A good friend sent me this über interesting BBC article with the obvious clickbait title, “Are food bloggers peddling racist stereotypes?”
In the article, Filipino-American food photographer Celeste Noche aired her views in a radio show about the “exotification” of certain foods by Western food bloggers and photographers.
She shares that these “microaggressions* can be as simple as a lack of research…whether it’s taking photos of dishes with chopsticks sticking straight up into rice or noodles (which can be seen as offensive in some Asian cultures) or dramatisation in the props used to style ethnic foods – why are Asian dishes so often styled on bamboo mats or banana leaves with chopsticks?”
(*Side Post-It: I admit I had to Google “microaggressions”, and it means”the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.) In other words, should I be offended each time someone in Madrid asks me if I’ve been to the new Yatai Market on Doctor Cortezo?)
Bizarre food styling
As an example of such microaggression, chef, food critic and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern’s recipe for Philippine Ribs came with a picture styled with… chopsticks. This was amusing and indeed bizarre for a couple of reasons: a. Pinoys don’t use chopsticks (unless we’re eating Chinese or Japanese food at a restaurant) and b. Andrew Zimmern had in fact visited the Philippines in 2007 (the recipe was published in 2015) and feasted on balut (duck fetus), uok (fat worms living in coconut tree barks), and mangrove worms that look like Cthulhu’s babies – fresh from the bark in a Palawan mangrove to boot!
Surely, he would’ve observed that we’re not part of the chopsticks-using Asian populace, right? Or maybe he was too busy digesting the gourmet nematodes to give an F. (My theory is that this was the fault of an overzealous but well meaning food stylist.)
Still, props to Andrew for being brave enough to proclaim that “Filipino food will be the next big thing”. That was back in 2012 though, and five years later, I wonder if he still feels the same way!
Use the fork, Luke.
Anyway, since I’d rather not entangle myself with identity politics and ruin my lunch, let me share a few things that I do find amusing with regards to chopsticks, I guess as someone from that exotique part of the world living in a city that I believe has just recently tuned into the pan-Asian food craze (at least a decade late, but hey, that’s Madrid for you).
For one, I noticed that a lot of Thai restaurants in Madrid have chopsticks on their tables. If you’ve been to Thailand, you’d know that traditional Thai dishes are normally eaten with a spoon and fork – what a novel concept! Yep, spoon on the right hand and fork on the left (like in the Philippines) – the better to scoop up all that divine rice.
It’s a predominant misconception that Thai use chopsticks, and again, maybe so for Chinese style noodles, but a lot of Thai restaurants in Madrid still provide chopsticks anyway. I guess it just fits in with the whole Asian image.
The one thing that really drives me batty me about the use of chopsticks, and for the most illogical reason, is when people stick their chopsticks almost vertically in a bowl of rice. (There are loads of Instagram and Shutterstock photos showing this too.) This is really bad manners and also considered bad luck in Japan and China.
Anyway, as someone coming from a Feng Shui following, Japan-adoring and superstitious family, I can honestly say that seeing this just gives me a visceral reaction (even if I’m not Chinese or Japanese), because I was told that this was bad luck.
The reason behind this is that chopsticks stuck in rice represents death. In Chinese and Japanese funerals, this is how a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a dead person. The Japanese even have a word for this: “tsukitatebashi” (“piercing chopsticks”). So I asked my friend and Japanese chef, Stephane Shoji of L’Artisan Furansu Kitchen in Madrid’s Barrio de las Letras district what this means exactly, and he said “it’s an offering to the ancestors’ spirits, therefore it’s not to be used as table manner.”
Personally, I only found out about this waaay after I was hardwired to not do it. (But then again, it’s considered good manners in China and Japan to slurp a bowl of soup. Everything is relative indeed.)
Still, as a personal quest to put the “Zen” in global citizen, it’s just good to do a little research – especially if you’re one of those people addicted to photographing your awesome-looking food in the eternal quest to curate your life in the digisphere!