Food Appropriation: Why is it so Important to Talk About?

Ramen Burger

My interest in appropriation started with a bag of potato chips for me.

I was raised in a Korean household. My parents immigrated to America not long after their marriage, so when my sister and I were growing up, we didn’t have a strong connection to our culture. We rarely celebrated any holidays. We didn’t follow many traditions. We had no other family in the states.

There was one connection, however, that reminded me of my roots: food. If we couldn’t prepare a Koren meal at home, we’d drive for an hour to find the nearest Korean restaurants and markets.

This is where we come to the potato chips.

The first encounter with appropriation.

Kettle Brand Korean Barbeque potato chips. I felt a mix of curiosity and excitement when I first learned about this flavor. The taste doesn’t seem to remind me of anything particularly Korean, but on the other hand, there wasn’t anything that would have offended me. 

What did catch my eye was the description of the flavor that Kettle Brand wrote on their website: “a sweet and savory mix of plum, garlic, and hoison on a potato chip.”

“Hoison” is not a Korean ingredient. Far from it. Hoisin sauce, while used as a marinade for meat, is most commonly used in Cantonese and Vietnamese cuisine. Honestly? It kind of ticked me off. As soon as the word “Korean” was put into the flavor, this chip became a representation of my culture.  

Whoever made this flavor, or at least whoever wrote this description, couldn’t be bothered to do the bare minimum research on Korean cuisine.

If that wasn’t enough, Kettle also happened to misspell hoisin. Great sauce, just not Korean.

These culturally insensitive moments, particularly involving food, have been called different names. Food cultural appropriation. Culinary appropriation. I like to call it “cuisine appropriation” – the failed adoption of another culture’s cooking style and flavors.

For Kettle, an American company, the Korean barbeque flavor was adopted and labeled in a way that incorrectly represented the flavors and ingredients inherent to Korean cuisine.

But there’s a sea of fusion and interpretation in the culinary world. Food is a constantly evolving art, so what exactly can be defined under cuisine appropriation?

Sushi burritos? Hawaiian pizza? Crab rangoon?

It’s best to examine individual cases. In 2021, there were three significant accusations of cuisine appropriation:

  1. Shake Shack’s Korean-inspired chicken sandwich.
  2. Tieghan Gerard’s Weeknight Ginger Chicken Pho Ga.
  3. Karen Taylor and her company, The Breakfast Cure.

APPROPRIATION CASE 1: SHAKE SHACK

Shake Shack’s Korean menu was announced on Jan. 5, offering a “gochujang-glazed crispy chicken breast topped with toasted sesame seeds that sits over a white kimchi slaw” for the Korean-inspired chicken sandwich.

The inevitable criticism was almost predictable. Many criticized the menu for lacking authenticity, while others claimed that the interpretation was lazy. Accusations of cultural appropriation were flying across social media.

Does it lack authenticity? Yes. 

Was it lazy? Also yes.

But is it cuisine appropriation? I don’t believe it is.

Shake Shack made a chicken sandwich inspired by distinct Korean flavors and ingredients.

Although not considered appropriation, the picture shown was used in Shake Shack's Korean-style menu promotional.

Is it authentically Korean? Of course not, because it was never meant to be authentic.

Shake Shack’s initial announcement for the menu clarifies this in a simple statement: “We called it Korean-Style because – while it’s inspired by all the classic Korean fried chicken, flavors, and dishes we’ve come to love – it’s certainly not the same, traditional, or our own.”

In a worst-case scenario, this seems to be a poor effort to represent Korean flavors on the part of Shake Shack.

APPROPRIATION CASE 2: TIEGHAN GERARD

Tieghan Gerard, on the other hand, made a more serious offense with her recipe for “pho.”

Gerard runs a blog called Half Baked Harvest, where she posts recipes and food-related content.

On February 10, Gerard posted a picture on her Instagram of her latest recipe, “Weeknight Ginger Chicken Pho Ga (Vietnamese Chicken Soup).” But she soon received criticism from Vietnamese audiences about the recipe. Commenters claimed that her recipe was not at all pho.

The frustration over the recipe comes from pho’s long history in Vietnam. Its origins come from an extensive journey from France’s colonization of Vietnam in the late 19th century to the Fall of Saigon in 1975 (it’s quite an interesting story, worth a read). 

As its evolution closely followed Vietnam’s history, pho became Vietnam’s national dish.

With pho playing such an important role in Vietnamese history and culture, the response that Gerard received from the Vietnamese community was not unwarranted. For instance, the broth Gerard made lacked important ingredients in pho, including coriander seeds, cardamom, and cloves. She further substituted ingredients that would never have been included in traditional pho recipes, such as honey and soy sauce.

Gerard has since renamed the recipe “easy sesame chicken and noodles in spicy broth” and apologized for her mistakes. The URL, on the other hand, still reads “chicken-pho.”

A picture of Tieghan Gerard's "pho" recipe, used as an example of cuisine appropriation.

In contrast to Shake Shack, Gerard’s initial recipe is a clear example of cuisine appropriation. The recipe she created claimed that the dish was pho, but it didn’t reflect the ingredients that were integral to the dish. Pho’s cultural significance to Vietnam only makes authenticity even more important to this dish, and Gerard’s recipe had failed to respect what made pho so special.

But Gerard’s attempts at her “pho” recipe seems to be an innocent mistake. A culturally offensive mistake, but it stemmed from a poor understanding of what made pho important.

This next one’s not so innocent.

APPROPRIATION CASE 3: KAREN TAYLOR

In July, Karen Taylor, the founder of The Breakfast Cure, drew criticism for her comments about congee.

The Breakfast Cure is a meal-kit delivery company, selling packets of ingredients that can be added to slow cookers. The mission statement on the website previously described their product as a “gourmet, foodie version of traditional congee.”

Before exploring this situation, let’s be direct: this is blatantly cuisine appropriation. 

But what makes Taylor’s case different from Gerard’s?

There are a couple of things.

The logo for The Breakfast Cure.

One: Gerard created a recipe for her followers to try at home. Taylor has created a product she sells.

Two: Gerard does not claim to be well-versed in Vietnamese culture. Taylor claims to have a significant history with congee, having first tried it 25 years ago while studying at a Chinese medical school. She then claims to have created recipes and combinations ever since.

Three: Gerard simply mislabelled her recipe as pho, because she did not understand the core ingredients and flavors that pho needs. Taylor intentionally changed the traditional flavors of congee. There is specific language in The Breakfast Cure’s website that indicates a conscious decision to create changes that made for better marketing.

An example of appropriation used in The Breakfast Cure website.

The first criticisms toward Taylor and the Breakfast Cure can be traced to Twitter user Casey Ho, who tweeted about the company and its products on July 16. Interest and outrage prompted Twitter users to investigate further, searching through the company’s website and activity online. The Breakfast Cure has since edited their website in response to the online criticism, but the remnants can still be found.

On her website, Taylor crowned herself the “Queen of Congee.” Already off to a bad start.

Then, in a blog post titled “How I discovered the miracle of congee and improved it,” Taylor wrote about her experiences with congee and the process behind her own recipe and products.

“The Breakfast Cure is a modern adaptation of [congee],” writes Taylor. “I’ve spent a lot of time modernizing it for the Western pallet – making a congee that you can eat and find delicious and that doesn’t seem foreign.”

Aside from spelling “palate” wrong, Taylor’s claims to have “modernized” a recipe for “foreign” congee was met with criticism on Twitter. Congee isn’t a long lost dish that needed change. It’s a commonplace, staple recipe that’s been used and eaten for, as Taylor herself put it, “hundreds, if not thousands of years.”

And a congee recipe that “doesn’t seem foreign?” A terrible end to a terrible sentence. Whatever her intentions, the statement reflects a xenophobic sentiment, which implies that dishes from other cultures need to change for western audiences. But how “foreign” can congee really be?

It’s rice porridge. 

So far, this section has been dedicated to language and context, but now, let’s look at the congee.

Some of the flavors include:

  1. Apple Cinnamon: made with oat groats (no rice), apples, and cacao butter.
  2. Coconut Blueberry Bliss: made with with blueberries, coconut cream, and maple sugar.
  3. Romano Bean Dream: made with cranberry beans, and a spice mix. The recipe also suggests that you top it with “walnuts and Pecorino Romano or Parmesan Cheese.”
  4.  Pineapple Paradise: made with pineapples, coconut cream, pumpkin seeds, and lime juice.
The Breakfast Cure's blueberry-flavored congee, which is considered appropriation.

With ingredients that are not native to Asian countries, Taylor has certainly “modernized” her dishes, for $14.95 a pack. Many flavors are entirely unfamiliar to traditional Asian cooking, and the reinterpretation of congee seems to replace traditional ingredients for oatmeal toppings. But what’s so problematic about this congee? It’s still (mostly) rice-based porridge.

Context is important. If a person of Asian-descent had wanted to change congee recipes and experiment with new flavors, there might be some criticism, but there probably wouldn’t be such a strong response.

On the other hand, if a caucasian woman like Taylor not only changes the recipe to a dish like congee, but also sells this new product, it can feel as though the culture has become a disposable commodity. Using the word “congee” for a product that no longer reflects the original dish has its own implications. It feels as though Taylor is using Asian culture to advertise her product. 

The Breakfast Cure’s response to criticism has been quick. The website now describes the product as “Oregon porridge” inspired by congee, with an apology statement below. The “Queen of Congee” title has been stripped from Taylor’s profile page. Some product descriptions still list the dish as congee, and the site continues to sell its Oregon porridge.

CONCLUSIONS

And so, the debate over cuisine appropriation continues. What is allowed? What is appropriation?

The story of Kook’s Burritos hit headlines in 2017 over accusations of stolen recipes. Gordon Ramsay came under fire for his Asian restaurant, Lucky Cat in 2019. The arguments surrounding General Tso’s chicken and other American Chinese cuisine are an endless source of frustration.

Korean tacos are an incredible fusion that rides a blurred line of cuisine appropriation. Sushi in the western world is often a combination of traditional and contemporary styles that are now staples. Even throughout history, Caribbean Chinese cuisine is a fusion style with a long history that goes back to the 1800s.

On that note, is cuisine appropriation really that important? In the grand scheme of racism and xenophobia, is it so terrible that people take liberties with food?

Korean tacos, which could be considered appropriation.

When minority communities are facing violence and prejudice, being offended by a recipe change can sometimes seem trivial. After all, food is a volatile medium. There’s always something new and controversial around the corner, as creativity blooms with new dishes and flavors.

But food still has such an important place in our cultures and traditions. It’s more about attitude and respect, than the actual food. In order to build communities that love and respect other cultures, people should be willing to learn about their histories. We’re shaped by the food we eat from our earliest memories, and they can form special connections to our families and identities.

But when someone takes these dishes and uses them without any understanding of their context or ingredients, it feels as though someone is taking advantage of our culture. The qualities that made these dishes special to us are lost in translation.