Zathia Bazeer reports on the appropriation and “gentrification” of multicultural foods
Vanilla-flavoured ghee, matcha lattes, jalapeño hummus – these are just some of the latest twists on traditional multicultural dishes and ingredients that are increasingly being celebrated in magazines such as Vogue and GQ, served up in restaurants, sold in supermarkets, and enthusiastically devoured by foodies.
Where once Australians might have shunned such “foreign” imports, they are now being embraced, and even feature on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants – often at a hefty price.
But this widespread adoption, and adaptation, of food from around the globe begs the question: is this appreciation or appropriation?
There is also the issue of food “gentrification”, which parallels the gentrification of previously affordable neighbourhoods. In the food realm, ingredients that are a staple for a community or culture become popular, expensive and out of reach for poorer or marginalised people, a process that can also have adverse economic and cultural impacts.
Hummus is just one of the foods that have soared in popularity in recent years. Mainstream supermarkets now offer an array of varieties, many of which diverge far from the traditional recipe.
“Beetroot hummus blows my mind,” says Rim Chatila, a Lebanese-Australian. “How is beetroot dip that probably has chickpeas in it classified as hummus?”
Chatila says it’s important to “keep food as close to its heritage as possible”, adding: “Big companies should invest in getting the goods imported from the place which they originated from. Often their re-creation of these foods does not even taste close to the real food – but the name is taken.”
Although she welcomes supermarkets exposing their customers to different cuisines and flavours, she believes consumers can make better choices.
“I do think that developing their own versions and altering … [a food’s] authenticity does more damage,” she says. “People should instead shop at local grocers, such as Arab, Indian, Asian grocers, to get a real taste of their food.
“After all, if you love their flavours, doesn’t it make more sense to support them rather than a massive corporation?”
When traditional foods suddenly acquire the status of a “superfood”, food retailers and supermarkets cash in. Take quinoa, a staple for poorer communities in Bolivia, but now offered in trendy cafés around Australia.
Krish Ashok, a food scientist and the author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, believes the background of such foods should be acknowledged, especially when the more prosperous West is profiting from them.
“These kinds of things are happening to many speciality ingredients that come from this part of the world (India), and all of a sudden get Western attention,” she says.
Quinoa is now unaffordable for Bolivians, according to Ashok, because of “the global demand … [for] this sort of hipster, expensive, vegan supergrain”, while the designation of new superfoods such as moringa and turmeric is pushing up their prices back in India.
“You’ll obviously find Indian farmers are far more interested in exporting the turmeric than they are in supplying the local market,” she says.
Foodie culture, food bloggers and social media all play a part in driving food trends. And when authentic dishes are modified for a wider audience, the line between appreciation and appropriation can blur.
Joshua Swaby, a food “curator” specialising in Caribbean food, says people take the “prefix of certain cooking dishes and then slap it on anything else just for marketing purposes”.
“I think if you’re going to appreciate another culture’s cuisine, you’d need to always reference who you were inspired by, whether that’s a chef or a cook or a region or a country,” he says.
“I think you can mix and match certain foods, but you need to give credit where it’s due.”
Some believe the problem goes beyond appropriation to encompass wider, structural racial and power disparities in the food industry.
While Ashok is not too worried about what is shared on social media, she says that “in the restaurant world, these structures of privilege have existed for centuries, and it’s a far more serious problem in that context”.
It is noteworthy that many high-end “ethnic” restaurants, such as Sydney’s Chin Chin, run by Chris Lucas, have white Anglo owners. And the lack of diversity within the industry extends beyond the kitchen to areas such as food criticism and food writing.
Swaby would like to see more inclusive restaurants which provide opportunities for people from the cultures from which businesses are profiting.
Then there is the “Masterchef effect”, with the TV show, sponsored by Coles, introducing many new ingredients from different cultures to everyday Australians. Coles now sells foods such as quinoa and agave at budget prices, with a flow-on impact on those who produce them.
Sophie Lamond, a PhD candidate researching food politics at the University of Melbourne, says retailers should consider how this affects the places from which such ingredients are sourced.
“Coles Home Brand agave and quinoa – where are they getting this stuff, [that] they can sell it so cheaply?”
“I can’t imagine that the people at the other end are getting paid properly.”
Often lost in these discussions are issues such as food insecurity, which affects one in five Australians, according to a 2019 FoodBank Hunger report. The impact is particularly felt by Indigenous people, migrant communities and refugees/asylum-seekers. One reason for food insecurity is a departure from traditional diets.
Lamond says: “There is certainly a link between fetishising a food and displacing the people that have that food in their culture.
“It looks different in Australia, but it’s something that’s absolutely happening.”