Just Eat It: A Comic About Food and Cultural Appropriation

I made this comic about the cultural appropriation of food—the tendency of people to easily co-opt “ethnic” cuisine as their own, while simultaneously obsessing over the “authenticity” of food.

I’m writing from the viewpoint of a cranky immigrant, but also as someone who considers bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” and Edward Said’s book Orientalism as major touchstones that have informed a lot of my work (and viewpoint). How does this comic read to someone that doesn’t share that same viewpoint? Or background? I think even a lot of my white liberal friends would feel annoyed at me commenting on how they consume something they love (“ethnic” food). I think a lot of my Asian friends would tell me I’m over-thinking it. 

It rambles, I know that. But I wrote it, and I want to share it. It’s directly informed by Soleil Ho’s article “Craving the Other“ from the Food issue of Bitch—I’d started this comic before I read it, but once I did, it was several moments of “YES. THIS. EXACTLY THIS” It is a much more focused essay than my comic, and I really recommend you read it. 

Shing Yin Khor is a cranky Hufflepuff; you can find her on Twitter @sawdustbear.

by Shing Yin Khor
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44 Comments Have Been Posted

Thank you for writing this!!!

Thank you for writing this!!! You express something that I, also an immigrant (child of immigrants) feel often, among my progressive non-immigrant friends but never vocalize, because, it's kind of hard to. Or I've shared an inkling of feeling weirded-out that health food stores now carry the particular "ethnic" food that I grew up eating, but only ever see [for lack of a better term] "white liberals" getting excited about, in the aisles - and hardly ever seeing anyone from my own country/ethnicity shopping in that health food store to begin with. There is something about it that is hard to put into words, but that is a definite feeling of cultural appropriation. Though I want to share my culture with my friends, it sometimes feel like a prop to add some more color and diversity to their lives. See? I can already imagine my friends getting offended at every word I write here. But the feelings are real.

I think it's interesting that

I think it's interesting that you call these people your friends when you can already see what their impulses are like.

Honestly, I don't think it's safe to have "White Liberals" in your life. They only try to do what they think is respectful to the "Others" that their brains have evolved in such a way as not to be capable of seeing as fully human simply because they've come to see "multiculturalism", or what's been marketed to them as such, as "cool". They're monsters in chains of social convention but monsters still. The circumstances of their lives may have been such that they came to support a kind of fashionable political correctness, but if they'd lived one or two hundred years ago they would have been actively involved in colonialism and probably would have felt their lives more fulfilling for it.

You should get as far away from them as you can before they turn on you. Or if you're feeling particularly selfless, brave the possibility of prosecution and decisively ensure they have a chance to turn on somebody like you.

Blood will tell, my dear. Blood will tell.

Uf! Well, I guess I am both

Uf! Well, I guess I am both guilty and a victim of this.

As a Latin American from somewhere with a very mixed cuisine (with influences from Spain, Africa, China, Japan as well as its own indigenous groups) with a love for everything spicy and who moved to the U.S. 10 years ago I always want to try new foods from different countries, especially those I've never visited. So sure, I will ask other immigrants about the food from their countries and where is the best place to try it. I don't think I've ever used the word "authentic" in this context, though. Sometimes I will get a restaurant recommendation and other times an invitation to their homes to try their cooking. I don't consider myself a "foodie", I just love to eat.

By the same token, when someone asks me the same thing, I don't feel offended or like they're trying to appropriate my culture by literally consuming it. But I guess Latin America is not as heavily exoticized as Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries are.

Also, I got really excited by the AJI-NO-MOTO drawing! A very popular ingredient in my country's cuisine as well!

Hurrah for this! I write a

Hurrah for this! I write a local restaurant review blog and the "authentic" question always makes me uncomfortable...because what is authentic? I try to explain it to my friends by asking them what "authentic" American food would be? And how it would have to be cooked to be authentic? Sure, we can claim hamburgers and pie...but if your apple pie has cheddar cheese is that "authentic" or "weird"? What if it's American cheese....And on and on and on. I believe that there is no such thing as "authentic", there is only good food and bad food and food that reminds you of a familiar time/place.

Well, to be fair, the U.S.

Well, to be fair, the U.S. doesn't really have food of its own (unless you count Native American food), I mean hamburgers, hot dogs and fries existed in Europe for ages before coming here. So, not the best example for this.
I agree with your point about authenticity though.

I count Native American food

As a Native American person, I think that Native American cuisine counts as American food. At our tribe's last pow wow my son and I had frog legs, venison, mashed squash, and a mix of wild rice with the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. So good. So American.

That's good! I just wasn't

That's good! I just wasn't sure if the OP was including Native American cuisine in their description of American food.

our preparation of foods is

our preparation of foods is very american though. general tso's chicken is American. and chop suey. peanut butter is particularly american. sweet pies are American. and pizza, both what I would think of as 'real' ny pizza and especially Chicago style and fast food style's are really not the same as Italian pizza.

and that is of course in addition to Native American cuisines.

I agree on the peanut butter,

I agree on the peanut butter, the rest are just U.S. versions of other, already existing foreign preparations. That's why I say it's not a good example to illustrate the ins and outs of the idea of "authentic" food.

I think the point is that

I think the point is that food "authenticity" comes from its cultural popularity, not where it necessarily came from. Hot dogs are popular in certain European countries, but it's also extremely popular in America and part of the popular imagination when it comes to American imagery.

Chop suey is extremely American. Yes, it's a "version" of Chinese food, but its purpose and intent was for American palates.

Also, is tomato sauce really

Also, is tomato sauce really Italian in this interpretation? Tomatoes aren't native to Europe, after all. What about potatoes, a centuries-old staple in Europe? Not native either.


Off topic, but I'm so excited by how Bitch has been using comics to talk about so many different issues and experiences lately! That magical combination of words and pictures has so much to offer and it's really cool to see people taking advantage of it!


I'm glad you noticed we've been running more comics online, RJ.

Bitch has published a full-page "Adventures in Feministory" comic in each print issue of the magazine for a few years now, but we've been working recently to publish more comics on a range of issues online. If you have any favorite comics artists we should seek out to create a comic for Bitch, let me know!

I definitely understand the

I definitely understand the sense of frustration over cultural appropriation, but I wonder if it is always, or even most often, the case that someone seeking an "authentic" cuisine is (consciously or unconsciously) doing so in order to gain "cultural experience points." There are definitely too many individuals out there who fit the description characterized in this post, but I think it is also possible to use "authentic" as a shorthand without bringing along too many cultural stereotypes.

A personal example: My family is originally from Naples, Italy, and I am always trying to find places that serve what I would call "authentic" Neapolitan pizza. There certainly is a range of how the basic components can be put together, but there still seems to be a distinct set of such pizzas that have a similar taste/consistency. For me, it is the distinct taste/mouthfeel of "authentic" Neapolitan pizza that I happen to enjoy very much. I often eat other types of pizza, or try a reinvention of Neapolitan pizza by an American chef, but when certain basic ingredients and preparation are used, I usually like the taste of it the best.

It just so happens that this set of parameters is met by the small pizzerias in Naples that have been making pizza the same way for years, and probably for simplicity's sake, many refer to this style as "authentic." I will say to my friends: "you have to try this authentic Neapolitan pizza!" not because I scorn "American" pizza, but because I find Neapolitan-style pizza to taste amazing and want to share this experience with others. Some restaurants offer what they call a Neapolitan pizza, but if it is missing enough of the common components of the "authentic" versions it will not taste similar enough to the ones that blow my tastebuds away--hence the need for the distinction, that historically is denoted by the word "authentic." I don't expect my friends to understand anything about Naples after eating "authentic" Neapolitan pizza, but just to enjoy a different, really awesome way of experiencing pizza!

Isn't there a difference

Isn't there a difference between what you're describing and what the comic writer is talking about? A difference defined by colonialism? I don't think Neapolitan Italians get exotified in the same way as Malaysians (or Asians generally) or at least not in the same way, where food becomes a metaphor for culture, which Westerners and/or white people can literally consume. Does that make sense?

Yes. I guess my point was

Yes. I guess my point was that we just have to be careful in assuming that every time someone uses the word "authentic" in relation to a foreign culture that they are using it in a way described in the comic. I know plenty of people who enjoy what they might call "authentic" Indian/Ethiopian/Brazilian/etc. food not because they see it as exotic or as linked to that country's culture but simply because they like the taste, and it is a similar taste to what they have had in the past that might be considered more traditional. We could argue that "authentic" is the wrong word choice, but I think that is a limitation of the language and not necessarily the fault of the speaker. I agree that is is wrong to use food as a metaphor for culture; I just don't believe that all or even most Westerners view it that way. Of course my sample size is limited to the people I have interacted with, so I could be wrong.

Try not to derail

Or, you know, if this comic isn't talking about you and the way you use authentic then you should just appreciate and understand the point it's making and move on. If it's not about you, then stop making it about you by trying to explain how you don't do it.

but are you using authentic

but are you using authentic to just mean good? I understand the differences between neopolitan and american pizzas, but is there inauthentic neopolitan-style pizza? I think you are just conflating authentic, which is a word that makes sense when talking about counterfeit money or art or antiques, with traditional or traditionally prepared.

What a strange, sad world it has become...

...when a desire to try the foods of other ethnicities is seen as some kind signifier of cultural appropriation. How insecure of you, and how limiting - not to mention counter-productive - to push away those who have a genuine and legitimate interest in non-European cultures. Everyone needs to eat, and eating the foods of other cultures expands not only the palate but the mind! What a perfect entry point for broader horizons, awareness of different cultures, and appreciation of the varied human tapestry! Appreciation of different foods can lead to interest in other customs, other languages, other religions, other ideas - and yet you deride it as merely a desire for a merit badge, a conquest of cannibals. As I read your words I can only imagine you as a bitter, isolated person who desperately fears the "other" you so readily accuse of "consuming," as if they were literally eating you along with their burritos and mee goreng. For shame! You shut out those you should welcome to your table.

Not only are you missing the

Not only are you missing the main point of the writer's comic, attempting to invalidate her experiences and gut feelings by projecting "insecurity" (as well as bitterness and isolation) onto them, but now you are also shaming her because of her opinion based on her experiences??!!!

Her piece is not asking you to stop eating or appreciating foods not of your culture. She asking all of us to see the bigger picture and to become more sensitive eaters, aware of how we go about consuming "other" foods so that it is less of an obnoxious othering or exotification.

Your projecting smacks of defensiveness, by the way.

Wow, sounds like this cut

Wow, sounds like this cut close to the bone for you. You must be the type of colonizing foodie the author is describing. And talking about being fearful? "What a sad, strange world it has become" were your words...

"For shame," eh?

<blockquote>"You shut out those you should welcome to your table."</blockquote><p>The artist has no obligation to welcome anybody to her table, least of all concern trolls who resort to whitesplaining and personal attacks when presented with viewpoints that fail to flatter their aspirations of worldliness. Calm down a little with the mind expansion and the varied tapestries. Maybe take that oh-so-earnest love of "non-European cultures" and try applying enough of it to the PEOPLE from those cultures to sit down and be quiet when they tell you things you'd rather not hear. I promise you will learn something if you make the effort.</p><p><input id="mac_address" type="hidden"></p>

Utter nonsense

What a ridiculous piece. God forbid anyone want to experience what the food from another part of the world tastes like. God forbid they ask you about your native cuisine. What do you want them to ask you? 'What's Malaysia like?' Of course you don't.

there's a difference between

there's a difference between wanting to try a type of food and thinking that you can experience a culture and be any kind of gauge of 'authenticity' of food. you're reading your own insecurities into his comic when she is clearly talking about a certain kind of consumption and not the consumption itself.

Ahh, this is interesting and

Ahh, this is interesting and I wonder if it does reflect western attitudes.
Personally though, if I am asking, say, Indian people about good places to eat, it is because I really don't like the British version of indian cuisine and hope that they might know somewhere that offers something other than mass-produced tikka masala's!
And in London, where most of my friends are Middle Eastern because it is the area of our studies, if we go to dinner at a middle eastern restaurant I occasionally ask for recommendations because it is all fairly new to me. I think that there is a difference between people who see 'experience' of other cultures/cuisines/traditions as a badge of honor, and people who are just trying to try something new and don't now where to start! I am always happy to give advice about things i know about (Iran, buying cameras, baking cakes...).

Pet Peeve: Don't ever ask me

Pet Peeve: Don't ever ask me where to get Indian food 3.5 seconds after you've learned my name or that I'm Indian American. MAKES ME BONKERS.

so you have some over-eager

so you have some over-eager foodie friends who like to try new things? and want, what they would consider, an authentic opinion?

do we have to get pissed off at everything? do we have to get offended at everything?

sometimes food is just food. sometimes a question is just a question.

we are becoming a society of royally pissed off people , pissed off at every thing, every one and every where.

soon we will all become mutes - to afraid of asking anyone anything.

Won't lie, I LOVE this comment...

... by kelspark. I don't think I need to elaborate on that.

The author asked in the piece:
<blockquote>How does this comic read to someone that doesn’t share that same viewpoint? Or background? I think even a lot of my white liberal friends would feel annoyed at me commenting on how they consume something they love (“ethnic” food). I think a lot of my Asian friends would tell me I’m over-thinking it.</blockquote>

I am not White, but yes, I do share the views of both the White and Asian friends of the author on this. I echo kelspark in saying: <i>sometimes food is just food. sometimes a question is just a question</i> -- with an additional proviso, that it is my own view, and mine only. I expect that the mileage for others may and will vary, naturally.

BTW, please do ask me about authentic East Indian, especially Bengali, food as much as you want. I won't consider it cultural appropriation, but may give you a quick account of various taste profiles from my part of the world.

For instance, I have tasted "egg roll" - a fried egg, meat or veggies rolled inside a thin pancake - a favorite and well-known street food in my city, both at a street-corner in NYC (the Kathi Roll Company, Bleeker and McDougall, if you wanted to know) and at street-corner shops in my city. I can guarantee you that they don't taste the same, which is perhaps understandable - given the many variables that go in cooking, source and/or storage of spices, flavor of the onion, cooking temperature and utensils, and so forth.

So yes, please ask me about authenticity of food tastes, but please be prepared to receive a complicated answer... about Indian food and taste profiles, not a lecture on culture.

I think I would have a lot of

I think I would have a lot of fun talking to you!

Thank you, thank you, thank

Thank you, thank you, thank you. It's nice to see some more grounded commentary here. I feel like people responding in previous comments are jumping down each other's throats.


Thank you so much for writing this. Totally feeling it. Next time someone asks me about the most "authentic" Chinese food I might just send them the link to your comic ...

Great comic!

I'm guilty of this. Sometimes my desire is to experience a culture that I can never be part of, or a continent that I will never visit, and food has seemed to me to be a way of experiencing a tiny bit of it of without asking someone to compromise what it means to them. Sometimes I just want to try something different than my standard fare. I've used the word "authentic" because I don't want a restaurant that has compromised their recipes to try and attract a wider customer base - partly because that feels like an apology and no one should apologize for their heritage or upbringing or what it is that food means to them, and partly because that compromise often involves making things taste bland. What is a better way to describe this when looking for my next restaurant experience? Or maybe I've missed the point. If you can help me understand how to better align my heart and thinking to those I am hurting, I would much appreciate it.

Honestly, I feel like her

Honestly, I feel like her point is that while your curiosity about culture - and it's traditional manifestations - is natural and completely valid, remember the people you're talking to wish to be seen as fully complex human beings that might want to befriend you. But for that to be possible should feel seen as human beings and not as representing a vision of an exotic 'traditional culture'.

I am from Brazil and have people ask me all about the meat restaurants. It's a tradition from one part of Brazil, which is not where I come from. It doesn't make me any more or less Brazilian. If you want to hear about the Brazlian chicken pie I am obsessed with or my mother's stroganoff with fries, I'll tell you all about it. But the moment I tell that to people they say: well that's not authentic. Tell me about the authentic stuff. And there it is, you are not opened to my reality, you want to know what a book about Brazil would tell you. I am not a book. I am a person who is proud to be from Brazil and very much a part of my culture. And most of all I am authentically me.

People from everywhere want to be seen as people not as cultural objects. I feel like food here stands for a number of things. I get often asked to tell people all about Carnival and soccer. I am not soccer crazed and usually prefer to chill somewhere quiet during Carnival. Do you want to hear about Brazilian surrealist literature? Because that's something I really love to talk about. But all of a sudden I see people questioning how Brazilian I am and disengaging because the information I have for them is not the one they want. I am 100% Brazilian I am just part of a culture that is a lot more complex than it's advertised exports. So are you. I don't ask my American friends to tour me through baseball and the Super Bowl, if I have a friend that is passionate about something they want to share with me, I will be pleased to do so, because I want to know them, not because I want to look at them as some exotic object that represents American culture.

I think like everyone we want to be seen as people, people are unique prisms into a culture and that isn't a book lengthy enough to capture that, so I think all we hope is that people can enjoy discovering each other without objectifying the other.

I am not sure this was clear. But I sure tried.

Simple Curiosity

<p>As an American of distant European heritage, this comic makes me feel a little sad. I want to know what people in other countries eat. I want to know if what I'm getting in restaurants is "authentic" -- do people really eat it in the country the restaurant claims it came from? I don't know. I've never been to Malaysia. There are so many places I will never get to visit. The standard staple foods of these places is only one of the many things I want to know, but now I feel as if I might offend someone if I ask. I am aware that just because a person comes from somewhere does not mean they know all about it -- it isn't as if I can recite the Declaration of Independence word for word -- but if they lived there, they know what it's like. They know what the food is like. They know what the music and the clothes and the nightlife are like. I don't want to reduce anyone to a novelty, but I do want to hear about their experiences. I'm interested -- a lot of people are.

That's okay

So, I've experienced this both ways, and I think there's a difference between trying to assimilate and embracing the exotic. When you are a new experience, people try to make connections, and learn what they can. Some people though, are resentful that they "represent" something, and just want to fly under the radar.

I think, essentially, it's silly to get annoyed with someone who is working from what they've been taught. If you want to teach them different, that's fine. If you are the only person they've met from someplace, then you are naturally going to be their expert on that place. I take my Filipino friend every new reference to the Philippines I see. I send pics of anything written in Tagalog (most recently, a Valentine's Day display in the mall.), because it's a connection my mind makes. It's not a cage, it's a path.

When I was seven, we moved to Lebanon, where, yes, I was called "American" because, that's where I was born, and guess what, they asked if the KFC in the US tastes the same as it does there. Let me tell you, the chocolate tastes different, and I refused to touch anything they called pizza because, hello, it had sweet corn on it, and that's NOT pizza.

When I moved back to the US, I tasted every fruit sorbet I could find looking for the 'right' one. Fruit cocktails here were blended and lacked the chunked fruit topped with a special cream called "Ashta" and drizzled in honey that I wanted. The spices in the shish tawook (grilled chicken) seemed fake. but pizza, chocolate, and pasta sauce were returned to me the way I remembered them.

So, when I met two girls who were part of a study abroad program from China, and they said that they had never seen what we call "Chinese food" before was I surprised? No.

My point is, people are quick to tell you that Mexican food is nothing like Taco Bell. So, if I'm looking for what "real" food in Mexico is like, why is it wrong/offensive/ignorant to ask my nearest Mexican acquaintance where to look?

Some people will find

Some people will find anything to complain about. This article seems to be in line with a new kind of liberal conservatism that I find strange. I think hyper sensitivity only leads to further alienation, cultural curiosity shouldn't be laden with guilt. How boring it must be to live with so many rules.

I think you miss that this is

I think you miss that this is a real and valid experience people have...

Also, that as someone white who grew up experiencing very little not fast food, Americanized Italian, or Mexican food, this is helpful to reflect on... Both times I did this, and times I've been out to eat with friends who have done this and how to engage them better in conversations that are helpful. Amidst the foodie and food blog craze, it is important to remember we are engaging with an aspect of someone's culture - whether we approve it as "authentic", talk about how much we love "ethnic" food, or "discover" some new cuisine, we are participating in a history of colonialism.

Deciding to work against that, however, and learn about someone's experience of their culture, perhaps even through food, is different. Ex: I had a Thai Chinese American roommate with a lot of allergies. I asked her the "authentic" question, and she said "honestly, you know more about thai food than me because I can't eat most of it." I had a picture in my head what her food experience was, and therefore an image of her cultural experience. If I had instead asked her what was a "typical" meal, I would have learned more about her second generation experience.

And anyone can give advice on better ways to engage with food cross culturally. I love food and I want to keep eating all the food.

Ugh, Bitch.

I wish y'all would construct a more stringent comment policy and be the radical feminists you proclaim to be. I'm so sick of coming to these great articles and pieces only to have the comment section filled with claims of oversensitivity and whitesplaining. Please be part of making feminism intersectional by creating a better community platform where people can engage without having to constantly deal with insults, accusations, and comments that aren't supportive nor continue the dialogue the author started.

(I know you have a bit of a comment policy, but I am asking for MORE moderation, MORE censorship, MORE cultivating of a welcoming and supportive community base.)

Feminism should be able to

Feminism should be able to handle disagreements. Censorship and silencing of disagreements does not help the movement, it sets us back.

So when i read the piece i

So when i read the piece i had the same conflicting view as people below: one part of me could see pretentious people who always want to show off their cultural side but can be painfully superficial and simplistic.

And the other who felt like too much was being made of natural curiousity to try new and other things.

somewhere in the comments i read the line: People from everywhere want to be seen as people not as cultural objects.
and i think that sums it up well. the problem is not that one wants to try and discover new cultures - the problem is when you do only that and cant see that the cultures are made of people same as you.

You should get as far away

You should get as far away from them as you can before they turn on you. Or if you're feeling particularly selfless, brave the possibility of prosecution and decisively ensure they have a chance to turn on somebody like you.

Stop food shaming.

Thank you for this. I really hate this white-people-"authentic"-cuisine fad (which is completely different from the food appropriation debate). I know it comes from a desire to expose themselves to other cultures but the question itself completely erases the existence of diaspora cuisine. This in itself is what really bothers me as a 2nd gen-er.

I've heard endless anecdotes from random white people who claim that in "traditional Chinese cuisine" [..what?? China is huge!] "gai lan and beef is the authentic way to make beef and broccoli stir fry." It's these little statements that create these questions of authenticity - but they completely omit the history and politics behind why beef and broccoli is even a dish.

White people can beat themselves up about how their closed-minded inability to try exotic foods is what drove ethnic foods into their so called "bastardized state", but that's not the full story. Older immigrant communities had to make their cultural dishes with the closest possible substitutes because most spices/sauces/vegetation just weren't naturally available where they were. Throw in half a century and these dishes become embedded within the diaspora culture, and it's exactly this that these grandchildren of immigrants are exposed to. Does this make it any less authentic? Nope.

It's arguably not even until the last decade and a half that we even started to get widely available imports in North America. I remember when grocery stores only carried two brands of soy sauce, and when we wanted common east Asian vegetables we'd expect to pay a premium for it. I'm in my early twenties FYI. (Does this sound familiar to anyone re:coconut water debate?!)

Yet suddenly, now that we have all these goods widely available, white people want to know why there isn't some magical proliferation of authentic restaurants. Like we've been hoarding these delicious places for ourselves, worried that they wouldn't suit white taste buds. I'm sorry, but as diaspora I'm just as far removed from ~authentic~ Chinese food as you are.

So long rant short - don't tell me that the dim sum we're eating isn't authentic because you went to Hong Kong and it doesn't taste this way. It tastes this way because that's how it's evolved to taste. Stop shaming the cuisine that's here for making do with what they had to in order to preserve themselves.

P.S. Just to reiterate - substitutions by white people, and food appropriation are a tooottaallllyyy different argument!

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