I recently wrote about a eating out at Revel, an Asian-fusion restaurant in Fremont. The experience made me think about how chefs take culinary risks by fusing two seemingly incompatible types of cuisines together to create something new and delicious. Or it could be a terrible experiment and unbalance the natural order of the universe, like a turducken. Since the dawn of man, food and culture have been nearly inseparable. I’m pretty sure someone in the history of humanity has said something like “Food is the gateway to culture.” We should take similar risks and connect with other people to share our rich histories, ideas and perspectives, and to embrace our growing multicultural world.
However, there’s a common misconception that diverse or ethnic cultures can be experienced through food alone. “Let us share this spring roll, and upon ingestion our two minds shall become one.” When I was in college I had a friend who suggested getting General Tso’s Chicken for dinner because he wanted to learn more about Asian culture. “That’s a wonderful idea!” I answered. It was cheap and delicious; a must for any college student. “But if you ever refer to General Tso’s Chicken as Asian food again, I will stab you with a chopstick.” Then I showed him the chopsticks, which was marked with the Chinese characters for “power”, “strength” and “longevity.”
You can’t just add soy sauce and some spices to something and call it “Asian food.” Imagine how that would impact our food industry. Denny’s may add Asian style oatmeal to their menu, with a dash of soy sauce. Want some Japanese red velvet cake? Add soy sauce mixed with wasabi. Chinese French fries? Dip it in soy sauce! That is disgusting, ignorant and besides, everyone knows you need to add MSG to make it authentic.
Although food can be a rich experience in itself, it also has the potential to create barriers between people of diverse backgrounds. What’s the point of taking time to learn about Vietnamese history and culture if you think you can absorb it along with your beef broth and cream puff? These situations are far too common and ironically adds distance between the people we’re trying to connect with.
The misunderstood relationship between food and culture may also perpetuate stereotypes that are harmful to the identity and dignity of minorities. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been called a Twinkie or banana (more than 10, less than 200). Though it may seem playful and trivial, these stereotypes continue to marginalize many minority communities. “Just because I like How I Met Your Mother and eating General Tso’s Chicken does not make me a Twinkie dammit!” is my usual response. “Unless by Twinkie, you mean I’m sweet on the inside, with stubbornly enduring shelf life.” I do keep well for my age.
Our desire to experience diverse cultures, while well intentioned, should not end when we’re full. Food should not relegate culture to an afterthought or keep communities invisible. It is impossible to experience something as rich as culture through food alone, no matter how delicious we…I mean it…may be. We need to appreciate that history and heritage give meaning and value to food. For example, a lot of people commonly mistake a bánh mì sandwich as Vietnamese, but it was actually introduced by the French during Vietnam’s colonial period. While different cultures have their own traditions around food, one common thread I’ve observed is that food acts as a catalyst to bring people together; it is a shared experience. Food isn’t simply the gateway to culture, it’s the bridge.
Coincidentally, in the process of writing this post I overheard a radio advertisement about a new Subway sandwich. The Kung Pao Pulled Pork sub is described as an “exotic sub…packed with shredded pork marinated in a savory blend of garlic and ginger. Get this Asian sensation on specially baked bread.” I take it back. Some fusion ideas are horrible and ridiculous. They forgot to include the MSG and…holy crap it’s for a limited time only! I must have one right now.