by Pailin Bennett
Food and cultural appropriation: let me share some thoughts with you in the form of some family anecdotes. My sister and I were born in Dublin to a Thai mother and a British/Irish father. My grandmother, a Thai woman, accompanied my parents to Dublin for the birth of my sister to take care of me, and while they were there it wasn’t a surprise to know that she was craving some delicious, spicy, and authentic Thai food. So off to a Thai restaurant she and my mother went. They had high hopes of course: the owner and chef were Thai people which was a good sign. My grandmother ordered some ‘Pad Krapow’, or as it’s called to foreigners ‘Holy basil pork’; what she received was a dish that, in her opinion, was far from it.
In her anger she called over the waitress asked her why this tasted nothing like a real Pad Krapow. There was no spice, no flavour, and worst of all, no holy basil. The defining flavour of Pad Krapow IS holy basil, without it you are simply eating pork and rice. The waitress simply replied;
‘Ma’am these foreigners wouldn’t know the difference between real Pad Krapow and what you are eating.’
My grandmother was shocked and replied ‘But then shouldn’t you educate them on the flavours of a real Pad Krapow? Why do you claim to be authentic and serve a dish like this?’
The discourse surrounding the whitewashing of foreign food is not new and has extended to even some of my own friends experiencing disappointed when trying to satisfy their cravings for food. My friend Leanne names Wagamama as a restaurant that has disappointed her, and I’m pretty sure that this disappointment has extended far past my friend group. As a Redditor put it; ‘Wagamama is just English people cooking Asian food’. Sure, it was probably a novelty when it opened in 1992, but nowadays you can find much more authentic Japanese food at independent restaurants which are of course more common these days. Even last year debates surrounding ‘British Chinese food’ went viral because people were somewhat disgusted by the fact the British Chinese food included chips and curry sauce, things that are not a part of traditional Chinese cuisine. Even though these rather strange additions are staple foods in the UK I totally understand why people were shocked at the kind of foods that were being passed as Chinese cuisine. I think a part of the reason that there is so much outrage was because it takes away from the complexity of the cuisine and the identity of the country it originates from. I have had authentic Chinese food and British Chinese food, and I can tell you, people who regularly have Chinese takeaway in the UK are missing out the amazing array of flavours and ingredients that real Chinese food offers.
This brings me back to the story I told at the beginning. I can unfortunately relate to my grandmother’s experience as a couple years ago my school served us ‘Thai Pad’ for dinner. Of course, school food deserves some leniency as catering to hundreds of students means there will never be a perfect amount of authenticity, but ‘Thai Pad’ is not a real dish. The real dish is Pad Thai a noodle stir fry that is one of Thailand’s most popular dishes. The misspelling of the name along with the use of the wrong type of noodles made my Thai friends and I laugh a little because our school had somehow come up with their very own dish. But back to my grandmother, her anger at the waitress stemmed from the fact that she believed, generously I think, that foreigners should be allowed the joy of experiencing the same flavours as those who have who have enjoyed the cuisine within their own culture. Even if you have a terrible spice tolerance, knowing that you have tasted something the way it should taste is in my opinion much better than eating a bland excuse for a dish. So I guess my grandmother had a point all along.