Is There Cultural Appropriation in Food?

The topic of cultural appropriation is a tricky and controversial concept that leaves many wondering about its implications on our society. Simply put, cultural appropriation is when members of one culture integrates elements of other cultures with their own. One of the biggest manifestations of such cultural diffusion is apparent in world cuisine. Recently, cultural fusion in food has become a staple in various countries, and South Korea is no exception. Places like Vatos in Itaewon or even internationally renowned restaurants like Nobu are all examples of chefs combining traditional styles of cooking to formulate their own special blend of different cultures. However, the topic of modifying traditional food has become a hot topic in recent years, as the lines between clever merging of different styles and cultural mockery have become blurred. Does fusion food have the potential to degrade food cultures cultivated by generations of chefs and home cooks? 

To examine this problem, let’s take a look at the show “Ugly Delicious” by the infamous Momofuku owner David Chang. Throughout the program, he brings up thought-provoking and important points about food, its origins, and why it’s important to understand and respect the traditions and history surrounding different cuisines. The food that he bases his episodes on are typically street food and different dishes stigmatized in other cultures. In this show, they celebrate the mixture of elements from various cuisines and appreciates such cultural fusion. On the other hand, it also underscores the fact that there is no concrete criteria food should meet in order for it to be considered adequate. Recent controversies with matters of cultural integration in other fields such as current events have become a catalyst for racial politics in the world of food. Often, foodies feel the need to justify one’s authority over a certain cuisine through their heritage and education, stating that only one with expertise in traditional cuisine can appraise dishes. Others believe that anyone should be able to evaluate dishes on the simple grounds whether new interpretations of classic dishes taste good or not. 

With such varying opinions on cultural appropriation in food, it’s hard to conclude which side is right. For me, Asian food in America was one area where I discovered that both sides have their own merits to their views. Being Asian American, I grew up with a vast selection of delicious Koreatown food like California galbi (Korean barbecue beef) and kimchi fried rice. I also experienced the most delicious sushi I’d ever tasted from unconventional locations like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Whether or not this is suitable cultural appropriation is up for interpretation. Yes, the changes made to tradition are not always beneficial or even tasty, and yes, in some cases it may be over the top, Still, at the end of the day such cultural fusion helps us step out of our comfort zone and try new tastes that we might have not even imagined before. In that sense, cultural appropriation can very much be an essential tool for expanding our understanding of food in general. 

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