Who Has the Right to Capitalize on a Culture’s Cuisine?

August  5, 2016

Six years ago, I published a story about a live octopus hot pot I ate in Queens that hinged on a video of the cephalapod writhing across a hot stew of vegetables. Predictably, animal rights activists skewered me for my insensitivity, and as someone who wrestles constantly with questions of ethical eating, I can’t say that I blame them.

But I’m more uncomfortable with that piece today because it was sloppy journalism: it was a story built solely for page views, and to accomplish that goal, it removed an aspect of Korean food culture from its broader context and exploited its oddness for the American audience. Worse, I, a white woman who grew up on the Wonderbread cuisine of middle America (and had eaten Korean food about 10 times before writing that piece), potentially shamed Korean readers for their food habits while elevating myself for being “brave” and trying such a “bizarre” food.

Who has the right to capitalize on a particular culture’s cuisine? Who has the right to cook it, and who can write about it?

This type of journalism—and dining—has been a major component of American food culture over the last several years. A few years ago, New York had an annual balut-eating contest, daring diners to house fertilized duck embryos popular in many Southeast Asian nations as fast as they could. The Travel Channel airs a show called “Bizarre Foods,” and bills it as an exploration of other cultures via the weirdest regional specialties host and creator Andrew Zimmern can find. Outlets as diverse as National Geographic, USA Today, and Buzzfeed have run columns asking travel journalists, “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?” Eating clubs fetishize dining on odd animal parts or racy chilies or fermented vegetables; restaurateurs and chefs scour the globe for inspiration that hasn’t yet hit mainstream eating consciousness; and writers rush to collect street cred by “discovering” “new” cuisines and ethnic enclaves.

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But over the last year, we—diners, chefs, journalists—have begun to discuss whether this is okay. Who has the right to capitalize on a particular culture’s cuisine? Who has the right to cook it, and who can write about it?

The traditional courtyard homes of Beijing are one of the most unique parts of the city. Photo by Rob Christensen

I’ve spent the last year pondering this from afar. Last June, I touched down in Beijing, where I planned to spend a year studying Chinese food and agriculture so that I could eventually write a book, and so that I could immediately apply what I was learning to stories I'd pen for a variety of publications. I hadn’t been here long when campus protests erupted across the States, bringing to the forefront, among other issues, a roiling conversation about cultural appropriation, which, as transgender writer and activist Julia Serrano masterfully articulates, takes issue with white Americans profiting off of cultural contributions made by minorities and outside groups, while erasing those groups from the cultural historical record in the process, or worse, denigrating those groups by perpetuating negative stereotypes.

The author and her partner, Rob, at a street they frequented full of restaurants famous for crayfish and bullfrog hotpot. Photo by Rob Christensen

I watched the discussion hit the food world soon after, when Rick Bayless caught flak for building an empire off of Mexican food, and Sean Brock and Mike Lata were chided for carrying the mantle of Southern food without properly acknowledging the slaves who'd originally brought to the region the dishes they were now using to form the foundation of their menus. In the journalism world, Eater’s Hillary Dixler found herself in the middle of her own appropriation controversy when she asked a black DC-based food historian whether Charleston’s food culture was appropriative (thereby launching that Brock/Lata controversy), after which John T. Edge and Tunde Wey discussed whether white writers should be commenting on black food at all.

"I didn’t expect to love learning Chinese characters, but I came to appreciate them as an art form," Laura says. Photo by Rob Christensen

It’s been an odd conversation to observe from China, partially because I’m living in a culture where the power dynamics are reversed: I am the outsider. Moreover, unlike an immigrant in America, who can eventually become a naturalized citizen, I will never be Chinese, no matter how long I live here, how well I speak the language, or how much I fold myself into society. Even if I married a Chinese person and had half-Chinese children, I would still be a wai guo ren—a foreigner.

Living here has made me realize how much Chinese culture has been flattened in mainstream American conversation.

Therefore, it is totally non-threatening for me to write about, learn about, or cook Chinese food here—Chinese culture reigns supreme as the superior culture of the land, and China doesn’t much care what a non-Chinese person has to say about it. Of course they should want to participate in this culture, the thinking goes. It’s the best. The cultural appropriation debate is not a conversation China is interested in having, at least not in the way we’re having it.

But this is not really a conversation about China—it’s a conversation about America, and what it means to be American, and it’s about to get personally relevant for me: I’m getting ready to come back to America, and when I start to write about Chinese food there, I’m going to be forced out of the observational perch into which I’ve comfortably nested abroad. I’m going to have to confront this conversation head-on, and, as Edge said, I’m going to have to prepare to be uncomfortable with other Americans who disagree with me or take issue with my context.

And context is not easy. Living and researching here has made me realize how much Chinese food—hell, Chinese culture—has been flattened in mainstream American conversation. Despite how it's presented, China is not a monolith. It's a country with incredible regional diversity, and it’s more accurate to talk about Hunan cuisine or Xinjiang cuisine or Yunnan cuisine than it is to talk about Chinese cuisine. These are all Chinese cuisines—but they’re about as different from each other as German food is from southern Italian, or Tex-Mex is from mid-Atlantic seafood.

Sijiminfu’s Peking duck represents a style of duck roasting that was invented 150 years ago. Photo by Rob Christensen

Moreover, Chinese food, as with any part of a living culture, is not static. Sichuan food is world-famous for its spice, but the region boasts a 5,000-year-old history of civilization, and it didn't fully integrate chile peppers until the 1800s. The most common preparation of Beijing duck, an iconic dish here, evolved over at least 600 years, and didn't take its current state until the 1850s (and Da Dong, a celebrity restaurateur here, is famous because he tweaked that duck further in the 1990s). One of this country's most ubiquitous dishes, a spicy chicken number called la zi ji, was invented in the 1920s, and it didn’t become a menu staple until the 1990s.

As I think about who should tell that story, it’s weird to me that we’d necessarily expect Chinese-Americans to speak on behalf of the entire culinary canon. Asking your Chinese-American friend to weigh in on whether something is “authentically Chinese” strikes me as just as problematic as debasing their childhood comfort foods as “weird” or referring to a Chinese restaurant as a “discovery”: It totally misses that individual’s own history, personal identity, and, frankly, their American-ness, in favor of referring to them only by their race. (In a similar vein, any attempt to qualify anything in America as “authentic” misses the point—it’s been removed from its own complex cultural context and layered into the complex cultural context in America. To qualify a dish as such is to imagine it in some sort of cultural vacuum, and implies a kind of end of history -- that dish can no longer evolve or adapt to circumstance, we’re saying, or it will lose something essential.)

And to insist chefs adhere to recipes from their own cultural background or demand eaters not venture out to experience new cuisine seems to build the very walls we’re trying to tear down. Experiencing positive aspects of other cultures is often the first bridge to breaking down the other-ness barrier, and food seems like an obvious way to do this.

It’s on all of us to understand that America is really a patchwork of contributions from a multitude of backgrounds, and culture is always a work in progress.

But to dismiss this conversation out of hand is dangerous. Because the problem is, a lot of us haven’t been asking any Chinese-Americans—or Chinese food experts—to weigh in on our “discoveries” or “oddities,” which means we’ve no hope of bridging any sort of cultural gap or increasing diners’ understanding of the cuisine. We’re stripping out the context, and so not only might we be unintentionally perpetrating negative stereotypes or myths, we’re likely missing out on incredible stories.

So where does that leave me? I’ve always seen my role as a journalist as an imperative to immerse myself in something so well that I can explain it, clearly and entertainingly, to my audience. To illuminate murky subjects. To find the story. China is now inescapably part of my own story, and that’s going to come into play, in ways both subtle and pointed, as I encounter things that are overtly Chinese and things that are not. It’s going to color my writing even if I try to separate it. But it’s on me to continue to expand my own understanding so that I can more accurately illuminate a realm of food that is tasty, relevant, and vastly underexplored, and it’s on me to listen to Chinese people and Chinese-Americans who might have a different perspective or interpretation, or who think I’m dead wrong.

It’s on me to be a better journalist. It’s on all of media to elevate voices of diverse backgrounds to add to our collective understanding of the complex cultural and racial history that we’re a part of in America. And it’s on all of us to consider the context of our actions, to seek perspective that might differ from our own, to engage in breaking down walls, to listen to each other, and to understand that America is really a patchwork of contributions from a multitude of backgrounds, and culture is always a work in progress.

It’s on us all to continue this conversation. And there’s no better place than over a meal.

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Laura Shunk

Written by: Laura Shunk

Food and drinks writer, Chinaphile, margarita enthusiast


Sarah April 12, 2017
Comparing civil naturalization in America vs cultural acceptance/acknowledgement in China is convoluted. As an Asian American, born and raised in America by parents who have lived in America since their 20's, I am still mistaken as a foreigner, an immigrant, an alien that doesn't belong. A white person in China is treated much differently than a black person in China or any minority in America. You're still white and enjoy benefits from being white, even in China, where you're the minority.

You have the right to capitalize on anything in America, but if you want to do it ethically and respectfully, don't erase the context and culture of the food you're capitalizing on. Don't claim it as your own. Don't say that because you lived in a foreign country as a white woman for a few years that you understand what living in America as a minority is like.
Shirley S. April 12, 2017
I just read your article and was struck by your comments on appropriation. A Chinese American can be accepted to write or appear on a cooking show when cooking 'Chinese' cuisine, however, is rarely accepted as being knowledgeable about other cultures. A white cook, on the other hand, would be accepted and given more credence when writing or demonstrating another culture's cuisine. I suspect it will not change anytime soon.
Subjy August 6, 2016
I'm not really understanding the point of this article. So you're basically saying you were like most of humanity that generalizes cuisine not native to their country, and was also an Instagram food whore, look at what I ate I'm 'in' on the new food trend type of person. and now that you've moved to China you've realized this and are complaining about that culture of people?
I consider myself a true food lover who cooks and eats as the foundation of my life. learning about diversity and authentic cuisine is a bi-product of that and you become immune to that Instagram and generalized food culture. The problem, in the first place, is you care too much about what others think you eat. Good f-ing tasty food should be all that matters. It doesn't matter who cooks it, why they cook it, where or when or how.

You could be the only person on earth eating a meal in the middle of an Indonesian forest. No one needs to know. The world doesn't need to know. Enjoy and love the food and let it enrich your life. Just you. If you focused on the food in the first place, you wouldn't have had to live in China for a year to gain the perspective I found sitting in my underwear watching YouTube.
SpringUp August 10, 2016
@Subjy Wow, how closed minded of you to think that you can "gain the perspective" by watching YouTube videos. The author of this article is simply sharing her story and realization about how culture and food has influenced her and her writing. At least she has the curiosity to travel and experience new places and things. If you are not interested in reading about anyone's journey, why bother reading any food articles at all when you can just stay home and watch videos without tasting and absorbing the environment like she has? What exactly is an "instagram whore"? Anyone who posts something on media platforms is considered a "whore" because they are sharing? Now stop your bullying and keep your negative comments to yourself.
Subjy August 10, 2016
an instagram food whore is someone who posts pictures of food to 'show off' what and where they ate, which she admitted to being that type of person in her first paragraph. the reason I belittled her story is because the perspective she seems to have gained through a long and self reflective process is a perspective I gained quickly and comfortably just by caring about the food itself instead of caring about what others thought about the food I was making and eating. like I said, I live for food, so I read dozens of food articles a day, but this article adds nothing of substance to the food conversation. the discussion should not be about cultural appropriation, but about seeking out legitimately great food, regardless of who makes it, where they make it, and why they make it. it took her moving to china to realize how immensely diverse and unique chinese food was? lol. really? the fact that this article was even written shows me that she's still not getting it. this article is just a different angle of instagram whoring.
Subjy August 10, 2016
this article is literally just a person discovering authentic food and realizing they've been eating crap their entire life and masquerading this realization as a 'think piece'.
Saffron3 August 10, 2016
I enjoyed the 'think pieceness' of the article. Made me ponder as I read along, rather than having someone make declarative statements so designed to make the 'other' be diminished.
Smaug August 5, 2016
I say enjoy it while you can- the whole world is already fusion, and becoming more so. Driven largely by the World Wide Web- which more and more is exactly that- we are in real danger of reaching the time when everyone has the same background.
To me at least, the results are most obvious in music. No doubt ease of dissemination
and lack of language barriers, musicians from everywhere tend to absorb what they hear and nowadays everyone hears everything; the days of arts developing in isolation are long gone. I can't see other arts being any more successful in maintaining regional (or other) individualities- is there ANY ingredient that can't be had in the SF Bay Area? Or anywhere they have the internet and credit cards? These fusions tend to produce periods of strong development in arts, particularly as far as technique and vocabulary, but I fear will prove ultimately destructive of individuality.

702551 August 5, 2016
I think part of the current muddle is that Americans have a rather immature relationship with food. It ranges to the extremes: some fetishize it, some simply see it as fuel (the cheaper the better).

I'm glad I used music as a comparison because there has been plenty of fusion already. Do music journalists furiously debate whether or not white people should play jazz or the blues? Not to my knowledge.

Do the French uproariously protest when some Hungarian guy plays an Austrian adaptation of a French melody? Or harangue an American child who hums the tune? Again, not to my knowledge.

I think many of these culinary writing controversies are overblown and mostly a veiled attempt for additional pageviews.
Smaug August 6, 2016
I don't think we're actually disagreeing here, but I would like to point out that white people had a great deal to do with the development of jazz, and more than they're credited for with the development of the blues- I don't see white people playing those musics as being, per se, fusion. More disturbing is the increasing inability to distinguish American country music from Canadian pop, though there are many practitioners still playing country music in a fairly pure form. A surprising number of them, however, attend music school and play in various different genres as well- keeping the music at all pure has become more a matter of intellectual effort than natural development, and the distinctions are likely to become increasingly vague. Not to say this is all bad- what could be better than African bands singing salsa in French?- but it is sad in a way.
magpiebaker August 5, 2016
I am surprised at the unconstructive tone of some of these comments. Luckily most Food52 comment sections haven't attracted the level of trolling that's common in other places or I would stop reading them.

This article asks some good questions. I think an important thing to remember is that we can never take credit for the creation of a dish; we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. (Yes, even you, Dominique Ansel.) And because we have all come from different paths, our experience with a cuisine or dish will be specific to our family and personal history.

I remember a friend of mine (who is a fellow Chinese-American, and was an Ethnic Studies major) being offended when someone I knew asked her to help with a school project and started asking questions about "traditional" ways of celebrating Chinese New Year. At the time I didn't quite understand her qualms but I now think she was protesting being asked to speak for an entire and very diverse people instead of her own experience specifically. One is reductive while the other is respectful.

In the end, it seems to me that the most we can ever do is to explain our own experiences with a dish or cuisine. For example, I can speak to my mom cooking tea eggs and eating them while abroad, from street stalls. Do I know I’m missing pieces of its history? Yes. To some degree it is inevitable that the history of an idea - or a dish, or a piece of music, or anything that builds on previous work - will not get the full credit it deserves.

@cv - whether someone has the right to make money on something that he did not solely create seems to be a legal, not a moral, question. But I would say that the musician you describe does still bring something to the table. An artistic flair that is his own, for example.

Should a white person, e.g., comment on Southern cuisine that he/she doesn't know the history of? I'm sure this is a fraught question for some people, especially those who feel that cultural appropriation is just the nail on the coffin of oppression. But I think those who approach food writing with curiosity and humility will always come off as more respectful than those who use a Western-normative mindset. And to the extent we can truly accept differences rather than judging them, doesn’t that create more space for understanding and sharing?

Laura, this sounds like baby steps in the right direction. I am interested to see where this line of thought takes you and the Food52 writing staff.
702551 August 5, 2016
How about an English woman critiquing the performance of my example musician?

Of course, the musician I described is in fact a real person.
702551 August 5, 2016
One thing, I can think of many examples of creative works being taken out of their original context and repurposed really well in a considerably different appropriation that might trouble some, but delight others.

History is full of these example. People have been doing this since the beginning of civilization.
702551 August 5, 2016
Here's a different way to look this issue which seems to be steeped in guilt.

Does a Paris-born Chinese-American have the right to make money selling his recorded performances of German baroque music played on an valuable instrument made in Italy? Should he be idolized by the general public? Should he be given industry awards?

He CAN but that doesn't necessarily mean he SHOULD. But someone matching this description DOES. And HOW does he? Pretty well in my opinion.
Christina D. August 5, 2016
what role can Food52 play in amplifying voices from diverse backgrounds?
702551 August 5, 2016
Another question needs to asked before that one: how much interest does Food52 have in amplifying voices from diverse backgrounds?

There are many ways they can do this, however the answer is intrinsically tied to how much this endeavor interests them (them = the editorial staff).

If they did a lot of it, their readership demographics and profile would change. For the better or worse? Who is to say?

For sure, I think someone somewhere should bring let voices from diverse backgrounds have more say. Is this the place? Or is somewhere else more suited for that type of content?

Let's say you've been running a small jazz club for several years. How would you feel if someone suggested to you that you should also schedule Japanese koto music and baroque chamber music played on period instruments? Punk rock? Maori war chants? Polkas on accordions? Burlesque shows? Do you want to be the one to host all those? Will you understand the subject matter well enough to make intelligent choices on who to book?

Remember, no one can please everyone all the time. Everything you do is a judgement call, whether it's the shoes on your feet, the type of job you work in, what you ate for breakfast or who you vote for.
Christina D. August 5, 2016
under the About Food52 page, they say that they "want to bring cooks together from all over" and that now is the time to "widen our circle," so they are not so much the small jazz club as the large performing arts hall venue with multiple stages and a mission to serve a multiple audiences. and, you're right, maybe the current editorial team doesn't have the subject matter expertise to identify potential collaborators. but they could do some research and maybe convene an advisory panel. these obstacles can be overcome with some thought. you can't please everyone all of the time and judgment calls have to be made, but you also have to take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions and actions. if they were to say, we did some research (or whatever) and we decided that we're committed to serving our current audience only - we're only interested in people from this place and we don't really want to wider our circle - that's fine. own that. own being the small jazz club. my question was more of a "what if" they wanted to do that - what would food52 look like if it wanted to do this thing rather than a "they should." but now that i read over their About Food52 page, i dunno.

Tamara August 5, 2016
I used to have the cookbook section in a major book store chain, and I truly resonated with this article. I had all kinds of imtelligent, lively and important conversations with patrons, staff, friends and family over the course of seven years. Context and perspective are deeply integral to cultural understanding. As an example, I recall that the Chinese section was quite large, and its range was staggering, from coffee table books, with lush photography from all regions of the country, to the more Americanized, stir fry/deep fry recipe books that we tend to recognize more immediately. Wherever and whenever people migrate, they bring their food culture(s) with them, and also absorb what becomes available in the new space. This is natural and largely unavoidable. Who is able to gain a large audience through media exposure, or open up a high end restaurant, or write best-selling recipe books is a slightly different question, though, and I think it's important to bear this in mind as we enjoy and explore each other's cuisine. Insightful and honest article, best of luck!
Tamara August 5, 2016
I used to have the cookbook section in a major book store chain, and I truly resonated with this article. I had all kinds of imtelligent, lively and important conversations with patrons, staff, friends and family over the course of seven years. Context and perspective are deeply integral to cultural understanding. As an example, I recall that the Chinese section was quite large, and its range was staggering, from coffee table books, with lush photography from all regions of the country, to the more Americanized, stir fry/deep fry recipe books that we tend to recognize more immediately. Wherever and whenever people migrate, they bring their food culture(s) with them, and also absorb what becomes available in the new space. This is natural and largely unavoidable. Who is able to gain a large audience through media exposure, or open up a high end restaurant, or write best-selling recipe books is a slightly different question, though, and I think it's important to bear this in mind as we enjoy and explore each other's cuisine. Insightful and honest article, best of luck!
Patric K. August 5, 2016
This is an interesting and brave piece. I'm glad you started with an example from your own past to illustrate the journey you're on. I think a lot has to do with the sincerity behind our research that distinguishes between exploration and exploitation? I can't wait to read your book.
Niknud August 5, 2016
I think it is helpful to separate out the joy of eating and cooking food from the act of instructing or teaching about food. I completely understand how it can become politicized in the latter format and I think that caution and care is called for when speaking to a broad audience. However, that being said, food is one of those things that I find brings joy into my life. And sharing that joy with others makes it better. So I try and share the foods and recipes and cultures I have experienced with others and avoid judging those who do the same. The article on this site yesterday about community ovens speaks more to me than articles or hotline threads where folks retreat to their corners over the 'right' way to make/prepare/cook things. I also think that the internet and the printed format can remove tone and tenor from a writing - how many problems could I have avoided by having a 'sarcasm' emoji.... I think if we (myself included) give each other the benefit of the doubt and ask questions rather than hurl accusations, maybe it will all work out. My general rule of thumb is to not say anything online that I wouldn't say in front of my grandmother. Anyway, I thought the article was well written and thoughtful and starts a conversation rather than ends one.
702551 August 5, 2016
“Who has the right to capitalize on a particular culture’s cuisine? Who has the right to cook it, and who can write about it?”

This questioning is formed incorrectly.

Just because you CAN do something doesn't mean that you SHOULD do it. And if you do, it's about HOW you do something.

You have learned the importance of the latter. People make mistakes, it's not always easy to know what's a good way to go about something. Life is like that.

However, when you publish something for the world to consume, you are putting yourself in the spotlight. If I overcook a chicken leg on the grill, it only affects me. If some restaurant cook overcooks a chicken leg and serves it to the most powerful restaurant reviewer in town, the repercussions are greater.

There are plenty of writers who worship the Almighty Pageview. Clearly, there are people who want to read those sort of writers. Me? Probably not.

It's important to remember that nobody can please everyone all the time. It's really up to the individual to decide who matters, who doesn't, and live with the results and consequences of your choices. That's a big part of being an adult.

As for being a creative person, sometimes an audience of one is the best.
David K. August 5, 2016
Pour little Social Justice Warrior. Try to think for yourself and not about the people who want you to burden you with guilt. Somehow your generation is more caught up in what others think than focusing on investigative journalism.
Laura S. August 5, 2016
Hmm. I think where I came down on this issue, actually, is that respecting the culture from where something came, and trying to build context around that, actually helps journalists be better journalists (and better investigative journalists). So I suppose in a sense, I agree with you.
Panfusine August 5, 2016
To compartmentalize a dish as Authentic, one has to bring in the time component, which is constantly ticking.. How far back in time do you define 'authentic', because at each stop one can easily point out some 'foreign ingredient' that crept in silently via some ancient Trade Route. ANyone (native to the cuisine or otherwise) can only describe in words a 'snapshot' of the dish at that particular instant in time.
Laura S. August 5, 2016
Totally agree with you here -- culture is not static. "Authentic," or the search for such, sort of misses the point.
Charles J. August 5, 2016
For a Canadian perspective on Chinese cuisine and (just as importantly) the people who cook it, you might try reading Lily Cho's excellent "Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada." I came across it years ago during my graduate work, and it gives a really interesting perspective on diaspora cuisine.
Laura S. August 5, 2016
Thanks! Will check it out.