What is colonialism and how does it relate to food?
“Colonialism” is defined as “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting or benefitting from it economically.” This has happened across countries, continents, and centuries—Spain in the Americas, Great Britain in India, and Japan in Korea, to name just a few.
But colonialism isn’t just limited to high school history textbooks; it’s shaped (and continues to shape) our social, economic, and food systems. Indeed, food is one big way Spanish colonists established political control for centuries—through theirs and Indigenous peoples’ stomachs. On historian Rebecca Earle’s The Body of the Conquistador, professor Jaqueline Holler writes that “while Indigenous peoples’ moderation was often admired … many Spaniards viewed Indigenous bodies as essentially debilitated by environment,” and so, “ensuring settlers’ access to the elements of a proper European diet became a colonial obsession.” In other words, colonists were afraid not only that the Indigenization of their diets would make them weaker, but also that it would have Indigenized them.
By way of a more modern example, when a non-Chinese person opens a “Chinese restaurant,” staffs it with non-Chinese people, and benefits from it economically—that can also be interpreted as colonialism. Even if the chef in question has traveled extensively through Asia, knows their way around a wok, and knows how to say “wood ear mushroom” in Mandarin, it’s hard for a Chinese-American diner to really enjoy the General Tso’s cauliflower without questioning the motive behind it. After all, it’s a fine line between appreciation and appropriation, respect and fetishization, celebration and profit.
It might seem flippant—or, as some critics say, “overly sensitive”—to consider food as an instrument wielded in the name of colonization, let alone compare the opening of a Chinese restaurant to colonization. But food, and what it represents, is a real and powerful symbol in delineating culture, identity, and values. Chefs and restaurateurs owe it to their diners to serve food—whether traditional or modernized—that’s cooked well, not fetishized or exoticized in any way. Which is not to say all sweet and sour revamps are inherently bad—gobi manchurian (sweet-sticky fried cauliflower) is a hallmarked Indo-Chinese dish—but it’s all about establishing context and approaching with intent of respect. Otherwise, it’s hard for another culture’s food (and by proxy, its people) to be seen as more than a “bizarre” thing to subjugate, if that is how it is continually presented.
In light of this, you might sympathize with the pursuit of the most authentic (“of undisputed origin, genuine”) this or that, as an opposition to dilution and misappropriation. But the idea of “authenticity” suggests one institution (or individual) has the power to define what is authentic while others do not. It can be dangerous in that way.
So what is authenticity in food?
Let’s say there are two Japanese people living in Chicago. One has recently immigrated from Hokkaido, while the other has recently moved from Oahu. Both will have differing views of what “authentic” Japanese food looks and tastes like. And so, if a third person encounters the first person’s view, their collective understanding of “authentic Japanese food” now lacks the second person’s view. “Authentic” cuisine is just a relative descriptor—geopolitical borders shift, and those borders too are membranous. What is authentic to a cuisine or culture now may not be tomorrow. Worth pursuing instead is a kind of syncretism in food—where all relevant voices shine forth equally and truthfully. Authenticity, in other words, is not black or white, but an ever-evolving shade of gray.
Boba, for example, is considered an authentic Taiwanese phenomenon, but its cultural origins are far murkier. The popular drink, as Andrew Chau and Bin Chen record in their forthcoming cookbook, came about only because British colonists in Hong Kong put milk and sugar into Chinese teas, and then that milky tea got exported to Taiwan, where tapioca balls were added.
Budae jjigae, or “Korean army stew,” is another example. Now a mainstay at Korean restaurants, its origin and cultural significance is complex. On one hand, sociology professor Grace Cho writes that budae-jjigae is “a culinary travesty and an iconic symbol of U.S. imperialism,” a dish that emerged only out of American military intervention during the Korean War and is popular “among young people who have little cultural memory of the stew’s dark past.” But for others, like food writer and journalist Grace Moon, Korean army stew tells the story of her grandmother’s ultimate survival of a brutal war. “Part of me thinks honoring my grandmother’s life means boycotting budae jjigae,” she writes. “But that’d be ignoring history.”
These are foods with disputed (and complicated) origins, histories, and cultures, but that makes them no less genuine nor worth studying. Similarly, assimilation cuisine—the ways immigrants adapt cooking in their new home—is no less authentic. Sliced-bread banh mi, tater tots in curry gravy, and hard shell berbere Bolognese tacos, are just a few of the many assimilation foods that keep immigrants tethered to their home selves. But it’s the fact that immigrants—or, those possessing specific taste memories—are making these tweaks and changes that’s significant; they are the ones recreating the dishes of their home with what they have.
Three misconceptions about colonialism in food (and what you can do about it)
• Food can only be cooked by those of that culture. Culture, history, and cuisine can be taught and adopted sensitively, compassionately, and respectfully. But, when profit is involved—especially at the sake of the “colonized” culture—it can be reminiscent of colonialism. There is no oneright formula for approaching this, but instead, let’s ask why this person is an authority on the cuisine; if they’re not, who/what are they turning to to learn? Is the culture/cuisine the person is engaging with benefitting from their work in any way? The benefit need not always be financial—there’s value in seeing your seemingly individual experience resonate so deeply with another.
• Authenticity is a black-and-white, hermetically sealed concept. “How much of what we eat is and should be collective habitual practice and how much should be the domain of individual consciousness and rationality?” poses sociologist Krishnendu Ray. This question brings up a good point, and again, there is no one easy answer. As with the example of Japanese food and the three people above, authenticity’s definition differs from person to person, across time and space—deeming one person’s experience and understanding to be most authentic, necessarily discounts another’s. What’s important, at the end of the day, is that we have empathy, make a real effort to listen and ask questions, and be willing to have messy conversations.
• All cross-cultural exchange is exploitative. To dismiss any kind of cross-cultural reappropriation in our food would be unrealistic. Take the unique case of McDonald’s in Hong Kong, in which the fast food corporation studied cultural practices, and used those insights to inform their menu in the new market of Hong Kong. “Contrary to corporate goals [of providing their full menu—breakfast, lunch, and dinner] … McDonald’s entered the Hong Kong market as a purveyor of snacks,” not meals, which would have “command[ed] a great[er] deal of time or money from customers,” anthropologist James Watson writes.
But because McDonald’s catered to Cantonese urbanites’ socio-culinary practice of meeting together over cheap, fast siu sikh (“small eats”), its basic menu (presented as “snacks”) successfully became a natural part of Hong Kong’s culinary fabric, without aiming to overtake it with their own classics. The Big Mac does not hold a candle to “blue crab and bean curd soup laced with ginger,” or “red snapper braised in soy sauce with green onions,” or “crackling roast piglet”—all dishes Mr. Man, Watson’s neighbor recounted in great detail 50 years after the fact. “We are Cantonese,” Mr. Man would proclaim whenever they sat down to eat together. “We have the best food in the world.”
In this instance, locals succeeded in taking what they wanted and needed from the cultural exchange (snacks) without fear of being Westernized—from a massive, multinational corporation often criticized for capitalistic, exploitative practices, at that.
Food for thought
This exploration is, by no means, to be taken as a comprehensive discussion of colonialism and culinary appropriation. There are many others out there doing deeper dives on the relation between food and race and power; these are just a few:
• Krishnendu Ray’s The Ethnic Restauranteur and The Migrant’s Table
• Anne Mendelson’s Chow Chop Suey
• Korsha Wilson’s A Critic for all Seasons
• Jennifer LeMesurier’s Uptaking Race: Genre, MSG, and Chinese Dinner
• Soleil Ho and Zahir Janmohamed’s Racist Sandwich Podcast