My passion for food stems from its prominence in my life and culture. Everybody brags about their family’s connection through food and their traditions centered around food, and everybody boasts about the superiority of their cultural cuisine. But I love food so much that I’m writing about it, and I don’t think many people can claim that – but I digress! As a Filipino-Chinese American, I’ve been fortunate enough to appreciate the food of my combined heritage throughout my life, as well as fortunate enough to try a variety of other foods — and counting. Something else I have become more and more passionate about since childhood is accurate and appropriate representation in the spaces I frequent, from the media that I watch, to the place that I work. Growing up in Connecticut and attending a high school in which I could count the number of Asian kids on two hands does that to you.
Combining my interests in food and diversity has cultivated a unique perspective to my dining experience. The food scene in America is constantly changing, influenced by geography with the food truck craze in LA, and socially with the overhaul at Bon Appétit after allegations of racial discrimination in pay and tokenization of workers of color. The latter occurred after the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests and increased violence and discrimination against Asian Americans. The reckoning and aftermath surfaced not only the dearth of minority demographics in the dining, but also the treatment of those in the industry.
Another topic intersecting food and diversity is the concept of food appropriation: when a minority culture’s food is inappropriately adopted by someone of another culture. It sounds strong, but it manifests in varying levels and ways, sometimes coming out as microaggressions, sometimes coming out as insults. For example, European cuisine is heralded as fine dining and customers are willing to shell out big bucks for their dishes, but Asian or Latin cuisine is relegated to only being expected as takeout food, and customers scoff at rising prices. Many of the latter category are owned by families or supporting those in the community, and produce some of the most delicious, fresh food, in which you can also appreciate the authenticity. However, the restaurants may not garner as much acclaim or be able to raise their prices because of their “ambiance,” or the people who work there that are not deemed professional due to an accent.
There are situations of food fusion that rub me the wrong way; when the food is so different from the original and it’s not as clear to the audience or cultural community that they’re meant to be different — or if there’s just not an appreciation for the original. What spurred this whole column was my visit to the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop opening on Feb. 22. Beforehand, I browsed the menu and honestly, didn’t know how I felt about dumplings, an iconic food of Chinese culture — and in other forms in other cultures — being stuffed with completely American and European flavors. It’s the same way as I feel about spring rolls being stuffed with dissonant flavors, like the Philly cheesesteak or avocado spring rolls at The Cheesecake Factory.
As described on the Brooklyn Dumpling Shop website and as the owner Stratis Morfogen proclaimed when I spoke to him on site, “Dumplings are the new sandwich!” He referred to the dumplings, from chicken parmesan to bacon cheeseburger to lamb gyro as “two ounce sandwiches,” which kind of confused me. They’re not sandwiches — they’re dumplings. I understand the gimmick of stuffing deli offerings into dough, but reading the flavors, from peanut butter and jelly to the Reuben made me feel slightly uncomfortable — per my third point of how people of the originating culture might respond.
To his credit, Morfogen acknowledged that he doesn’t want to “take away from the business of traditional, authentic places.” He said Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is more akin to a deli than a dumpling shop. He spoke about how he’s opened over 30 Chinese restaurants and consulted with Chinese chefs for his ventures including this one. He said they do offer traditional choices, like the potstickers — yes, four traditional options versus the other 32 choices. But even if Morfogen checks those boxes, it didn’t necessarily clear up my discomfort with discussing a food of my heritage being somewhat…distorted to a version of itself I didn’t recognize.
My discomfort was further exacerbated when everyone I saw and spoke to on site at the Storrs location were White men, besides the worker greeting people at the entrance. I appreciate their enthusiasm and passion for the food and the business. I will acknowledge, as I say in my review today, the dumplings I tried — chicken parmesan and Philly cheesesteak — were tasty. But the acknowledgement of the original food’s origins and its people weren’t necessarily clear to me as a regular customer, and that will stick with me.
I’m proud of my mixed heritage’s food offerings and am eager to try others. I’m all for appreciating the cuisines of other cultures, as I love to have people try and appreciate my favorite foods. I always attempt to try new dishes in an authentic manner, by eating the food that friends offer me from their families, asking them or other people I know for suggestions or looking up the owners of restaurants before I frequent them.
The area between appreciation and appropriation is quite ambiguous, especially with the melting pot makeup of the United States and the increasing popularization of fusion food. From sushi tacos to “Americanized” chains, I think fusion food can be done tastefully, or we could at least enjoy them without thinking too hard if we’re betraying our culture by indulging. As someone who is acutely conscious of proper representation, some helpful indicators I’ve used to differentiate between food appropriation and appreciation is understanding the intent behind an offering, the audience’s understanding of that offering and how the culture whose food is being adopted responds. For example, I don’t think it’s necessary for cultures to gatekeep their traditional foods: a double-edged sword is wanting people to understand that someone of the originating culture may be able to execute their traditional foods better, but also not wanting to reduce or expect those people to only be able to cook those foods.
If someone wants to cook something from a different culture, and they go about trying to find fairly authentic ingredients and a fairly authentic recipe, I commend them. Per the first indicator, if they acknowledge what culture the food came from and learn about it, I think that’s appropriate. But if they claim that they’ve “made it better” by going off-book and changing the essence of the dish, I raise an eyebrow. That’s why I’m wary of trying recipes from White food influencers on Pinterest and Instagram if they try to market them as “better than takeout,” “healthier than the traditional” or swap out a lot of the cultural spices and vegetables. If they had just referred to the recipe as inspired by that culture, I would feel better about it. Though claiming that their recipe is better or that the original is “unhealthy” perpetuates negative stereotypes.
Further, I recognize there are many offerings of Americanized Asian food, which is so prominent its a category of its own. Restaurant owners started serving up dishes like crab rangoons and General Tso’s chicken to appease American customers, which I understand. I feel like at this point in the country, with growing understanding of Asian food — like differentiating between Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and more — has helped us understand that there’s Americanized Chinese food and then regional Chinese food, from Sichuan to Cantonese. Panda Express and Chinese buffets aren’t necessarily claiming to be traditional Chinese food, and my family and I enjoy them for what they are.
Maybe the case is that Brooklyn Dumpling Shop and its offerings are so vastly different from the original food that I can’t be upset. I mean, crab rangoons still rub me the wrong way, but I won’t turn my nose up at one when it’s offered to me. Same with BDS’ dumplings — I might return for late night offerings, especially since there’s a lot to choose from. But I do know that my thoughts about my food being popularized by people that may not appreciate it or taking space from underrepresented people in the industry are valid.