Emblematic Eating

Sometimes I wonder how to introduce people to my mixed heritage. I love that there’s no solid way to pin down my cultural identity. It makes me feel complex, dynamic and interesting. When I try to introduce people to myself, it poses difficulties. I’m half ‘white’, sure, but that’s not a helpful descriptor when the reality is Scottish, Finnish and both of those by way of rural Ontario in Canada on my mother’s side. I feel Canadian. I am Canadian. I was born here, raised here, I did my undergrad here, I’m going to do my MA here as well. I’ve lived here my whole life. This isn’t helpful either, since my Canadian experience is definitively urban, and involves huge cultural variety that I have always taken for granted, given that I live in Toronto. “Canadian” still brings to mind a kind of image of a folksy lumberjack or outdoorsy woman for me, not…me. I am a cafe au lait colour when tanned in the summer, and an unhappy greige in the winter, because I am brown. This is because my dad grew up in Trinidad, and moved to Canada in his teen years, later endowing me with a taste of curry, a love of my place in the Indian diaspora (and Caribbean diaspora as well) and caramel colouring. My life would be incomplete leaving that out, and I believe myself to be Canadian, but I am not the stereotype of our nation.

Recently, I pondered how to give this cultural introduction through food, and thought I’d ask my friends to share with me their own cultural emblems in the food world. How would they introduce themselves to me, I wondered. What foods would they choose? Would there be common threads or overlap in regions and identities?

The resultant thread of comments was eye-opening, as friends began to specify whether the foods they listed were their own experiences, or the promoted images of the nations the hail from. Stephanie Lim specified that her choices to represent Korea were “not traditional” but that they were her choices nonetheless. Raajan Aery echoed feelings I was grappling with myself stating that his “own perception of [his] culture’s prominent foods is less culturally relevant in this nation than the stereotype” before selecting things like naan and butter chicken for the emblems of India. Curious about the reasons for their comments, I spoke to each of them in turn about their feelings on the issue. They identified a few threads that I felt strongly about.

An advertisement promoting ‘traditional’ Korean cuisine

Stephanie pointed out that the Korean government’s initiatives don’t necessarily promote the experiences Koreans themselves are most enthusiastic about, choosing instead familiar and . Explaining the popularity of KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) to me, she compared its trendiness and continual evolution to the staid and nostalgic advertisements for bibimbap and kimchi that have been the mainstay of Korean gastrodiplomacy efforts in recent years. Perhaps, she mused, the lack of advertising and promotion for KFC was due to a concern that it was ‘inauthentic’. Why the obsession with the old in the quest to be ‘the new’ or ‘next’ hot spot for people to travel, eat, shop and adventure?

Raajan’s comment stuck with me as well. For groups perceived to be minority cultures, no matter their actual proportions or ubiquity, they are seen for many people through the eyes of the dominant or majority culture. Butter chicken hardly represents Tamil or Goan Indians, but it, and North Indian cuisine more broadly, are stand-ins for the cuisine of the entire subcontinent and even the region as a whole at times. Can most people name a dish from a non-Northern region in India? Are the differences between Indian and Bengali and Pakistani curries evident to anyone outside those groups? The prominence of foods in the public imagination occasionally gives us license to be only those versions of ourselves, or else we risk having to explain, through confused stares our truths and our experiences as the ‘other’ even while shoring up our authenticity in some other, recognizable way.

So what does location have to do with it? For the group of friends who commented on their mixed European/white backgrounds and the lack of culture they feel they can lay claim to, there was an interesting emphasis on regionalism when they explained their foods. Jokingly citing In N Out burger was their cuisine worked for some. Another friend inboxed me to say that the sentiment worked for him, but he’d have to substitute Chick Fil A as his food chain of choice. Still others picked out what parts of their heritage from the European continent mattered to their identity, occasionally stopping to note that this applied “though [they] have never been there”. Though my Torontonian friends considered their locale to be an identity justifiably unique enough for comment, many from rural locations were more reticent in whether or not their experiences counted as culture, tipping me off to the way urban settings still hold a monopoly on defining domestic settler cultures, not just the cultures of more recent immigrant populations.

Most interesting to me was what people felt they needed to translate (and what they didn’t). What does it say about me that I didn’t need to google xiaolongbao or tehina, but did need to look up xit kodi and bún bò Huế? In the age of the internet, admitting my ignorance of what others consider key expressions of self felt…icky in a way. It felt like admitting that I didn’t know them.

I’m still not sure what the three foods most emblematic of my culture would be. I tentatively offered up roti (the sandwich of curry and meat from Trinidad, reduced in name to only its casing), cabbage rolls or shepherd’s pie and daal, rice and curry goat as my triumvirate when questioned, but I don’t know that it’s a precise enough explanation of the identity I currently claim. I’m still figuring out exactly what and where I am a citizen ambassador for when I eat. That leaves me a little at a loss for symbols. What are the emblems of a cultural identity composed of inbetweens?

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