Conscious of Cultural Cuisine

A couple of weeks ago, while my father and I were eating goto for lunch, he brought up a news article he found that sparked an interesting and important conversation between us. 

The article in question was about a mother who received backlash on TikTok for posting a video of her feeding her 13-month-old daughter lamb curry back in November 2020. Comments on the post varied from people worried about the young child eating solid food to one TikTok user outright calling the meal something they wouldn't even feed their dog. Some even went as far as to threaten to call Child Protective Services about this matter. First of all, it's fine for the 13-month-old daughter to eat solid foods as babies can do so as early as 6 months, but more importantly, the mother has called out her critics for their ignorance and racism. 

Having grown up in Congo, the mother believed she was only feeding her daughter what her own parents fed her as a child. This very much varied from an American's understanding of baby food as there was no jarred and packaged baby food in the country she came from. Food then became a way for her to help her child connect with their family and culture. 

As we were discussing this, my father and I paused from eating lunch and looked down at our meal. An outsider who wasn't familiar with Filipino cuisine would probably consider what we were eating unappetizing or perhaps even disgusting. However, goto is basically chicken noodle soup for us -- that is, comfort food that reminds us of family, friends, and our lives in the Philippines. 

hard tacos Photo by The BlackRabbit from Unsplash I couldn't help but feel like I've seen this situation somewhere else, and sure enough with some research, I found out where I did. There is an episode of Fresh off the Boat where Eddie, the main character, gets invited to sit at a new table at lunch in order to bond with the other kids about a rapper they all like. At first, this seems like an opportunity for Eddie to finally make friends, but once he brings out his packed lunch of Chinese noodles his mother made, all the kids recoil in disgust, they call it gross and one even cries out that Eddie's "eating worms". 

In fact, I didn't even need to look much further on how this situation felt familiar as I've already experienced it -- albeit in a more internalized way. When I first moved to the United States, I felt like it was an unspoken rule that only sandwiches and salads were allowed for lunch. I knew that I was over-exaggerating this rule, but I didn't realize that I was self-conscious about bringing some of my cultural cuisines to school or work. I worried that my peers would see my packed lunch and say that it looked or smelled sickening. And so I stuck with salads and sandwiches even though they weren't as filling as a meal from home.

Unfortunately, I think that this experience, whether internalized or otherwise, is way too common for many immigrants in this country. These encounters are especially hurtful when we consider the close associates many of us have with food, family, and culture have very close ties with one another. For some, to criticize one is to criticize another. While it is well and fine to have preferences and favor one cuisine over another, we should not go around calling dishes 'disgusting' or 'worse than dog food' just because they do not look like the meals we are accustomed to. At its most harmless, they are comments based on ignorance, but at its worst, they are comments that are rooted in racist and extremely harmful stereotypes. Take for example the COVID-19 panic that has caused a number of people to buy into racist assumptions about Chinese people -- including the completely unfounded belief  that they bring contagious diseases because they eat cats, dogs, and other animals outside of the 'regular diet' 

Korean food Photo by Jakub Kapusnak from Unsplash So how can you be conscious of cultural cuisine? The best weapon against such ignorance? Eat! 

Eat as many dishes and try as many cuisines as you possibly can before casting judgment on what is considered 'normal'. If you can, try to find restaurants that serve authentic food or small businesses that are in need of your support now more than ever. Consider stopping by a grocery store that sells foreign goods and try some snacks or condiments used in another country. You never know -- you may find something good that will stay in your pantry forever (heaven knows that my family can't go a week without having a large tub of kimchi in our fridge. Ever since we decided to try it, we never went back!). 

And for those of you who are picky eaters or have decided that maybe a certain cuisine isn't for you -- that's okay! The important thing is that you acknowledge that there is no one 'normal' way of eating. Every person and culture is different, and so our food will be as well. To recognize and respect that is more than enough as it is.