ASIAN 258: Mangle the Recipe, A Moral Conundrum?
Updated: Jan 19
January 6, 2021 was supposed to be another gloomy morning in Ann Arbor. At about 9 am, I awoke, still groggy from a night of wrestling Sofía to sleep. I crept downstairs to the kitchen and started the coffee. As I waited for the caffeine to coarse through my veins and vivify my brain, I reached for my phone and scanned Twitter.
That morning, something had caught my attention. It was not the images of crowds breaching the Capitol. That would not happen for another four hours. It was something more mundane: an uncharacteristically sharp comment from a food scholar who I admire.
“God this is awful,” he wrote.
I did a double take. Had I misread the line in a stupor? No, I had it right and proceeded to click on the thread. Within minutes, I had secured my spot in the chorus.
What on earth had set us off?
Apparently, it was an essay, “A Kitchen Resolution Worth Making; Follow the Recipe Exactly,” published two days before by Genevieve Ko, New York Times food writer.
Last month, she had successfully replicated a dish by the decolonial food anthropologist and feminist chef, Claudia Serrato: Carne con chili rojo (meat with red chilis). While preparing this Mexican staple, Ko had found herself, a professionally trained chef, tested. She had been tempted to switch out chicken stock for the vegetable broth and raise the oven temperature. But she resisted and followed “the instructions to the letter.”
Ko wants us to know this would be her new way of doing things going forward.
Her New Year’s resolution was motivated by more than a desire for superb food, though she was not disappointed. “It was one of the best dishes I prepared all year”: “a chunk roast braised tender,” one that “collapsed under my fork, readily shredding into fine threads to soak up flame-red sauce fruity and hot with dried chilis.”
Instead, Ko had pulled off something else. She had transcended the limitations of being “an armchair traveler or restaurant diner.” She had become an “active participant,” one that challenged her culinary framework and kept her moving “towards a more expansive and equitable worldview.” This led her to realize that she could suspend “her own assumptions, culinary and otherwise,” excise “unconscious bias,” and embraced another person's—Claudia Serrato’s – “background and culture.”
Sticking to the recipe, in other words, had made Ko a better person.
I was moved reading Ko’s words. And I repeated to myself. She had overcome the urge to reduce the sugar.
I was so moved that I got out my bakeware and started preparing my daughter’s vegan peanut butter cookies, following the recipes to the T. At the last moment, however, my wayward tendencies overtook me. I added milk to the vegan recipe and reduced the amount of sugar, substituting molasses. This predictably threw off the proportions of dry and wet, so I found myself adding more and more whole wheat flour. The color of the peanut butter cookie was now the wrong hue. Having gone so far down this road, I decided to see the experiment all the way through. I ditched the fork used to imprint the cookies and reached for the mooncake mold stashed in the drawer, and punctured every one of my peanut butter monstrosities with the mold. Twelve times and then posted my act of defiance on Twitter.
So why didn’t I just listen to Ko? After all, she has a job that I would kill for. She writes for the New York Times for a living and works with top trade presses, testing recipes. She has trained with the very finest chefs in the world, and even attended Yale. I imagine her kitchen is nicer than mine.
I also have zero problem with sticking to recipes. I often do it, especially when I am trying to figure out what something is. Indeed, I have discovered that some baked goods – the French macaron shell, for example – don’t tolerate improvisation. I also dream nightly about the food as it tastes in Asia. There are even days where I strive to recreate the precise textures and flavors of a specific place for my family.
So why was I roused? I have seen one version of this controversy after another. It is now everywhere, even now: in a time when a record number of restaurants have failed, restaurant workers have struggled, meat packers are dying, and when 28% of households with children are food insecure. This argument asserts itself everywhere in discussions about Asian food, and it haunts our ability to enjoy our Philadelphia Rolls out in the open. You’ll see.
This is a controversy also where people argue about who has the right to make – and ultimately change – not only “Asian food,” but all ethnic cuisine. Combatants insist that if the dish isn’t exactly like it is in Asia, we shouldn’t presume to call it Asian – especially if you aren’t from that part of Asia. Say Asian inspired.
2019 saw a myriad of these controversies. Gordon Ramsay got heat for opening an uninspiring Chinese restaurant in London with tacky décor. Arielle and Lee Haspel found themselves in hot water for their gluten-free and tone-deaf rendition of classic Chinese American takeout. Most recently, a few cooks in Chicago have gotten rough– on Instagram. Top Chef and Michigan alumnus Stephanie Izard made the mistake of preparing grilled beef with cilantro and mint, and had the gall to refer to it as bibimbap. The move enraged Won Kim, a fellow chef in Chicago. How dare she fail to properly “contextualize” her actions in her Instagram post? Her critics charge that she should be clear that her dish wasn’t really Korean. She should have found a different word. (By the way, when did Insta become the place for academic dissertations?)
But Izard was guilty of far more than misspeaking. No one used the word, but commentators could see the federal case taking shape. Izard had committed cultural appropriation.
What is cultural appropriation? The BBC defines it inelegantly in the following way:
“[W]hen a tradition, such as clothing or a hairstyle, is taken from a culture and used in a different way. It can offend people when people do this without making it clear where the traditions come from, or when they don't acknowledge how important they are to certain cultures. This can make some people feel as if their culture is not being respected.”
Other people tack on conditions, to differentiate cultural appropriation from mere cultural borrowing. Cultural appropriation involves power. The appropriator is usually a member of a dominant group. There may be a financial dimension, or profiteering.
Take Izard. As a member of a dominant group, she had taken someone else’s food and profited, scoring coveted spots where she sold tacos and opening “reasonably authentic” Asian restaurants like Duck Duck Goat. For Kim, the episode drove home the deep inequalities in the food world. Not only do minority chefs lack the opportunities afforded by their white counterparts in America, but they must watch as those counterparts misrepresent, or even desecrate, their cuisine. By pairing the beef with the wrong plants, Izard had mangled the recipe for bibimpap – and Korean culture -- beyond recognition.
To be sure, I agree with Kim, to a point. I would like to see more opportunities for non-white cooks. I also want Asian food to get the recognition it deserves (wouldn’t it be cool, for example, if the French Laundry hired a Sichuanese chef to make hot pot?). But is it a crime in itself to alter, or even mangle, a recipe? Or consider the flip side of the equation. Is it politically virtuous to hew to the recipe?
This class will make a case for mangled recipes: not that is either right or wrong, or that it leads to good or bad tasting food. Instead, I will argue that there really isn’t anything aberrant about mangling, mislabeling, or appropriating a recipe from a different culture. It's been happening for thousands of years.
Our class will thus explore the vast world of mangled recipes. Some of them will entice you. Picture the egg custard tarts at dim sum. If you have ever traveled to Lisbon, you’ll realize that this staple of my childhood was not a carbon copy of its Portuguese ancestor. Probably a poor imitation of the splendid original.
Others, however, may repel you: my daughter’s version of shortbread (yes, that’s a lot of blue food coloring).
You can decide for yourself whether you are ready to dish out a lot of dough for gold dusted har gow with truffle (click on the link if you dare).
As we will see, the line between a proper culinary homage and mangling is murky. Cooks of the past had few qualms about substituting ingredients or sources of heat. I wish I could say that food fusions arose in the past mostly from people coming together in amorous connections, respectful exchanges, or trade. But food history is pure Hollywood: gore and opportunism.
At the end of the day, I hope you’ll mangle a few recipes. I have done my share. Check out my very first attempt at making dumplings from scratch (2014). Yes, I know, it looks like an empanada. My cousin, who owns a Chinese takeout restaurant, said as much. The good news is that I have gotten better. Despite my progress, I still feel no compunction to stick to any recipe. Like my Cantonese ancestors, who found themselves cooking Chinese in tropical Malaya, I improvise. I’ve made a habit of adding turmeric to the dough for color and a punchier flavor: so far, no complaints, even from Sofi.
How it started... How it's going...
Have thoughts about culinary or cultural appropriation? Questions about the use of terms: some of pics and the links? Tales of your attempts to make recipes that ended in inglorious defeat or heavenly pleasure?
You know what to do: go to Yellow Dig (after you have clicked on the Assignment) and find your inner food pundit. Next week, we’ll have a chance to spar more, when we get to the Great Noodle Debate.