“You are what you eat” or so goes the popular saying.
The meaning of food has been fraught territory for as long as humans began to eat. Beyond its material sense, the types of food we choose to eat or not eat are based on emotion, backed by irrationality which revolves around how we feel at any given time.
The food we eat constitutes a tool for self-definition and/or affiliation with a particular community. Food is often capital—whether social, cultural, or otherwise—and dialogue surrounding the politics of food is broached more than ever.
In Australia, as a result of widespread settlement and migration, various kinds of food from different cultures are now widely available. This diversity has become a signifier for multiculturalism in the country, celebrated in the form of initiatives like A Taste of Harmony, food and culture fairs (like the recent AsiaFest in Adelaide) and a petition urging for the existence of a statue honouring the dim sim in Melbourne. In 2010, a movement “Vindaloo against Violence” was started in the aftermath of racist attacks against Indian students, urging people to show solidarity by dining in Indian restaurants.
During discussions around multiculturalism, the topic of food often comes up. It suggests that food is a medium through which as a nation we can learn more about each other’s cultures, and promote racial harmony and understanding as a result. Food reviews and restaurant menus rave about the way an ethnicity’s traits are visualised through the way a dish is prepared, or claim to understand a culture through deep love of its food. People talk about ‘ethnic’ cuisine like it’s a special treat, an example of uncharted, exciting terrain about to be explored.
All of this is despite the fact that fish and chips are not regarded as ‘ethnic’ food. How then, do we begin to understand multiculturalism as it should be if Anglo-Saxon culture resides as default, and everything else deemed exotic and different? Are minority cultures only celebrated when they have integrated in a way that is approved by dominant consensus? Is acceptance conditional on providing an ‘exotic’ Friday night dinning experience?
Besides being celebrated, food is sometimes also a point of contention when it comes to describing people of colour. Derogatory slurs like “curry muncher”, ‘rice’ and ‘beaner’ have long been used. Certain foods become associated with certain ethnicities, some have only come into existence due to migration to the west (dim sims) or a long history of invasion and colonialism (curry). These kinds of culinary mythologies contribute to the idea of whiteness as status quo, and revolve around an axis where ‘ethnic’ food is either palatable or unpalatable, authentic or inauthentic.
As someone of Southeast/East Asian descent, I have had numerous questions about food posed to me. “Do you know how to make kimchi?” “What dipping sauce is best for dumplings?” “Where can I get the best bánh mì?” A lot of times, people are disappointed when I say no, or profess uncertainty. My experience with bánh mì has only been within the confines of Australia, and as far as I know, there are different kinds of jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) available, based on the region they are from. But what do I know—I’ve never properly been in China.
Even the Singaporean and Malaysian food I’m familiar with are cooked differently by various people, and have gone through myriad changes over decades. What I deem ‘authentic’ Hainanese chicken rice will be refuted by my mother, who claims she had her best ones in the 1970s in Singapore, which would be immediately dismissed by my granduncle, who ate his version before that, under another name, in Hainan Island, China.
By using the word ‘authentic’ to describe particular foods, ways of eating and methods of preparation, we create an ideal that draws a line between what is accepted and what isn’t. When chicken feet is considered too adventurous and dumplings ‘authentic’, consumers are showing that they are unwilling to stray too far from home.
The ‘ethnic’ food we see in Australia today is borne out of this inclination, where food from migrant cultures has been adapted to suit popular tastes. In Harvey Levenstein’s book Paradox of Plenty, he mentions that migrants to a white settler culture often divorce aspects of their native food which they regard as inferior and “also tend to marry colonial foods, flavours, or methods to foods that are of high status in the imperial centres.”
Authenticity is therefore socially constructed and built around white cultural expectations—not the idealised food from a particular country, but rather as a consequence of intervening years of colonialism, immigration and globalisation.
The appreciation and consumption of ‘ethnic’ food then emerges as an indicator for tolerance and cosmopolitanism in a multicultural society. Ideas bending towards a sense of racial harmony are made real through cultural transactions, which manifests as an explicit disavowal of racism. If someone says they like a good curry, surely they can’t be racist?
When we demonstrate to ourselves and others through food that we live in a post-race society, it unfortunately brings the dominant idea of whiteness back into focus. Food may be an important avenue for defining the self, but if ‘ethnic’ food is consumed for the sake of identity it separates cultural symbols from the culture that generates them, creating a distance between the food and the marginalised people it represents.
How are we able to talk about and celebrate cuisine from minority cultures and yet transcend these issues? There is nothing inherently flawed with enjoying and eating certain kinds of food, but to memorialise food along fixed lines won’t allow the attached cultures breathing space.
True multiculturalism can only be realised when there is mutual dialogue with people of colour: about ourselves, our lived experiences, and recognising our agency that affirms a sense of belonging in the wider national conversation.