Appropriation and Assimilation and Authorization, Oh My!

“Cultural appreciation is when you show your work and show your relationship to it as opposed to taking ownership over it without citing your sources.” –Ruth Tam

Appropriation: The action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

Assimilation: The process of adapting/adjusting to the culture of a group.

Authorization: Official permission or approval.

2016. It was a simpler time wasn’t it? A time when we still held out hope for the elections in the good ‘ol US of A. Oh to be young and naïve….to be full of hope and life. Those were the days.

In the midst of the elections in 2016 we got this little gem: 

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But, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. The reason I brought that video and subsequent meme up is because of the response to it. I remember when this video came out of the supposed Latinos for Trump. What an oxymoron am I right? Well, it surprised me that racists actually held this as a legitimate fear. While the other half of America suddenly frothed and watered at the mouth at the prospect of a taco truck on every corner. What a dream. Right?

I will actually be discussing my reviews of 5 articles that pertain to a specific subject matter: Mexican fusion food and appropriation here in the United States of America. 

We all know that Americans just LOVE their Taco Tuesday. That and Cinco de Mayo.

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And that’s all well and good. Well, it would be if they actually respected the Mexican culture and its food. They might enjoy eating it but do they really care about the people who prepare it for them? Do they even care what Cinco de Mayo is? Probably not. They probably don’t know that the real day of Mexican Independence is September 16 (Just one day after El Salvador!) 

To enjoy food from another culture you should respect it. If you are going to cook food of another culture you should know: there is a VERY fine line between appreciation and appropriation. 

Whenever an American chef or whoever tries to make it in the restaurant business via food truck or physical restaurant there is typically backlash. People scream “Appropriation!” and the owners will typically feign ignorance and defend themselves as innocent of wrongdoing. 

Numero Uno: 

Japanese-Mexican Fusion Food

Is Toronto’s famous sushi burrito a symbol of cultural appropriation? by Sarah Chew (edited by Emerald Bensadoun)

I knew that Mexican sushi was a thing because my friend Nereida, who is Mexican, sometimes visits her older sister down there because she is going to medical school there. She once sent me a picture of Mexican sushi. I was surprised. It was huge! At least twice as big as sushi here! 

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Now, sushi burritos I was unfamiliar with. Ironically Nereida and another friend of hers who is Mexican-American once sent me a picture of them eating one in NYC! A sushi burrito! Here!

I didn’t really consider it to be appropriation. Mostly because if my friend, who was BORN in Mexico, (came here when she was 8) thought it was cool to eat then who am I to say anything about it? That isn’t my culture. If it’s cool with her, it’s cool with me. 

It’s understandable to want to be a gatekeeper of sorts with your culture. You want to protect it from the “undeserving” or those who you feel would mistreat it. You want to shield it from those who would make a mockery something you might have grown up in. You wouldn’t want someone else to take credit for your ancestors’ recipes. One person that was mentioned was Sarah B. Hood, member of Culinary Historians of Canada, and I found her point of view on the subject fascinating:

It is in the nature of food to be shared, and it’s in the nature of food to change. In most cases, even a home cook who cooks the same meal over and over again is likely to try new things every time they make a dish, (Hood)

Hood doesn’t think it’s possible for a culture to own a dish, and she uses spaghetti as an example.

I would say that the Italians of the world don’t own spaghetti — I mean, after all, the noodles came from China, originally. It didn’t originate in Italy…Tomatoes didn’t come to Italy until after European contact with Mexico and South America… (Hood)

She goes on to say that the origins of “traditional foods” are so diverse that “it’s almost impossible to establish what is authentic of a dish, and therefore [it’s] almost impossible to appropriate.”

I find it interesting for her to say this because though she may say and think this, I believe, that despite the fact that food and ingredients have moved or shifted around the globe it doesn’t change the fact that if you think about tacos you think of Mexico. Or if you think of Italian staples you think of pasta or pizza. If you think of Chinese food you picture noodles and dumplings. These foods are clearly inherently unique to the food culture of these places. 

One of the best comments, I think, comes after Sarah Hood.

Ruth Tam, a Washington-based writer, believes that it is possible to appropriate food from a culture. She wrote a Washington Post piece entitled “how it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy” which was based on her personal feelings in reaction to the rise of Asian food in American restaurants.

Her comments hit it out of the park and perfectly explained cultural appropriation.

I asked her where the lines were between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation of food. She said it all went back to giving acknowledgement to the cultures and techniques chefs source their food from.

“If you take food and you say, ‘Here it is, this is all my work,’ and you don’t explain where you got it from or what techniques are being used, then it verges on cultural appropriation — especially if you get capital for that,” (Tam)

She continued on to say, “If you get funding for the restaurant, if you get press for that restaurant and if you get attention because you happen to be someone who’s outside of that culture, then it verges on cultural appropriation.

The difference, from what I’m getting from this quote, is that the line of appropriation and appreciation can be thin and blurry if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can eat Chinese food and enjoy it but that doesn’t mean you get to claim it as your own. You can appreciate and admire the struggles of immigrants without silencing their voices.

Numero Dos:

Korean-Mexican Fusion Food

Korean-Mexican food hits Lower Manhattan by Heeshook Choi (translated from Korean)

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Though this article is almost a decade old (having been written and published in 2012) I like it because much like Japanese-Mexican fusion there is a smooth mixture of the Mexican and Asian cuisines. Even though I myself have never encountered Korean-Mexican food does not mean it isn’t out there. (Pictured above is a Kimchi Taco)

“Diners now have access to a variety of Korean fast foods like Bulgogi Kimchi tacos and burritos, Kimchi-bacon fried rice, Kim-cheese-steak, and BBQ nachos.”

As the first Korean takeout in the New York area, we wanted to differentiate ourselves from regular taco places by highlighting that we make Korean tacos and we used the word ‘tako’ instead of ‘taco’ in the name of the store,” said Raymond Cho, co-owner of Kortako. “Our strength is that we sell the new concept of healthy fast food at the same place so that people know where to come for Korean fast food all the time. That is quite a difference from food trucks that move around.

True to form all of the meat seasonings at Kortako are made in the classic Korean style. Bulgogi mayo, mixed Bulgogi seasoning with mayonnaise, is one of the popular dressings for sandwiches. Since it’s opening (as of 2012) they have gotten around 200-250 customers visiting the shop every day and perhaps unsurprisingly, or surprisingly, 95% of the clientele is non-Korean, with strong ethnic diversity.

Numero Tres:

Indo-Mexican Fusion Food

Taco Mahal: A New York-based Eatery That Dishes Out Indo-Mexican Food with Flair by Sparshita Saxena

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I actually made an instagram post about Taco Mahal. The fusion of Indian and Mexican food by Danikkah Josan who was born to an Indian father and a Puerto Rican mother.

“The name of the restaurant, obviously, alludes to one of the most loved Mexican comfort food – tacos – and India’s emblem of love and peace, the Taj Mahal.

The menu here looks short yet bristled with excitement. You are given a choice of breads – naan or roti; you can then go on and choose your favourite stuffing ranging from Chicken Tikka Masala, Lamb Kebab, Chicken Curry, Lamb Curry and Veggie of the Day. Also try what is lovingly call dal-chawal, papad with chutney and gulam jamun as the quintessential and best way to conclude a hearty Indian meal. There is masala chaias well for those who simply can’t miss their dose of caffeine.

I hesitate to call this appropriation because even though Danikkah is Puerto Rican/Indian with a restaurant based on Mexican/Indian fusion food she is still a Latina. And how many Mexican restaurants only have Mexican workers? They may have Colombians or Ecuadorians in the kitchen for all we know. Also, there is the Indian aspect that is very much her culture. Plus, the food is REALLY good. I highly recommend it. 10/10. 

Numero Cuatro:

Chinese-Mexican Fusion Food

The Chinese-Mexican Cuisine Born of U.S Prejudice and The Innovative Chinese Food Coming Out of a Mexican Border Town

“It’s not just on the plate where cultures combine. In the Fortune Garden kitchen, the cooks speak to each other in Cantonese. The waiters speak Spanish and English.”

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The egg roll at El Dragon in Mexicali, Mexico, is a Chinese-Mexican-American combo: shrimp, cilantro, and cream cheese.

Spurred by anti-Chinese laborer sentiment among American workers, the 1882 law banned immigrants from China from entering the U.S. Tens of thousands went to Cuba, South America and Mexico instead. Many settled along the U.S.-Mexico border, becoming grocers, merchants and restaurant owners. Others managed to cross illegally and make lives in the U.S., including in Imperial County.

“The Mexicali palate is what I like to call the four C’s: cerveza (beer), carne (meat), camarones (seafood) and Chinese,”

As someone who saw countless Asian people in Europe, Indian and Chinese, I’m not at all surprised they went to Mexico as well. I remember being quite shocked as I walked into a thrift store in Sevilla and the owner, a Chinese woman, speaking to me in Spanish. Accent and all. I love that like the Chinese people in my area who own Chinese restaurants these people were able to find solace and refuge. I myself have never had Chinese-Mexican food but I’m willing to try! Never say never, right?

Numero Cinco:

Middle-Eastern-Mexican Fusion Food

SHAWARMA

Sharwarma: Taco al pastor’s culinary ancestor by Katy Watson for BBC Mexico and Central America

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The one difference – and it is a big one – is that now these tacos are made with pork, not lamb. Not something you would ever see in the Middle East.

“They were trying to do shawarma with lamb but here in Mexico we don’t eat that meat,” says Alejandro Escalante, the author of TACOPEDIA, an encyclopaedia on tacos.

“People didn’t like it so they tried it with beef and it didn’t work out. Finally pork got on this vertical grill and it turned out to be great.”

The meat changed, but Arabic bread was still being used. That eventually evolved too, with traditional corn tortillas being introduced.

There is a history of Middle Eastern/Mexican food. All of these fusion foods have respect there. These foods show how to make food and still give credit/respect to the originators. Appropriation is not something I found within the making of these fusion foods. That’s all anyone wants when someone who isn’t of their culture makes the food of their culture. Have respect for the people and appreciation of the culture. Mexican food and fusion food is clearly very popular. Mexican food has become synonymous with Americana. To be American is to enjoy eating Mexican food especially in California, Texas*, and to a lesser extent New York City. It is in our television and movies. We consume it with gusto. As I have hyperlinked in Shawarma it was even in The Avengers (2012). Whether or not you believe fusion food is appropriation there is one thing that I know for certain: It isn’t going away. It has made a place for itself in history. It’s staying.

*Texas is more connected with Tex-Mex and not directly Mexican food.

Works Cited

Chew, Sarah. “Is Toronto’s Famous Sushi Burrito a Symbol of Cultural Appropriation?” Edited by Emerald Bensadoun, CanCulture, 13 February 2018.

Choi, Heeshook. “Korean-Mexican Fusion Hits Lower Manhattan.” Voices of NY: Showcasing the Best of the Community and Ethnic Media, 10 January 2012.

Elder, Adam. “The Innovative Chinese Food Coming Out of a Mexican Border Town.” Munchies, Vice, 26 April 2017.

Morehouse, Lisa. “The Chinese-Mexican Cuisine Born Of U.S. Prejudice.” The Salt: What’s on Your Plate, NPR, 16 April 2015.

Watson, Katy. “Sharwarma: Taco Al Pastor’s Culinary Ancestor.” BBC News, BBC, 2 September 2015.

Sanders, Sam. “#MemeOfTheWeek: Taco Trucks On Every Corner.” Meme of the Week, NPR, 2 September 2016.

Saxena, Sparshita. “Taco Mahal: A New York-Based Eatery That Dishes Out Indo-Mexican Food with Flair.” NDTV Food, 6 May 2017.

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