More international fermented foods and beverages are entering the American food scene, an exciting development in an expanding market. But the origins of many of these traditional dishes get blurred by western producers.
In a panel on diversity and cultural appropriation during TFA’s conference FERMENTATION 2021, BIPOC food professionals encouraged fermenters to innovate with food from different countries, but to be mindful of their approach. A dish’s culture must be respected, its history acknowledged and negative stereotypes eliminated. The talk “Is Fermentation ‘So White’…or Not?” included panelists Miin Chan (educator and writer working on her PhD), Jiayang Fan (staff writer for The New Yorker), Mara Jane King (director of fermentation for IE Hospitality), Kheedim Oh (founder of Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, and TFA Advisory Board member) and Sebastian Vargo (founder of Vargo Brother Ferments).
Last year, two articles helped propel a conversation on diversity among fermenters. One was Fan’s New Yorker article “The Gatekeepers Who Get to Decide What Food is Disgusting,” which highlights how a western view of “disgusting” food requires immigrants to assimilate to local food cultures. Another was Chan’s Eater article “Lost in the Brine,” which explores cultural appropriation in fermentation.
Oh expressed his frustration watching companies produce kimchi without any cultural ties to or acknowledgement of its Korean history. Vargo agreed.
“Whether it is financial or just overall exposure, you really can’t deny the fact that oftentimes…a white face or a white person borrowing off the culture will oftentimes achieve higher amounts of success,” Vargo says. Kimchi has exploded in popularity in the U.S. the past few years – and some white producers receive more funding than traditional Korean companies. “They’re overshadowing the people that actually deserve to have their stories told in the first place.”
Traditional ferments can get watered down, tailored to follow food trends instead of staying true to their historical roots. Chan pointed out that, in Australia, there’s no regulation around labeling certain foods. Pickled cucumbers could be labeled as kimchi, appealing to western consumer tastes.
“Whether it’s in fermentation or the food industry or just any industry that we exist in within this capitalist system, there’s systemic racism and there’s some historical forces that mean that BIPOC basically often have less access to social and financial capital,” she adds.
Cookbook author Alison Roman came under fire when she released a curry recipe she labeled as a stew. There was no history detailing curry’s Southeastern Asian roots and no context of where the recipe idea originated.
“She literally whitewashed all of the culture out of it and made it into something that she could sell,” King said. “Labeling something to suit you and to suit your benefit and your profit can be harmful to people of color.”
It’s a problem in restaurant reviews too, Fan pointed out. Food critics tend to draw a western comparison to more exotic cuisines, comparing an Asian rice dish to a pasta, for example, offering their own translation. She recently wrote a review on a hot pot restaurant in New York and felt compelled to compare it to fondue. She had a limited word count and wanted to be succinct. But a coworker asked: Why not just explain what it is?
“In the process of being a writer, a critic, (I need) to introduce those words in the cultural lexicon so that the western standard isnt kind of the defacto comparison for everything,” she said.
Who decides French cuisine is more elevated than Chinese, Oh questions.
“I think that’s the huge problem is that there’s so much inherent cultural bias that even we as minorities too will have within ourselves that keeps getting perpetuated,” Oh says, noting people of color are not pigeonholed to only cooking their traditional food, too.
Society needs to value traditional cooking arts so food history and knowledge – especially from more rural parts of the world – isn’t lost, Chan adds.
“I think we’ve come around now, the work that (the panelists) and many other fermenters do shows we want to be connected to our traditional food system, we don’t want to lose these tastes and we want to understand our microbial heritages,” she says.