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What Did You Do to That Kimchi?

In defense of Twitter backlashes against culinary appropriation.

Photo illustration: A woman holds a bowl of kimchi.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Kimchi shame is real. Whenever I visit my immigrant mother, she foists numerous jars of pickled cabbage on me, then immediately takes them back. “I don’t want your fridge to stink,” she says, presumably protecting my white husband’s sense of smell, even though he loves Korean food and, as a Jewish man, sees our cultures’ shared fondness for brined piquant cabbage as a neat point of convergence. I keep telling her that Korean cuisine is trendy now—bibimbap is the new pad thai and every week gochujang threatens to supplant Sriracha—but a lifelong habit of playing defense dies hard, especially when, as an immigrant, you’re constantly told you’re too much. But in a crowded marketplace, excess can be an asset. Which is how we come to pineapple kimchi.

Trendiness takes its toll. On Tuesday, a Twitter user named Tony Choi posted a series of screencaps from a BuzzFeed video called “Americans Try Customizable Kimchi,” captioning them, “Oh no,” “No, no, nooooo,” and “Who does this.” The last of which was in reference to a can of kimchi topped with gold foil; other versions in the video were made with similarly nontraditional ingredients like mango, kiwi, and pineapple. The dishes, made by a purveyor called Kind People Kimchi, offer “the tastes of Korea for an American sensibility,” according to the company’s crowd-funding page. Noah Cho, a teacher and writer who’s become a pre-eminent voice of Korean American Food Twitter (disclosure: he’s a friend), piled on to side-eye Kind People’s less-than-authentic ingredients: “Yes, yes, my halmoni [grandma] also used *squints* spirulina, cactus honey, and green tea powder, yes, just like in the old country.” For a younger generation, private shame about kimchi has given way to public outrage.

Foodieism undoubtedly crosses all demographic lines, but food writing, and thus taste-making, remains an overwhelmingly white profession (like the rest of media). Without the cultural context, white writers (and white chefs) sometimes get it wrong, or at least not-quite-right. The New York Times amended a dispatch about bubble tea last summer after a description of boba balls as “blobs” drew ire. A year before that, Bon Appétit apologized for a since-deleted video that facilely compared pho to ramen, and for another video (also deleted) in which a white writer explained (apparently wrongly) “this is how you should be eating pho.” Both backpedals took place after widespread social-media backlash, without which the kind of geographically scattered but ideologically aligned networks that mount such campaigns likely wouldn’t exist.

Cho is as surprised as anyone that his Twitter following is based partly on his “food outrage.” But it’s no mystery why: Shaking our collective heads at outsiders getting aspects of our cultures wrong has practically become an internet pastime. In an email interview, Cho said he views his complaints about new interpretations of Korean cuisine and the outsize press attention they draw when they’re prepared by white chefs as a way of “calling out to other Koreans out there to join me in my despair.” (Some of those chefs enjoy the cultural cachet to charge way more than, say, your local Korean mom-and-pop restaurant would or could. For the record, Kind People Kimchi boasts a Korean American CEO.) “Now that Korean food has really taken off,” Cho added, “it’s been enraging to see the people that used to smirk and turn their noses up at Korean food start to breathlessly advocate the probiotic advantages of kimchi at farmers markets. It’s nice to find others out there that think $30 kimchi in twee packaging is dumb too.”

Korean Americans, of course, are hardly exceptional in our pique at outsiders’ ignorance about our food. “I have a lot of mutual followers on Twitter that are from all parts of the world that get irritated when white chefs suddenly discover their foods,” Cho said. “Filipino food has been pushed as the next big thing for years now, and it seems like it’s finally gaining traction. I’ve seen a lot of tweets from people dreading the advent of mason jar adobo.”

I can’t ever imagine ordering a $15 plate of pickled who-knows-what at an upscale New American eatery. (One of the reasons why Americanized Korean food is so unconvincing is that it incorporates the same five vegetables offered at every lunch counter, as opposed to the stunning array of native Asian flora that you’d find, in, say, any major Korean American supermarket.) But as Korean cuisine has become A Thing, I’ve learned to simply roll my eyes—and occasionally clap back—at reviews like this one, in which a white food writer singles out a kimchi restaurant in a city full of them because the version it sells is “barely spicy,” as if that’s a good thing. I know more about Korean food than pretty much any non-Korean, and I don’t mind throwing that fact in people’s faces online.

Of course, authenticity policing is probably a losing battle, even if organized internet campaigns targeting appropriators, like the one in Portland, Oregon, last year that followed the dissemination of a Google Doc naming white-owned “ethnic” restaurants, can take out the occasional business. And these ad-hoc crusades don’t take into account the fact that all cuisines are in constant flux anyway and that it’s not just white chefs, but those of color, too, who are hybridizing and innovating. Overall, though, I find these microcosmic backlashes a positive use of public shaming. Guarding cultural borders can be an edifying community-building exercise. Cultures are often slippery at the edges, but they’re also lifelines that inform who we are and where we come from. Just because they’re always changing doesn’t mean there are no right or wrong details. And when others do get it wrong, we can comfort one another with a few words of affirmation on Twitter.

The question is: Will anyone outside of Korean American Food Twitter listen? Twitter communities are usually insider-y groups that anyone can read or respond to. Many users talk to their friends and allies as such, which can translate to cultural or linguistic shorthand and a natural disregard for whether outsiders feel included in the conversation. That’s fine. Only the foolhardiest would step up to Black Twitter, for example, and demand that it be more welcoming to non–African Americans. Cho told me that he hopes that “some of these companies and chefs that aren’t Korean messing with Korean food will take at least a second to think about what this food actually means to those of us that grew up eating it and having it culturally ingrained into our lives.” I agree with that goal in theory, but the best we can probably hope for is to gripe in peace. We’ve been accommodating long enough. Any chef or writer receptive to our culinary ideas should be able to deal with the mild heat of our annoyance.