Cultural appropriation in food

By Phylisa Wisdom
Beyonce's Lemonade.

Across industries, human rights enthusiasts are called overly sensitive when we point out cultural appropriation. In the world of food it’s no different.

Simmering just below the seemingly innocuous surface of cultural appropriation in food is an often-ignored human rights issue. Overlooking it can lead to human rights abuses and perpetuate racism and negative stereotypes, usually to the benefit of wealthy white people. In the food world – both academic and popular – this debate quietly rages on, but it hasn’t led to significant change in circumstances for some farmers, restaurant workers, chefs, and other producers.

Broadly, cultural appropriation is the borrowing of some element of a culture by a member of another culture. At its most egregious, and most common, members of more powerful or majority groups appropriate culture from minority oppressed groups.

Here is what we know to be true about cultural appropriation of food: the people with various privileges (race, class, educational, and/or established networks) get to decide what’s trendy or in demand, and then food lovers either hope economic benefits will trickle down to those who have been eking out a living on the same thing for decades, or we turn a blind eye. In many cases, those who do have a history in an appropriated cuisine or practice are not compensated for their labour or ideas.

It is easy to enjoy native ingredients at high-end restaurants like Vue du Monde and Billy Kwong, while also shirking responsibility for improving the lives of Indigenous Australians.

In Australia, bush tucker and native ingredients are currently on trend in some of the country’s most well regarded restaurants. Ingredients like wattle seed and quandong, which white Australians previously found too bitter and unappealing, are now on menus all over the country.

At MAD Sydney – a food conference hosted in April by the inimitable Rene Redzepi of Noma fame – attendees took home small samples of bush tucker. White Australian chef Peter Gilmore was one of the first to use these ingredients at his restaurant Quay, and once he did white diners paid attention. But the Indigenous communities and farmers who have been producing and living off of these ingredients for centuries are not in culture-making magazines or books.

In the realm of food, it is common to accept the parts of a culture that those with the cultural capital and power over influence find palatable and reject the people who brought it in their memories and suitcases. It is easy to enjoy native ingredients at high-end restaurants like Vue du Monde and Billy Kwong, while also shirking responsibility for improving the lives of Indigenous Australians. Likewise, people who enjoy a late night kebab may also harbour subtly or overtly racist ideas about Middle Eastern immigrants.

A kebab shop called Biggie Smalls in Melbourne’s trendy Collingwood doesn’t overtly rub salt in open wounds. Although conceptually confusing, naming a kebab shop after a famed rapper is not explicitly racist. But a fried chicken shop in Brunswick is more aggressive in its borrowing of southern Black tropes, and then appropriating them to create offensive imagery.

Fried and Tasty (F.A.T.) has come under fire for its name and a photoshopped image of late rapper Biggie Smalls holding a fried chicken drumstick. The restaurant had also covered its walls with images of white people holding guns, though they have since been taken down in response to a media firestorm. This flippant attitude towards the danger of being Black in America harms people. Violent, racist imagery used as decoration in a food establishment suggests that we are or should be desensitised to it. Equally appallingly, non-Black people use this imagery to profit off the bodies and identities of Black folks.

In her Black Power anthem Formation, Beyonce proudly proclaims that she has hot sauce in her bag (“I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”). Many of us might want to be just like Beyonce, because nothing sounds more edgy than always having your own hot sauce to hand. But Mikki Kendall’s Eater essay on the subject reveals that carrying hot sauce in one’s bag is a specific homage to southern Blackness. Southern African Americans carried hot sauce in their bags because although they could buy food from restaurants serving white people, they were often forced to take it outside. That historical struggle belongs to African Americans alone.

As long as African Americans are far more likely to be shot by police, to take one obvious illustration of institutionalised racism, it is not okay for white Australians or anybody else outside of that community to use rappers and fried chicken as a cute food trope. Hopefully someday such images won’t be loaded, but that day has not yet come.

When people cook and sell their own cultures’ foods to a diverse audience, they shape the narrative that surrounds the culinary experience. Tamil Feasts, run out of CERES Environmental Park in Melbourne, is doing cultural appreciation and solidarity well. According to their website:

Serving up traditional Sri Lankan fare prepared by Tamil men currently seeking asylum in Australia, these twice-weekly feasts create a context in which the cooks are able to share the food heritage of their Sri Lankan homeland with the wider community.

The middle ground that exists between racist, appropriative restaurants and progressive social enterprises is huge; most restaurants in the world fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. If F.A.T. in Melbourne is an extreme, so is Tamil Feasts. A restaurant does not need to have an explicitly stated mission like Tamil Feasts to avoid damaging, painful cultural appropriation. But if more restaurants serve as a platform for disenfranchised people to make a living off their life’s work and cultural histories, the higher the bar will be set.

Borrowing and sharing food traditions is not inherently bad. In fact, unique culinary ecosystems rely on it. What would Melbourne be without espresso-based drinks, for example? All it takes is conscious respect for the originators of our various cuisines.


  • demoman

    what a crock.

  • So you cultural communists won’t allow people to start the businesses they want to start? Fuck off, I will seek these businesses and patronize them just because of you.

  • George

    You might not be glad to know that although I totally support an end of illegal immigration and the repatriation of those who have already done so, I totally love Mexican food, cook it often and try to understand how it is originally prepared even if I change the recipes. I have traveled often in Baja and I really doubt that a fish taco vendor in San Felipe gives a shit whether I study his methods so that I can duplicate his efforts back in the US. He has his own enterprise, living in HIS OWN CULTURE and seems happy to be doing so. You seem to totally own the old insult “You are so full of shit that you must have brown eyes.” And, of course, unless you are appropriating POC’s right to complain, as POC, you do have brown eyes. I am totally amazed that this “Cultural appropriation” bullshit exists on more than one forum. So if mostly “white” people ignore POC we’re assholes. If we recognize the culture of POC by trying to enjoy those parts that appeal to us, we’re also assholes?

  • HoldOnSweetie

    I’m half German and Mexican so from now on no more pizza or Chinese take out, only sauerkraut tacos because ……. TRUMP. Can’t wait until you have to show your DNA results before you are seated in in a restaurant.?

    • shayneo

      Or you could actually read the article instead of flipping out and making a fool of yourself in the process

  • Siahne

    I am so very sorry to see that the only comments on this article are ignorant and aggressive. It is so important to understand and respect the roots of some one else’s culture, and if someone chooses to use that in an culinary environment, then there should be even more action and steps to share and educate the history and facts of the culture that the food is borrowed from. I think this is perhaps a small step, but one in the right direction for creating a platform where a cultural exchange can happen when sharing food. Maybe is this something that local councils should be assisting with more often? more days where all cultures and there communities have a chance to share THEIR history, stories, food for others to learn directly from? Does this make things better? I don’t know. I question everything on a regular basis, trying so hard to make sure i am aware on a social and cultural level of others around me.

    There is currently a restaurant within Western Australia that prides itself on having a menu based around the traditional foods and seasons in Aboriginal culture, and yet it is such an expensive dining experience, the restaurant itself would only be accessible to a particular demographic that can afford to go there. I mean, there isn’t even an acknowledgment for the traditional custodians that they are so graciously borrowing these ideas from on their website (not saying that such a thing then makes it all fine) … and so the continuation of celebrating and educating in Aboriginal culture is pushed aside and merely just a novelty factor.

    Anyway, i appreciate this article, as i needed something solid to share with some one over this very problematic issue.

    So, thank you for your far more articulate words than mine.

    • GusD

      The reason you see such comments is because people are sick to death of hearing about this shit as though it’s a real problem. Like a girl wearing a certain style dress to prom being ‘cultural appropriation’. What that tells people – like this article also does – is that it is not real. That is why you see such opposition. Because people are no longer falling for the horseshit you apparently still seem to be.

  • GusD

    There is no such thing as cultural appropriation and if there were then you people should be bitching and complaining about all the third world ferals who are using my white man inventions.