsing these dishes with their own “interpretation” (which oftentimes neglects the roots of the dish) and larger price tags sends a clear message: this food required being subsumed by white culture to ‘elevate’ it.”

See also: How audiences can demand journalistic integrity to fight anti-Asian racism

Mainstream media plays a significant role as well. Popular shows like James Corden’s “Spill your Guts or Fill your Guts,” where celebrity guests are given the option of revealing an uncomfortable truth or eating a revolting dish is a prime example of how white culture mocks Asian delicacies as gross or disgusting when it suits them for profit. One minute, we’re viewed as “foreign” or exotic”, the next, we’re “revolting” or nauseating.” 

And this isn’t new — shows like “Fear Factor” were already doing the same 20 years ago, now being parodied as we now refuse to be shamed for our cuisine.

Asian cuisine dishes presented as gross on James Corden's The Late Late Show "Spill your guts or Fill your guts" segment - image for article about cultural appropriation by the Breakfast Cure
Photo credit: Phil Star Life

Our relevance in society only emerges when it benefits white culture, as actor John Cho noted in an op-ed to The LA Times: “Our belonging is conditional.” 

For the Breakfast Cure’s Karen Taylor, her seemingly innocuous cultural appropriation of congee and blatantly white-centered marketing of Chinese cuisine strikes a nerve within our community at a time when we continue to be scapegoated for COVID-19 through “racist narratives related to lack of cleanliness.” Our livelihood suffers and our safety is threatened when racial slurs or stereotypes are hurled towards us. 

Conversely, the Breakfast Cure can simply post an apology (now deleted); offer a paltry 1% donation of profits to the AAPI community as a menial and disingenuous attempt at reparations, while blocking comments from the BIPOC community who criticized them. Yet, the Breakfast Cure remains unaffected by the controversy despite building her entire business model on orientalism and colonialism. 

How is this acceptable? 

Congee matters: Food as culture and identity

Food holds significant meaning within Asian cultures, particularly among immigrants who are often forced to assimilate into Western culture in order to survive and belong. 

I remember being upset whenever my mother would reprimand me for only wanting to eat Western cuisine. I’d resent her for only making Vietnamese dishes, opting out of her labour of love instead for dinner at a blur of white restaurants. 

See also: Behind the counter: Restaurants and the immigrant narrative

For my mother, Vietnamese food serves as a personal connection to her heritage, long after she escaped the Vietnam war and immigrated to Canada for a better life. Food maintains that connection for her and countless others like her. 

A myriad of Asian cuisine dishes on display - Illustrative image for article about cultural appropriation by the Breakfast Cure
Photo credit: Pendulum Magazine

It’s “one of the only aspects of culture that keeps immigrants ‘anchored’ to their heritage, history, traditions, and family,” notes famous TikToker Joanne Molinaro, also known to fans as The Korean Vegan. When culinary appropriation takes place, it becomes deeply personal for Asians. 

See also: Communication and complexity: The essence of cooking for others
See also: Community and a rice cooker: Trae Nguyen’s recipe for every day

Touting her credentials as a licensed acupuncturist who studied Traditional Chinese medicine in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Taylor authored an article called “Our Congee Calling” which was published in the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine journal. In the article, she refers to herself as a “physician[s] of Chinese medicine” and writes:

“I know congee offers a nourishing alternative because I’ve been eating it for breakfast for 27 years. When my beloved mother passed away from complications of constipation, my calling became crystal clear: to bring the simple, healing power of congee to my home country and the people of the west who have yet to be exposed to these ideas about digestion.”

This colonial rhetoric is problematic as she asserts her superiority, influence and ownership of the dish: “The results are in — this savory flavor rivals my other top recipes in popularity. This is a significant milestone. Americans are finally ready to love our congee mornings.” 

See also: From personal to popular: The westernization of traditional Chinese medicine

Chicken Congee - Illustrative image for article about cultural appropriation by the Breakfast Cure
Photo credit: Credit Taste Australia

She misappropriates and casually co-opts congee without any proper respect or credit to Asian cultures for sheer profitization by exoticizing congee as a foreign dish needing adaptation to fit and be validated by the Western palate.

Cultural appropriation causes pervasive damage to our society

We aren’t here for the Karens of the world to disrespect our culture and maintain the deeply rooted notion that “the East” needs to be tamed or civilized by the West.

Every time cultural appropriation happens, it further divides us–not just between white and BIPOC groups–but within our racialized groups. The insidious truth about cultural appropriation’s complexity is that everything that can be appropriated holds a different meaning and importance to the people being appropriated from, making it harder to find unity from within.

See also: Chef Eva Chin on reclaiming culture and identity through food

Twitter user Lincoln Ho, for instance, disagreed with the backlash towards the Breakfast Cure, noting:

Meanwhile, the Twitterverse and multiple news outlets detracted from the cultural implications of the controversy, focusing instead on portraying BIPOCs as obnoxious, overly sensitive critics who were “canceling a white entrepreneur in a case of overblown cultural gatekeeping.”

As writer Frankie Huang noted, “If you’re focusing on the outrage, you’re missing the point.”

Real systemic change requires eliminating the “us vs them” mentality

White people who dismiss us as angry, emotional “Asian mobs” need to ask themselves why Asians are so deeply hurt and offended by casual cultural appropriation. There’s nothing “casual” about disrespect and theft of our culture. Asian culture doesn’t need to be fixed or saved, in order to be considered “good enough” for western society. 

As Serena J. Rivera, assistant professor of Portuguese and Spanish at the University of Pittsburgh explains, “If you are exotic, if you’re automatically an ‘other,’ you’re not one of us.” Those in a position of power can make these judgements. This is deeply rooted in the way the West positions itself in relation to the East: often contemptuous, alienating our “foreign” culture to retain its power and cultural supremacy. 

This othering of racialized cultures is continuously reinforced throughout history and modern societal narratives. 

Cancel culture also does nothing to address these issues that continually affect our community. When appropriation is perpetrated, it reinforces a divide between the racialized culture and the dominant culture, further solidifying the “us vs them” mentality. 

Combating ‘othering’ can help break the cycle

To break the unproductive cycle of cultural theft, faux-apologies and disrespect, we need to combat the practice of ‘othering’ that is so deeply embedded in society.

Here are a few things that I’d like to see from white people who think they have a good business idea ‘inspired by learning from other cultures’:

  • Look for a way to bridge with the community from which the food, artifact, custom, practice, or idea originates.
  • Be very specific and clear in paying respect to its roots.
  • Check your privilege. Do not center your message or marketing around “improving” or “modifying” the culture. If you do, ask yourself why. 
    • Are your actions exploitative towards the culture from which you are inspired by?  
    • Are you creating a partnership or is this sheer profitization that may harm the culture? The reality is: our culture is already rich, beautiful and amazing. Appreciate it the way it is rather than trying to modify it.
  • Really ask yourself why you want to profit off of another culture and what harm that could bring from those you are ‘borrowing’ from – is it worth it?

As the daughter of two immigrants, I grew up thinking that my ethnic cuisine wasn’t good enough. Western or European dishes always felt like they had an air of sophistication that Vietnamese food could never uphold.

When I recently learned how to make Phở, I felt an incredible sense of pride, connection and newfound appreciation of my roots. As I learn to emulate the dishes my mom used to make, this feeling deepens.

White people may view my culture as unsophisticated or not good enough, but I don’t need to convince them otherwise. 

It’s perfect just the way it is.

Featured photo: i am a food blog

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