Cooking isn’t limited to only making the dishes of one’s ethnicity. The cultural identity of that food becomes murky when it gets transactional. Commercializing a food without respecting and honoring its history and tradition is inauthentic, damning to immigrant producers and threatens to erase traditional foods.
“Someone with more power or dominance, they can create their own kimchi – that doesn’t have any resonance to its tradition – and get it on the shelves of Wal-Mart and make it commercially successful. I don’t have that opportunity because I’m a woman, I’m Korean, I’m a minority and I’m just trying to tell the story about kimchi in my way,” says Lauryn Chun, founder and CEO of Mother-in-Laws kimchi. Chun’s kimchi comes from her mother’s recipe used in the family restaurant in California, Jang Mo Jip. “It’s my heritage of food that I enjoy sharing with Americans.”
Chun’s experience is similar to many BIPOC producers. It’s difficult for minority producers to compete with the white-owned brands that often have more money to launch a food company and receive preferential treatment by retailers for store placement.
“When you turn it into a business and you’re profiting as a company, we need to be more sensitive and more deliberate in how we give credit to people,” adds Robert Danhi, chef and co-founder of Flavor360 Solutions (and a TFA Advisory Board member)
Speakers discussed the wide range of issues related to traditional foods in a panel during TFA’s conference FERMENTATION 2022 titled “Traditions of Fermentation, Cultural Appropriation and Diversity.” Panelists included Chun, Danhi, Beverly Kim (chef and owner of restaurants Parachute and Wherewithall in Chicago), Kheedim Oh (founder of Mama O’s Premium Kimchi and TFA Advisory Board member) and Ismail Samad (founder of Loiter and Wake Robin Foods). The discussion was moderated by Josephine Wee (assistant professor at Penn State University and a TFA Advisory Board member).
Do Cultures Own Their Foods?
“There’s appropriate appropriation,” says Oh, whose Brooklyn-based kimchi brand is also based off the recipe of Oh’s mother, a Korean American. “Some of these brands, is what they’re making even kimchi? Kimchi is such a popular buzzword now. But it’s an unfair advantage when you’re competing with me and Lauryn to get your kimchi on the shelf and it’s very loosely kimchi.”
Brands are coming to retail with condiments labeled kimchi that are far from the traditional Korean condiments. They’re skimping on ingredients, like not using traditional Napa cabbage and opting for cheaper produce varieties. Though there’s hundreds of versions of traditional kimchi, some brands are veering too far to gain sales (Oh joked about a raspberry cheesecake kimchi).
“We need to change the narrative from appropriate to appreciation, celebration and preservation,” Wee adds.
Should a culture own a fermented food? Like Koreans just selling kimchi? The panel didn’t agree with that notion. But Samad points out a culture’s food is taken away from them when it’s exploited.
Through his nonprofit Loiter, Samad tackles the effects of systemic racial and economic injustice. He’s helping the residents of East Cleveland by developing successful, community-owned businesses – like Wake Robin Foods, a fermented food brand Samad purchased. Wake Robin will create ferments using produce from local, urban farmers.
“It’s black owned by black farmers so we can get some black dollars circulating in our culinary economy so they can have some freaking version of reparations for what has happened,” Samad says. “For me this is straight financial, who gets the opportunity to scale up.”
Samad says there’s an entire food system of African fermented foods “not being appropriated or appreciated in the U.S.” He hopes to disrupt the market.
“There’s an opportunity to introduce products that are owned by own by us, and by us I mean the African Diaspora,” he says.
Nuances in International Dining
Many American diners, though, are “still even at the elementary level of understanding the differences between different cultures in a diaspora,” says Kim, a former Top Contestant. “Asian cuisine is not just one monolithic cuisine.”
Some pan-Asian restaurants sell sushi (Japan) alongside kimchi (Korea) and pad thai (Vietnam), a “mish mash” of foods from different Asian countries. “We have to “continuously dig deeper to show there are nuances between the cultures,” she says.
It can be a difficult concept for chefs, too, who are trained in primarily French cuisine at culinary school. When Kim went through culinary school, a short quarter was focused on global foods, “the rest is basically Fresh cuisine.”
Ethnic food — especially Asian fare— the food is often stereotyped as cheap, “it’s a bamboo ceiling that you can’t charge high prices,” Kim says. Western diners often don’t take into account the differences in quality of ingredients or the creativity, care and time in cooking a dish. “We’ve been seen as cheaper because we’re Asian, so people question why our prices are so high.”
Chun, who grew up helping in the family’s Korean restaurant, began Mother-in-Law’s kimchi questioning why kimchi wasn’t in the ranks of specialty craft foods like fine cheese.
“From the perspective of western fermented foods, from cheeses to wines to craft beers, those are the only things people are willing to spend their money on,” Chun says. She adds she felt very proud to be the first kimchi in specialty grocery store chain Dean and Deluca.
In retail, many international food brands get placed in the ethnic aisle. But why does a sauce from an international region get placed in the ethnic aisle while spaghetti is placed in the sauces aisle?
“I’m torn over the concept of that existing,” Oh says. “We’ve been subjugated to the ethnic aisle aka the global ghetto where there’s no reason for it except the fact that I’m Korean.”
Cultural Regulatory Bias
Are there conflicts between tradition and science? Panelists shared how some health regulators don’t understand cultural ferments, causing batches of fermented food to be deemed unsafe for human consumption and thrown out.
Kim attempted to start a wholesale kimchi brand during the brand. Studies prove kimchi is made safely at a pH range of 4.2-4.5, but the regulator from the health department was told Kim legally had to keep kimchi under pH levels 3.3 to keep it safe.
“There’s so much confusion around it, I had to reach out to food scientists to clarify it, and we don’t want to get in trouble,” Kim says. She ended up cancelling the brand because securing regulatory approval was so difficult.
Oh adds: “I think there’s a big cultural bias when it comes to fermented foods. In the U.S., it’s either the food is 100% clean scrubbed and pasteurized or it’s not – and the not is dangerous and dirty. Where fermented foods predates modern electricity and modern science, there’s a reason why it’s safe because it works out that it’s a very safe food because, through the lactic acid fermentation, it lowers the pH and that helps preserve the food.”