The taste of whitenessA food writer’s take on the white gaze: how western media and chefs appropriate and de-contextualise Asian food.
Last month, Bon Appétit, an American food magazine, apologised to its readers and pledged to address issues of cultural appropriation, cultural de-contextualisation, the white gaze, and tokenisation that are present—consciously or unconsciously—in the magazine’s content. The apology was issued after a racially discriminatory image of the magazine’s editor-in-chief surfaced on social media, bringing to the fore such underlying issues.
While the magazine has promised to make efforts to be inclusive and open-minded, it is unfortunate that it took the magazine such an incident to come out and acknowledge that their content and many of their in-house work practices weren’t just improper but also deeply problematic, culturally insensitive and discriminatory. What was more unfortunate was the fact the said events unfolded only after the magazine’s non-white assistant editor Sohla El-Waylly raised those concerns, even though the magazine claimed in an email that it was not the first time they have discussed those issues internally.
It is no secret that mainstream western media has often described foods from their white lens. In a recent New York Times article on Thailand’s fruits, the writer Hannah Beech described rambutan as ‘resembling coronavirus’, durian as ‘stinks of death and whiff of skunk’, and dragon fruit as ‘bland mush with tiny seeds that can require floss to dislodge’, descriptions that callously disparaged the country’s prized fruits.
When western mainstream media is not misrepresenting Asian food, it is often portraying non-European foods in a way that shows they have discovered and bettered it. It is as if until the west knows about it, food is not discovered yet; and until they appropriate it, it’s not palatable.
While such news about the magazine erupted, I couldn’t help but remember a Guardian article on jackfruits published last year. The writer Zoe Williams, who encountered jackfruit for the first time in a Starbucks wrap, described jackfruit as ‘a spectacularly ugly, smelly, unfarmed, un-harvested pest-plant native to India’. In the piece, the writer goes on to say: “In India, some people ate it, but only if they had nothing better to eat.” Such remarks do not only reflect ignorance, but show us how deeply embedded the notion of supremacy is in the west.
The jackfruit, a native vegetable to South Asia and South East Asia, is ingrained in the region’s culinary culture—be it Indonesian sweet gudeg or Nepali and Indian spice-rich curry. In these countries where the jackfruit is found, locals love the seasonal treat, and consume it as a vegetable when young and as fruit when ripe. Hundreds of tons of Indian jackfruit are transported to western countries every season, yet the writer—at least in the piece—seemed unaware of the fruit’s culinary significance. She did not give a recipe nor did she mention that ripened jackfruit seeds can be consumed, perhaps she did not know.
And this is why much of mainstream food writing is white-centric: people with little understanding about the food or culture are given the space to write about it, and that too without cultural appraisal. The bigger problem is how a certain race exerts their hegemony and indoctrinates a certain culture. The writer’s delusional perception that “western veganism is going to save the ‘pest-plant’ jackfruit” is associated with a deep-running mindset of supremacy and a white saviour complexity.
For example, in food travel shows, a white (usually male) celebrity chef goes to some rural area in a country in Asia and shows locals how to cook better, appropriating the local ingredients and recipes to their comfort. This is how many food travel shows are typically curated. In fact, many of the dishes they cook are culturally appropriated or white-washed. And the humble locals pretend to like the food. In such media, mostly owned and held by whites, this is the standard that is used over and over again.
But bigger questions remain: Who gets the space in these media with global outreach and influence? Who decides who and what gets the space? Who gets to set the food narrative—what’s delicious, what’s palatable, and what’s pretty? ‘Bizarre’, ‘ugly’, ‘delicious’—for whom? Who defines the standard?
Different cultures have their own tastes. Consuming innards, which is a part of the Asian culture, is often depicted by western food shows (and magazines) as something to frown upon. For many Nepalis, eating a big lump of meat (steak) and that too barely cooked is unusual. What looks unpalatable, what tastes bad, and what smells unpleasant are subjective. Asian foods are commonly associated by westerners as spicy. White people frequently asking if the food (mostly Asian) is spicy before tasting is—frankly—a bit annoying, even offensive. Chillies are not used just for heat but to bring out added flavour and texture.
Taste is acquired. If you didn’t grow-up in the culture of eating padeak (Lao fermented fish sauce) or kinema (Nepali fermented soybeans), you may not like them at first. You may find it pungent or find the act of eating something so alien offensive, but for the people who have grown up eating them, the same flavours give them comfort; they revel in it. Everything you taste in this world is an acquired taste. And you have to train your palate to be accepting of new flavours.
Appropriating recipes from a culture, supposedly to upgrade it or make it more palatable for a western or White-American palate, is sheer disrespect. It’s not that one can’t play with recipes, but what is the intent and mindset behind the tampering are questions that need clear answers. Also, acknowledging the culture where the recipe originated from is a must.
With constant indoctrination by western media and white celebrity chefs on what’s delicious and what’s palatable, we have started questioning our own taste and culinary culture. For instance, the notion that olive oil is better than mustard oil is a result of that. We tend to incorporate European recipes into our traditional ways of living; in fact, many restaurants in Kathmandu tone down the spices (not just the heat of chilli) in an effort to make dishes more palatable for tourists.
The food you eat is a major part of the culture you grew up in or associate yourself with. They are somehow your identity. And when your identity is questioned and lampooned, sentiments get hurt.
What people like or not is a construct. But this white-centric narrative of food culture is deeply troubling. And this needs to be dismantled. For, to truly enjoy different cultures, it is important you learn to explore new food cultures, and accept them as they are and not how you’d like them to be. I didn’t grow up eating durian, padeak or kinema, but today, I love them. Of course, they all took time to like.