For communities around the world, food is a unifier; its impact is emblematic of our shared community and humanity. Food both transmits and preserves culture. But globalization and immigration have caused traditional foods to become more palatable in the United States; immigrants hope to retain their cultural roots while also assimilating to American culture. This Americanization compromise propagates food appropriation and forces us to consider two pressing questions: How can we preserve food cultural integrity while also promoting it worldwide? Is the American melting pot truly a celebration of multiculturalism, or is it an excuse to ignore the broiling cultural homogenization that lies below?
Food is a sensitive and personal cornerstone of people’s lives. In many immigrant families, traditional dishes evoke nostalgic childhood memories and their parents’ cooking. But what constitutes “authenticity” is subjective and loosely defined; even people who come from different areas of the same country often disagree about the definition of what counts as “authentic” food.
Generally, authenticity in food is about hominess. It’s what differentiates restaurant fare from home cooking. But not all traditional dishes fare well in American restaurants; immigrant restaurateurs must often conform to local tastes to survive. As the Truman State University (Miss.) sociologist Stephen Christ wrote in a 2015 ethnography, “A restaurant is only as authentic as profits will allow.” Consequently, not only must immigrants alter traditional recipes with limited resources from a new country, but they must also decide whether or not to focus on the palate of customers or stay true to their cultural roots.
To appeal to American taste buds, Americanized Chinese food emphasizes frying and sweet and sour flavors. But despite its claims to the contrary, Americanized Chinese cuisine is appallingly inaccurate. Orange chicken, lo mein and fortune cookies were not invented in China and are not authentic Chinese cuisine. Likewise, calling a mango and beef mix Jamaican stew and a non-Tunisian rice recipe Tunisian is disingenuous and constitutes appropriation.
We have to consider these limitations as we continue to reflect on our misrepresentation of cultural dishes and how our portrayal of these foods lead to a mishandling of the culture as a whole. Ownership alone cannot determine whether a food is being culturally appropriated. Someone’s ethnicity should not limit the varieties of cuisines they are allowed to cook; in fact, doing so will only destroy the dialogue it otherwise creates.
There are countless examples in which cultural exchange is completely lost in private benefits and a false sense of sophistication. But there are fine lines between Americanization, innovation and appropriation. Because food culture is always adapting to societal, economic and political changes, flavors will always adjust to local taste. There is nothing wrong with Americanization, or any cross-cultural exchange, until cultures become simplified and fetishized. As a Chinese American, hearing someone say their favorite Chinese dish is General Tso’s chicken and essentialize Chinese cuisine as popcorn shrimp and its compatriots feels like blatant disregard for my culture.
Thanks to globalization, food culture is evolving. From Korean American chef Roy Choi’s Kogi Korean BBQ food trucks in Los Angeles to the fine-dining restaurant Indian Accent in New York, chefs are reinventing classic dishes with modern twists and infusing them with other cultures as a way to stay relevant in the culinary scene. It symbolizes increased openness and welcomes new flavors and cooking techniques. Sometimes, as it has for Choi and his revolutionary food trucks, experimentation with multiethnic foods works.
Unfortunately, these chefs can also invite backlash when they unintentionally use racist language and misunderstand other cultures’ food. Lucky Lee’s, an Americanized Chinese restaurant run by a Jewish American couple, advertised that it provided “clean” Chinese food with healthy ingredients, implying that traditional Chinese food is somehow dirty or otherwise unhealthy. In the white-dominated U.S., white chefs can get away with this appropriation, thereby undermining mom-and-pop shops run by immigrant owners.
However, we cannot stop food from evolving. If you promote yourself as someone who creates food from another culture, you are responsible for respecting that culture itself. Fusion cuisines are not an excuse to perpetrate racist stereotypes and exotify different cultures; another person’s identity is not a trend you copy for monetary benefit.
Where there are immigrants, culinary adaptation is inevitable. Families bring unique flavors and culinary traditions with them wherever they go. So, while the mix of cuisines in America invites a wider audience, it is also important to understand the stories behind it. It’s okay to crave the orange chicken from Panda Express or the pasta from Olive Garden, but know that what you are eating is not traditional. Know that the original cuisine deserves the same respect as your favorite version.
Meaningful cultural exchange and experiences come from acknowledging the limitations of Americanized cuisine — respecting the traditions from which it has arisen and seeking out different restaurants. Opening yourself up to learn part of someone else’s story will change the way you see the world for the better.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.