When White People Cook Asian Food

 

About 10 years back I developed a policy that governed what I ordered while eating out. I’ve eased up on it somewhat, yet it has served me well and has a sound basis in experience. It is this:

Don’t order Asian food in any restaurant unless it’s cooked by an Asian person of that specific background.

I decided on this policy after having too many bad meals that were the result of non-Asians thinking they could pull off Asian cuisine. You know those sorts of cafes and bistros whose menus contain primarily pasta and steak and other European things, but also try their hand at Thai green curry. Take a tip from me – the pasta and steak will be passable or better, the curry will almost certainly not. It’s sad to say, but some of these venues which dip their toe into Asian cooking cannot even cook rice properly.

Now, what I’ve said possibly sounds a bit racist, and yeah, it probably is. Sure, as a general rule, people are best suited to cooking the food that they have grown up with and with which they are most familiar. Yet, logically we should also expect that someone can immerse themselves in a different cuisine and learn to make it to the same level as someone born into that culinary tradition. I myself am a pretty decent cook, and a typical week’s meals being churned out in my home kitchen might well include Indian, Italian, Greek, Russian, Lebanese and Indonesian dishes.

But in practice, when white chefs try to do Asian food, there is often something missing. The balance of flavours is slightly out; it’s a bit like someone’s idea of what Asian food is, rather than actually being Asian food. The punchier aspects of Asian cuisine – garlic, chilli, fish sauce, shrimp paste, lime and so on – are muted, while the sugary elements are often too strong.

This is changing, of course, and there are an increasing number of white Australian chefs who have embraced Asian cuisine. Indeed, the world’s first Thai restaurant to win a Michelin star was not in Bangkok but in London; Nahm, run by Australian chef David Thompson. Since then, Copenhagen’s Kiin Kiin, with a kitchen run by someone with the very un-Thai name of Henrik Yde-Andersen, also won a Michelin star.

But how much does the acclaim that greets these white exponents of Asian food truly reflect their mastery of that cuisine? Could it be more a reflection of the Western food establishment failing to really “get” Asian food? This is not to say that someone like David Thompson doesn’t know his stuff, and his restaurant and recent book are by all accounts very good. But I’m sure it will rankle with many Thais to hear Thompson’s stated aim to bring back authenticity to Thai cuisine and halt the decay that he says afflicts it. Is he like Sam Worthington’s character in the movie Avatar, who went “native” with the Na’vi people and ended up becoming the “chosen one” who would save the exotic but naïve and unsophisticated Na’vi from their terrible fate.

And it’s hard to shake the impression that the Western World, or at least some elements of it, can only truly laud Asian food when it is done by a white interpreter. Perhaps it recalls the way that Elvis and the Rolling Stones garner so much more adoration than the black R&B artists they imitated. Joss Stone and Amy Winehouse sold millions of records for being young white women who sounded like old black women… except that actual old black women like Sharon Jones never get to shift anything like the same amount of units.

In part, I’m sure it reflects the Western culinary establishment’s fixation with fine-dining aesthetics; it is perhaps a world that chefs trained in a Western tradition are better equipped to traverse. By contrast, Asian foodies often have their own preoccupation with powerful flavours and “authenticity”, and as such will rise early to travel across town to eat one particular dish at a hawker stall next to an open drain, because it satisfies them in a way that no amount of oversized white plates and matching wine lists can.

It is only natural that white Australian food writers and consumers appreciate Asian food through a Westernised lens. But if an appreciation is going to be any more than skin deep, consideration must be given to how Asians appreciate their own food. This is not to say that there is one Asian aesthetic, or that Asians only appreciate food in one way. But can a restaurant run by a white chef specialising in Thai cuisine be considered the world’s greatest Thai restaurant if Thai people don’t particularly care to eat there?

Because some of Melbourne’s best known Asian restaurants (Thai ones in particular) are headed by non-Thai chefs – Martin Boetz at Long Grain, and Teage Ezard at Gingerboy , while Jacques Reymond has long garnered acclaim for his fusion of French and East Asian techniques at his eponymous establishment. And all power to them, but when Asian food is popularised on the star power of white chefs, something doesn’t quite sit right. A good chef is still a good chef; I’d probably rather have Asian food cooked by a good non-Asian chef than a bad Asian chef. But I’m sure there are a host of very good Asian chefs who are not getting the praise they might deserve.

Author: Eurasian Sensation

They also call me Chris. I'm a community worker and educator, and I'm interested in things. To observe me in my natural environment... try eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com.

10 thoughts on “When White People Cook Asian Food”

  1. My family has a saying: “If you walk past a Chinese/Japanese/Thai/Indian/some other Asian cuisine restaurant and there’s only white people in it, don’t go in.” :-)

    I think with Asians living in Australia, out of homesickness or just plain nostalgia, we prefer to eat at restaurants that our “own people” open rather than at a “white” restaurant that interprets your national cuisine in their own way. I like what you said, can a Thai restaurant run by a white chef truly be the best interpretation of Thai food if Thai people don’t care to eat there?

    A street hawker in Asia will never win a Michelin star but in most cases, their roughness and unpretentiousness makes the cuisine more authentic than those Michelin-starred restaurants with their little food and big plates.

  2. *phew*! at first I feared this article was going to be a rant against white folks like me doing bastardised things with kway teow noodles and tofu in the privacy of their own homes. The colonising cultures of how Europeans ‘do’ food are a bit painful, including the dodgy social capital associated with finding ‘authentic’ restaurants in Footscray. But I think we need more words to celebrate and proliferate the gastronomic shifts; maybe even suffix or half-words to mark the hybridity of good old Aussie-palm-sugar-coconut-cream-green-curry, or the ‘country town chinese’ cuisine served up to white folks at innumerable dragon themed restaurants by diasporic chinese-Australians last century…

  3. Chris, I agree with you to a point.
    I prefer that Pakistanis don’t cook my Greek food, that Greeks don’t cook Chinese, that Chinese don’t cook Japanese, and that Japanese don’t cook Italian.
    It also bothers me that “whiteness” often mitigates Western people’s appreciation of non-Western cuisines (cultures in general).
    However, in light of your “racially ambiguous” post don’t you think it’s possible that attitudes such as Jen’s are racist and unfair? How can you know the ethnic background of the people in the restaurant (whether they’re cooking, serving, or dining) just by their appearance?
    Like you, I’m one of those neither-this-nor-that people, and I don’t like being judged by whether or not I look like one of the ethnicities of which I’m composed.
    Other than that, I really enjoy reading your posts. :-)

  4. I agree that it’s seen as cooler/ more impressive for white people to cook Asian food, and that that means a lot of Asian cooks don’t get credit – and maybe also that the way that people (mostly women) cook at home and for their families doesn’t get credit or recognition the way that people who cook professionally/in public do.

    But I love when my mum teaches my white lover how to make red cooked pork just the way I like – because I love not cooking almost as much as I love eating!

  5. Dunno, I think it kind of reflects the general quality of the average AU/UK restaurants as not being quite good. Having spent a crap load of my life in Asia, If we are going to such prejudices then Asians should not cook other Asian ethnicitys’s food. I have yet to have 90% decent Malay or Singapore street food in the US thanks to the Thai or Hong Kong descendants running the places… I would be fine with the prices if the food was anywhere what you could get at any hawker stall in Singapore. And don’t get me started with the Japanese Italian places through out Asia. WTF! In general there are crap restaurants everywhere. People love food and want to share and make it their passion, it doesn’t make the food they serve great just because they hope it is.

  6. Chris,
    You talk about going to a western / European restaurant – steak and pasta – and wonder why you can’t get good Asian food. It’s not really surprising that a place that specializes in western food would westernize it. You want Asian food? Go to an Asian restaurant. Who cooks it is irrelevant. What kind of restaurant you are visiting is a wee bit more important.

    Now, lemme tell you about how Asianized Outback has become… you know in Asia.

  7. I would eat at a david Thompson restaurant every week if I could. Is it really so illogical that someone applying western discipline could make a better professional kitchen putting out food than a local who is used to cooking at home or in one stall?

    The older I get the more arbitrary and silly division by culture, race or boundaries seems. Food is food and people are people. Who do I want to cook me food prepared using a classic French technique? The best cook! Black white Asian Australian whatever.

    And do I care what the latest rioters in Paris are eating? Nope I couldn’t care less.

    I make no claim to be a great cook – but I’d sooner eat the chicken braising on my stove this very minute using a Chinese / Thai approach than any of the crap prepared by Asian food outlets within 100k of here. Over processed, sickening crap.

    And yes I am white.

    Of course if I was in Sydney or Melbourne or Thailand no doubt my cooking would be bested by some. But there would also be nasty crap – cooked by both white and asian cooks.

  8. Understandably when you order food claiming to be from a particular country you expect that it will taste like food from that country. But the fact of the matter is that cuisines change over time and distribution. Foods become adapted to local tastes. This is not at all a bad thing – it is the means through which new cuisines are created. So called “authentic” foods from countries like Malaysia and Singapore would appear as bastardisations if you compared them to their original variations from southern China. These Chinese dishes brought by imigrants into new areas have changed dramatically to suit the local climate, tastes and ingredients. Likewise Asian cuisines brought to Australia can be expected to change over time.

    While you have pointed out “white people” as being to blame for this through their multicultural cooking experimentation, I would argue that Asian people themselves are just as much to blame for bastardising their own cuisines to suit the supposed tastes of anglo-australians. Rather than judging the probably authenticity of the food based on the people running the restaurant, it would make a lot more sense to judge it based on the patrons. A Chinese restaurant full of Chinese patrons but run by white staff is more likely to cater to Chinese tastes than a Chinese restaurant full of white patrons but run by Chinese staff.

    However, I think the real problem we have is not the authenticity of the food, but our very conception of authenticity itself. The longer Asian food remains in Australia, the more it is bound to change from the equivalent cuisine back in Asia. This should not be seen as bad – it is the birth of a unique Australian cuisine, suited to our climate, tastes and produce. This cuisine is authentic and should be valued in its own right. While you might think that it tastes bad, I’m sure that a lot of this is because you come to eating it with a preconceived notion of how the dish should taste. Everything is compared to the “authentic” equivalent of the dish that you tried in Asia, and anything else is seen as inferior and bastardised. We need to get over this false conception of authenticity, and realise that it doesnt taste bad, but just different. We should embrace the development of our own unique and authentic cuisine which would be infinitely more interesting and truly multicultural than a sterile, unchanging museum exhibit of foods from around the world.

  9. This reminds me of when English people cook and make their National dish Indian curry, yet call the people who originated the dish, curry, munchers, Pakis, Indeed I remember when in a home economics class all the white teachers, went around opening windows, and calling me a Paki, the white and black students did that and started to press their nostrils. Calling me Paki and smelly curry muncher I was 11 at the time. I saw them about 6 years later when I worked in an Indian resteraunt, and my boss asked what was I upset about? I said this is what they said, and how duplicitous the English are, they berate our food then proclaim they invented it. So it became policy from that day to add more ingredients to any English persons curry! That was the nicer English people who still had an animosity to us being in England to the football crowds wand tell them to go back home. I was just watching Masterchef and whenever an Indian male makes curry, it is always berated, However an Indian or English person makes it, wow it is like the best thing they have ever tried. I remember in hospital as I was be ridden the food would always run out, and so my mother in 2010 used to bring Indian food in for me, the White people called it smelly and started to open windows and so did the nurses. I held a part upon recovering and had sandwiches and curry, they did not touch the sandwiches, and ate the curry. I asked them why they had called my curry muncher, paki, and then ate my food? A lot of heads felt shamed then! I also noted when I wore an aftershave then nurses would say it is awful. I had a really nice English guy who used to bring me Red bull and brought in a TV for me, as I could not move. He said to me its funny on leaving you gave me the aftershaves, and they said it was lovely. He said I said to them when that chap wore it, you didn’t like it, so why is it different on me? They said you don’t want to tell a Paki their food is nice or that they smell nice. We like Paki food, but not Pakis in our land!

  10. It’s pretty much the same the other way around. For example, since I am from the US, bacon and eggs is a common breakfast meal, but my mom can’t scramble eggs proper and never uses milk, and she never cooks bacon enough.

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