8 Asians, a blog about Asian and Asian American issues, recently posted about how this photo of flan, condensed milk and red beans on top of shaved ice, a Taiwanese dessert, sent certain commenters on a popular food blog into hysterics of disgust. “looks like someone had a bad bowel movement” one person wrote, while another responded “you’re right….i guess if that ever came out of my @55 – i’d head straight to the emergency room.” [SIC… obviously!]
The 8 Asians writer asks if these comments are a form of “culinary racism” and “…at what point does someone’s objections to food start getting offensive?”
The latter is a question I’ve thought about quite a bit. As a Taiwanese American, I grew up hearing comments about the weird things Asian people eat. As an expat living in Taiwan, I often hear other foreigners kvetch about “weird” and “gross” Taiwanese food. For the most part, I think that labeling all such comments racist is going too far (though some certainly are racist or at least xenophobic). It’s OK to be honest and say that you aren’t comfortable eating something or that something is not your taste (literally). If you are fine with sounding childish or simply lack other means of expressing yourself, it’s even OK to say that you think something looks like shit.
What I do think is inappropriate, however, are comments like “gross, how can human beings eat that shit?” or “people who eat that crap can’t possibly be human.” I’ve heard both these things from other foreigners about Taiwanese food. I think it is highly offensive to imply that someone’s culinary habits make them somehow less than human, especially when the food they are eating is simply the norm for them.
I know that those people were just talking in hyperbole and perhaps thought they were being funny, but food is such a deeply intimate part of the human experience that I think it is extremely important to keep an open mind about it when you are getting acquainted with a new culture. I don’t mean that people should go around shoving every comestible they happen upon down their gullet (though you could), but there is nothing to be gained by being nasty about something that gives people nourishment and/or pleasure, even if you find it unappealing.
I once went to a shaved ice place with a large group of people and had the misfortune of sitting next to someone who kept making disparaging comments about our desserts. He pointed to my mound of ice, which was topped with green beans and condensed milk, and said “Gross! What are those? They look like eyeballs!” The moaning and sarcasm went on until I seriously felt like dumping my plate on him and screaming “Look! All eyes are on you!” I don’t know what he felt like he had to gain by bitching about our food, and I wonder if anyone asked him to dinner again after that.
I think there is a lot to be said for culinary cultural exchanges. When I was in junior high, my mom used to make me pork rousong sandwiches for lunch. One day my friend Shannon asked me what I was eating and when I told her, asked if she could have a bite. She loved it and since I had been coveting her sandwich, which was made from home-baked bread, we swapped lunches.
When I told my mom what had happened, she started to include extra rousong in my sandwiches for Shannon. As it turns out, Shannon’s mom also began to slice the bread in her sandwiches a little thicker. There isn’t a lot of baking in Chinese home cooking, so Shannon’s lunch represented a culinary novelty for me, just as my rousong sandwiches were something new for her. It also launched my teenage obsession with baking, which led to my setting our oven on fire the next year, but that’s a whole other post.
Anyway, flan-topped-condensed milk-topped-red beans-topped-shaved ice is a pretty commonplace dessert in Taiwan. I grew up eating red beans and condensed milk on shaved ice, but I’ve never had it with flan before. I try to avoid dessert places in general, because I have zero self-control, but after reading the blog entries and comments that prompted this post, I think I will go and treat myself to one. Sugar coma, here I come!