Cultural appropriation, sometimes known as cultural misappropriation, is when elements of a particular culture is adopted by another culture. It’s particularly problematic when people from dominant cultures take from minority cultures; the example often cited is the fashion of non-Native people wearing Native American war bonnets to music festivals. Not a good look, people. So what does appropriation look like when you apply it to culinary heritage?
You may know the story of how Irish-Americans started eating corned beef and cabbage for St Patrick’s Day. In the late 19th century, Irish immigrants to the US found the offering in butcher shops, particularly the kosher shops of New York City, was a mirror opposite to what they’d had back home; typically, bacon was expensive – or hard to find – and beef was cheap. Back home in Ireland, salted cured beef had been a pricey luxury. “This is food evolution,” says the food writer Mei Chin, “because it’s something that was created by the Irish themselves. The changes to a traditional dish were made in reaction to a new environment.”
Chin, whose work has featured in Saveur, Lucky Peach, The New York Times and beyond, is from New York and Connecticut. She is Chinese American and lives in Dublin. “Food appropriation is generally when someone is using the food of another culture without very much knowledge about that culture. People get heated up when you use the food of another culture for your own gain without correct acknowledgement of the culture.”
Food appropriation can be particularly dubious when there is colonial history between two cultures, such as the Dutch in Indonesia, or the British in India
Whereas chow mein and even the humble spicebag – having been created by Chinese people adapting to their environment and customers – are further examples of food evolution, things are a little less clear cut when it comes to, say, a vegan biryani wrap sold by a large supermarket chain, or a white male American chef (read: privileged) popularising Mexican food, or food businesses jumping on a trend purely for profit.
“Dublin often follows food trends from London,” says Chin. “For example, poke shops. There’s not a huge Hawaiian population in Dublin, so that’s not a reflection of a multi-cultural population in Dublin.” Food appropriation can be particularly dubious when there is colonial history between two cultures, such as the Dutch in Indonesia, or the British in India.
However, all this is not to say that only people from a specific culture should have permission to cook the food of that specific culture or that changes to traditional recipes is inherently a bad thing; that’s not the argument here. A 2018 editorial in the Guardian called for “sharing, not snatching . . . There’s nothing wrong with experimentation; an obsessive veneration of ‘authenticity’ can be a kind of exoticisation in itself. The problem comes when making a food more fashionable, or an easier fit for western tastes, is equated with making it ‘better’.”
You can follow Chin's deep dives into dumplings, congee and churros in her Global Beats column in Food & Wine Magazine. She is currently working in collaboration with the American food writer Georgia Freedman on a new food magazine called Ampersand: Eating at the Cultural Crossroads.