Is this sushi offensive?

By Simone Mitchell

Undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish has been deemed disrespectful by students at Lena Dunham's old college. Photo / Getty
Undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish has been deemed disrespectful by students at Lena Dunham's old college. Photo / Getty

If you ask someone to cite examples of cultural appropriation, there's a good chance they'll give you one of the two issues that have been well publicised in recent times.

There's black face and the Native American Indian headdresses often spied at musical festivals and in fashion shoots (Vanessa Hudgens came under fire two weeks ago for posting a picture with a dreamcatcher in her hair on Instagram).

But there's a new culprit being called out for cultural appropriation and it's in the spotlight today, as Girls creator Lena Dunham mentioned it in a recent magazine article.

Dunham is standing in solidarity with students from her old college, who protested that Oberlin College was "insensitive" for serving culturally appropriated food in its dining halls.

The Girls star - who graduated from the exclusive liberal arts school in 2008 - said students are justified in picking a food fight, Food & Wine magazine reported.

"There are now big conversations at Oberlin, where I went to college, about cultural appropriation and whether the dining hall sushi and banh mi disrespect certain cuisines.

The press reported it as, 'How crazy are Oberlin kids?' But to me, it was actually, 'Right on,'" Dunham told the magazine.

Students at the Ohio college protested in November that phony dining hall versions of the ethnic cuisine are a slap in the face to people from those countries.

"The undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful," Tomoyo Joshi, a junior from Japan, wrote in the school paper, The Review. "When you're cooking a country's dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you're also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture. So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as 'authentic,' it is appropriative."

Diep Nguyen, a student from Vietnam, complained, "It was ridiculous ... How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country's traditional food?"

Girls creator Lena Dunham believes students are justified in picking a fight over culturally appropriated food. Photo / Getty
Girls creator Lena Dunham believes students are justified in picking a fight over culturally appropriated food. Photo / Getty

Oberlin students followed up with a campus protest.

Dr Seiko Yasumoto, Senior Lecturer in Japanese, East Asian media and cultural studies at The University of Sydney says "I do not think it is culturally insensitive to serve culturally appropriated food as long as traditional offerings are conjointly available and the students are given choice.

"Whether the so named culturally appropriated food is authentic in content and presentation raises questions. Putting availability of food in a macro (Australian) rather than micro (Oberlin College) environment presents a very different gastronomic landscape."

"I am Japanese having lived in the USA, Europe and Australia since my early twenties and presented with a variety of foodstuffs, many of which I enjoy. To name a few: Japanese Sushi and sashimi, Italian pizza, Chinese dumplings and noodles, Korean kimchi, even hamburgers.

"Many of these foods become hybrid depending on the preparation and content and range from close to authentic to barely representative localised variations.

"...My personal view is that students at Oberlin College should welcome a variety of food presented to them since the world is becoming progressively multicultural. Try moving their diet from local to international and enjoy the wonderful range of global foods and presentations..."

Blogger Rachel Kuo felt the first pangs of her food being appropriated when she started watching competitive cooking shows.

"It seems like whenever there is a 'bizarre' or 'exotic' cooking ingredient, it's associated with foods from my culture and childhood. 100 year old egg. Duck bills. Stinky tofu.

"I've also observed a lot of white chefs create 'Asian-inspired' dishes. When going out to eat, I notice many 'Asian-fusion' themed restaurants where chefs combine all the countries and flavours in the vast and diverse continent of Asia and throw them together on both plate and menu.

"What is Asian inspired or Asian-fusion? I have a suspicion it's not like when my mum made me sushi with cucumbers, lunch meat, and eggs growing up. Or toast with mayonnaise and pork sung. People used to make fun of the food I eat, and now suddenly, stuff like spam fried rice is selling at a hip new restaurant for $16.

"It's frustrating when my culture gets consumed and appropriated as both trend and tourism.

Kuo isn't alone - many people find it uncomfortable to see chefs profiting from a cuisine they weren't born into.

While chefs like Rick Bayless (a white chef from Oklahoma known for his successful line of Mexican restaurants in the US) are often seen as "translators," Brooklyn Delhi owner Chitra Agrawal told Civil Eats, the larger question is whether or not these cuisines need to be translated.

"In this day and age there are people who grew up here, who understand the cuisine on this very personal level, and also understand how to communicate that to an audience," said Agrawal. "The concept kind of takes a page from, 'Let me break down these people's food because they're in the back grinding flour in a hut.'"

- news.com.au

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