White girls sure love tofu.
They put it in quinoa bowls, in almond bowls and in Buddha bowls (a concept which I don’t understand — but that’s for another time), on their Instagram feeds topped off with a rustic-chic filter. It’s one of the new health guru staples — throw some tofu in, it’ll change your life. It’s so healthy, so simple, it’s amazing, it’s to die for.
I, too, love tofu. My mother used to fry it for me with green onions, thick slices with a crispy skin over rice. Or she’d put it in a fish soup, and I’d spend ten minutes carefully clearing the premises of any bones or eyeballs before eating it. When we went to dim sum restaurants, I’d order the mapo tofu, with black chilli peppers, so spicy that I could feel it coating my tongue.
White girls didn’t want my tofu back then.
The right to cook a cuisine that is not your own is still incredibly messy. From obscure health bloggers to high-profile chefs like Andy Ricker, a white man from Oregon hailed as a “Thai-cooking superstar”, white people making Asian food is a very touchy subject. And although the arguments are true that yes, white people can study a cuisine extensively, and white culture is based in cultural appropriation, the question is not of whether they can cook it well or not, because cultural appropriation is rooted much deeper than the food itself. Just as Sarah Bond pointed out in an article for Forbes, food has been used as a tool to show status dating back to the Roman Empire, distinguishing between the ‘sophisticated’ and ‘barbarian’ people. When white girls pointed out my weird homemade lunch in the first grade, it certainly felt that way. So to see it now being lauded as the big new trend by white people does not sit right. One blogger I saw had posted a picture of their tofu and grain bowl, talking about how special “Asian cuisine” was to them. But what even is Asian cuisine to them? Because to me, Filipino food is incredibly different from Indian food, which is different from Japanese food, which is different from Chinese food. Not even accounting for the fact that within China, Shanghainese food and Sichuan food are on two completely unrelated palates. One cuisine might be influenced from the other, and there might be overlap, but each one brings a distinct character to the table. You can’t throw tofu in a bowl and expect all Asian people to believe it’s theirs.
That’s just the problem with white people making so-called “ethnic” foods. So much room opens up for mislabeling and shallowness, and more importantly, the undermining of a community for profit. A white person can make money off another cuisine, while simultaneously squashing another opportunity for the community itself to be represented, and demonstrating a lackluster, insensitive approach to actually uplifting the people they are profiting off. Cultural exchange is important and has given us many of the cuisines we enjoy today; but cultural exchange is not synonymous with oppression, and past oppression seems to have justified today’s appropriation. I’m no food expert, but I do know the sting of people cherry-picking from my culture, taking out the tofu and Chinese characters and silk jackets, while reinforcing the ideas that my history is unimportant, my eyes are ugly and my community is doing fine even when it’s not.
The truth is, I want to share my food with white people. I want them to learn more about my community, and I want to fuse cuisines to make even more delicious tofu (I hope I have established by now that I really like tofu). But exchange becomes hard when you know your community has been exploited throughout history, your culture taken apart and picked over at the ease of a larger systematic oppressor. Bottom line: don’t. White people might throw their hands up and say, “If you want to share with us, why don’t you just reach across the aisle more?” But I’ve been reaching, and it’s a labor that’s been one-sided. And so far in return, I’ve received bland tofu with Instagram filters, and Andy Ricker. And I’m tired.