The opinions expressed in the opinion columns are those of the author.
When I order from Starbucks, I tend to stick with what I know: a strawberry acai refreshment or chai milk tea. Recently I have tried branching out and trying other drinks. The one that caught my eye was their popular matcha iced milk tea, especially given the number of orders I saw the barista prepare.
matcha, a green tea native to Japan, is distinguished from other teas by its long traditional process of preparation and consumption. This Japanese tea ceremony, called chanoyu, is part of the function of tea as an aid to meditation in Japanese monasteries and temples. The ritual and the tea itself are inspired by the Japanese concept of ichigo ichie or “a meeting, once”, emphasizing the idea that no two ceremonies are the same as the conversations, the participants, the atmospheres and tea all differ at each ceremony.
My iced matcha tea latte was ready in under five minutes, made by a barista who quickly turned away to start the next drink.
In many cultures, the food-making process has more cultural and traditional significance than the product itself. However, the effects of colonialism spread deeply into capitalism, removing culture from cultural foods. Businesses and societies need to be more ethically aware of how culture becomes a commodity and how it can be lost when a product is sold. It is possible to share and celebrate culture and cuisine with respect. However, when companies and businesses prioritize profit over culture and history, the process can recall colonialism and erase the cultural significance of food.
Cultural Food colonialism is the desire of Euro-American eaters to seek out “exotic” foods from colonized cultures. Just because something can be represented in the dominant culture does not mean that it is representative of its original roots. If the food of a certain culture becomes popular, what changes in the process? What pieces of culture are lost in the name of commodification?
Food, a simple tangible element, can be a key part of one’s identity. According to Krishnendu ray, sociologist and professor of food studies at New York University, for second and third generation immigrants who have adopted Western clothes and languages, “food is almost the last cultural area of which they have a vivid memory.” .
For example, check out fajitas, a Mexican folk cuisine from the Rio Grande border region made of stripped pieces of meat served with tortillas, guacamole, beans, and rice. This type of Mexican cuisine was quickly adopted by Anglo-Texans to suit their own preferences.
This Mexican dish has a history and a culture of bringing the Mexican community together in other pockets of the world. In the past, Anglo-Texans saw the Mexicans as a “contaminated race” who made heavily spiced foods using poor quality ingredients. Due to racist assumptions, Anglo-Texans viewed Mexican food as unhealthy and unfit for human consumption.
However, despite this painful and traumatic history, fajitas and other Tex-Mex foods are top food choices for millions of people due to popular chains such as Chipotle and Qdoba. Yet, are these places really the best representation of Tex-Mex cuisine and culture? No. These are two companies that take advantage of food and its culture, without paying a real tribute to it.
It is possible to make and sell cultural food and honor the culture from which it comes. For example, Andy ricker, an award-winning chef, learned Thai cuisine, ingredients and language for 13 years before starting his own Thai restaurant. His commitment to learning the roots and origins of Thai cuisine reveals his respect for the culture and how he prioritizes that culture over profit.
Ricker proves that it is possible to learn, cook, eat and respect in one dish. It is problematic and insensitive for food companies and businesses to prioritize profit and quality without including culture. It is not that cultural food should be kept or hidden – on the contrary, culture should not be separated from food in the process of sharing. When a culture’s food is commodified to the point that it no longer retains any of its cultural aspects, traditions or importance with which it originally began, the process of appreciating cultural food becomes problematic. The representation of food means nothing if the culture is no longer linked to it. It is important for us to critically examine the roots of our foods in order to consume them ethically. We can enjoy matcha, fajitas, and other cultural foods that are mass produced by companies, but only if we inspire those companies to really take the time to learn the history of these foods and the culture they come from. .
Lei Danielle Escobal is a second year student in American Studies majoring in Sociology. She can be reached at [email protected]