As someone who prefers soy milk to cream and tofu instead of meat, I always enjoy trying “healthy” versions of typically indulgent foods. Cauliflower rice, sweet potato gnocchi, and black bean brownies are some of my favorite dishes to make, but I never considered how these “healthier” alterations affect the original meal.
Recent backlash surrounding the opening of wellness blogger Arielle Haspel’s “clean” Chinese Restaurant in New York City made me reconsider the social implications of altering traditional foods to make them “healthier.”
Stereotypes and Assumptions
Haspel and her Husband, Lee, opened Lucky Lee’s American-Chinese restaurant on April 9, 2019. The restaurant marketed itself on its website and Instagram as “Feel-Great Food” inspired by Chinese-American cuisine, but it was immediately criticized by the Chinese-American community for its stereotypical perception of their culture.
The Connotation of the Word “Clean”
The idea that some food is “dirty” and others “clean” has strong cultural connotations. Not only does it belittle the traditional cooking practices of foreign cultures or ethnically inspired restaurants, but it also mimics American stereotypes about immigrants. According to a study from the American Psychological Association, “dirty” is one of the top 47 traits considered in American stereotypes of other cultures. By asserting that Lucky Lee’s dishes were a “clean” alternative “dirty” Chinese food, Haspel attached the cultural context of these words to her actions and her business.
Missing Education and Knowledge
As a Caucasian chef without first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture or food heritage, it would be nearly impossible to accurately represent Chinese-American cuisine without extensive research and collaboration with industry experts. Instead, Lucky Lee’s relied on cultural stereotypes and generalizations about Chinese-American food, such as:
- Generalizations about all Chinese food being “oily” and “salty;”
- Design elements based on chopsticks, fortune cookies and bamboo;
- Equating the word “lucky” with Chinese culture.
The Thin Line Between Admiration and Appropriation
By definition, appropriation is to take something without permission and act as though it is your own. For food, appropriation occurs when dishes are separated from their original cultural context or used to misrepresent their traditional culture.
Loving a certain dish and making it for yourself is fundamentally different from taking a traditional cuisine and claiming it as your own. Making changes is completely acceptable, but it is important for those changes to complement the food’s original culture, not diminish its value.
Removing an ingredient or adding substitutions to a dish to account for allergies or personal preference is fine because those changes are not tied to the dish’s food culture. Appropriation becomes an issue when individuals claim that those changes have elevated the dish out of its traditional context. This assertion generates negative assumptions about the dish and its culture.
Food is Often More Than Just Food
It is easy to think of food as just a mixture of nutrients, calories and flavors, but food plays a much larger role in everyday life. It is a cornerstone of culture and identity. Food traditions can bring people closer to the past and connect them across borders, but we must ensure that our food practices highlight similarities instead of overshadowing cultural context. Arielle Haspel learned this lesson the hard way, but we can learn from her mistakes.
How can we be more concious of food’s cultural context? Leave your thoughts in a comment.