Giada de Laurentiis was among the celebrity cooks on The Food Network that we used to watch. It was from her that I learned to make chicken cacciatore. For the most part, I found her instructions to be clear and I liked that she didn’t add fluff to her cooking. Then, a year or so ago, she made fried wontons which, she said, was her attempt to recreate some of the wonderful food she had on a recent trip to Hong Kong. She put cooked filling on the wonton wrappers and doused the filling with a thick sauce before folding the wrappers close. And we just stopped watching her on TV. The dish was do badly executed that, on the website of The Food Network, the recipes featured from that episode of the show exclude the fried wonton. Damage control, right?
Alex was rolling her eyes. How could she murder fried wonton like that? Well, Alex is not the only Asian to get that feeling. Neither is Giada de Laurentiis the only non-Asian cook to mess up with Asian food. On Huffington Post, there is a list of “9 Times Non-Asians Completely Screwed Up Asian Food And We Lost Our Appetites” that comes complete with photos. Bon Appétit, the New York Times, Andrew Zimmern, 7Up and Time Out London are listed among the culprits.
Filipinos ought to see the Americanized “halo-halo” with gummy bears. I was quite taken aback.
Pho with broccoli and quinoa? WITHOUT NOODLES? The dish could have been called ANYTHING yet the New York Times decided that it was pho. I can understand why some Vietnamese were upset.
All cooks have versions of dishes. But when the very essence of an ethnic dish is lost in a bid for personalization, what’s the point in insisting on retaining its ethnic name? Some cooks, celebrity chefs and food writers don’t seem to understand this. They just use whatever trendy food term there is and use it any way they like for their own purposes.
The trend of calling any layered dish (even dessert), for instance, as “lasagna” is something I find repugnant.
And then, there’s that animal called a “crustless quiche”. Even the well-respected Mark Bittman has used the term.
And “soupless ramen”? What the heck is that? Even tsukamen has broth although served on the side. Without broth, the dish might be tensoba, yakisoba, yaki udon or one of dozens of other dishes. But not ramen.
What’s so wrong with that? What’s in a name, anyway?
It can be insulting when you give an ethnic name to a dish that doesn’t even remotely resemble how it is prepared in its country of origin. There are dishes that are culturally revered and when their names are used with such little regard for their essence… Well, it can hit a raw nerve especially for Asians. We’re more onion-skinned than others. And it’s probably worse for Asians living outside of Asia. They may be in a peculiar situation as they try to embrace the culture of their adopted country while, at the same time, try to honor their roots by hanging on to their ethnicity with pride.
I’m willing to concede that, perhaps, nine times out of ten, the misuse of ethnic names for dishes they don’t resemble is done so unthinkingly and without malice. No one in the world knows absolutely everything and, sometimes, we use words in the context of our limited knowledge. And we exhibit our ignorance in different ways as when cooks use names of foreign dishes—pho, lasagna, crustless quiche, soupless ramen—in ways that so clearly illustrate that they don’t really understand what these dishes are. I’ll make an exception with Mark Bittman’s crustless quiche though because he knew the term is wrong but went on to use it anyway. That’s downright irresponsible especially considering his training and stature.
But if, nine times out of ten, the misuse of ethnic names carries no bad intention, there remains the ten per cent. It is not hard to spot this sector. There is an obvious smugness in the way they misuse ethnic food names… As though it is more important to look cool (and the ability to bandy about the names of ethnic dishes seems to be the epitome of coolness these days) and trendy, and never mind exerting just a little bit of effort to also be correct. For these people who chase coolness for a living, glaring misrepresentation is ignored in favor of “catchy marketing”. They are not always marketers by profession though. Sometimes, they are writers and publishers too. They exist not to care about correctness nor respect for ethnicity but only to ensure widespread public attention and return of investment. What do they care if their style dumbs down the public? So what if they antagonize cultural minorities? Money alone talks to them.