Bon Appetit Pho Controversy: Enough With the Cultural Appropriation Nonsense

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By Nahema Marchal | 11:27 am, September 15, 2016

Yet another controversy has been cooking up over “who can say what, and why” when it comes to ethnic food. And this time, it’s not our beloved sushi that’s causing a stir but the Vietnamese soup “Pho.”

If you haven’t been following the spicy saga, here’s a water-downed version of what happened. On September 6th, culinary magazine Bon Appetit published a video titled “Pho Is the New Ramen” — which has since been deleted —  flanked with an article that read: “PSA: This Is How You Should Be Eating Pho.” In it, Philadelphia chef Tyler Atkins, owner of Philly’s Southeast Asian joint Stock, walks viewers through different ways to consume the soup and how he personally likes to eat it.

The piece makes a number of innocuous suggestions such as tasting the broth first before rushing to add siracha or hoisin sauce to it, both of which could overpower its delicate flavor.

But the video didn’t sit well with Internet’s delicate big mouths. Bon Appetit’s editors were immediately assailed by an avalanche of derogatory comments from Asian viewers who were appalled that a white dude dared to tell them how to use chopsticks properly. The backlash was actually so intense that the restaurant’s Yelp page was even flooded with negative 1-star reviews, calling the chef a new-day “Christopher Columbus” after the video went viral.

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On September 10th, the Bon Appetit editors issued an apology. They flagellated themselves for having relied on “a tired journalism trope, ‘so-and-so-is-the-new-so-and-so!,’ when comparing it to ramen, a Japanese noodle soup it has nothing in common with’ and for riffing on the tired Internet motif of ‘You’re doing it wrong!’”

“Who are we to tell you you’re doing something wrong?” they ask.

Well, you’re a culinary magazine for a start, and even though the chef is not Vietnamese, and has never claimed to be a pho authority (at no point does he say “this is the one and only way Asians consume this soup”), does that mean he has no right to talk about the soup? It‘s like telling Trevor Noah that he can’t make jokes about US politics because he is South African, or saying that a chef of Asian descent like Dai Shinozuka — who currently heads one of the most acclaimed French restaurant in Paris — has nothing to teach a Parisian like me about steak-frites.

Opening an “ethnic” restaurant is probably the purest testimony to just how much a chef enjoys, respects, and ultimately wants to promote another country’s cuisine by taking inspiration from it or making it their own.

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The editors were right: The article was poorly phrased and would sound condescending to anyone who hasn’t actually read it — which is probably the majority of people on Facebook. This speaks to the questionable editorial choice of telling “anyone” how to do “anything” with authority in the age of YouTube tutorials and ubiquitous experts.

But it’s unbearably hypocritical of any young urbanite who has ever eaten a Chicken Tikka Masala — which, I would remind everyone, doesn’t exist in India — or occasionally grabs Chinese take-away or a burrito at Chipotle to say that they should never eat at exotic restaurants run by “white guys.”

The very history of gastronomy is that of cultural appropriation. And in a globalized world, where “fusion food” is everywhere, they are many ways to construe and consume foods from other cultures. That won’t stop Vietnamese people from eating their “Pho” their own way.

So tone down the outrage, and slurp on!

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