Homemade Sushi and an Ethnic Food Rant

One of my biggest pet peeves in the food blog world is the cultural expert, who “knows” more about your culture’s food than you do.

Let me explain.

In the food blog world, we like to be adventurous in our culinary pursuits.  We want our blogs to be original and yum-inspiring.  A lot of times, that translates to some representation of ethnic cuisine that we hope no one has ever heard of and will be amazed by.    I say “we” because I’m just as guilty as any other blogger.  As a foodie and someone who studied international development for years, you can imagine how appealing exotic cuisines are to me.

But then one day a few months back, I was reading a blog while sipping my morning coffee.  As I read the blog post (featuring a recipe for arroz con pollo), my blood started to boil.

I won’t mention who wrote the post (I considered sharing a link but right now have decided against it) but the basic gist was that she grew up in Florida where she was surrounded by good Cuban food then moved to California and “was instantly homesick for good, authentic Latin American food.”

My question was who is she (a white woman) to know what “authentic” Latin American food is and how can California, full of Latin American immigrant communities, not have “good, authentic” Latin American food?  Don’t even get me started on all the racist undertones of the comments.

So you’re probably thinking I over-reacted.  In truth, I probably did, but as someone whose identity is so closely tied to being Latin American/Guatemalan, it made me think about the food blog world, documenting culinary traditions and what makes something authentic. Here a white woman who has an outsider’s superficial view of Latin American culture is telling hundred of people what “authentic” Latin American food is.

I’m not 100% okay with that.  In fact, it bothers me a lot, because for me food is so deeply tied to culture.  Not to mention food blogs are increasingly replacing cookbooks as a resource for knowledge of a variety of cuisines.  I mean how many times have you actually looked up a recipe in a book when you could quickly google it?

This isn’t to say that we as bloggers or people can’t make food from other cultures and share our experiences.  No no, I think trying new things is great.  But my hesitation comes when someone claims to represent an entire diverse culture that they know very little about.

The point of all this, is that this past weekend I attempted to make sushi.

I’m not going to tell you how to make sushi.  I probably did it all wrong.  It tasted good, and we (Guatemalan me and my Mexican boyfriend) had fun making it, but honestly we probably did it all wrong.  So I’ll spare you and won’t pretend to know it all.

Instead I’ll just share pictures, keep this from turning into an essay for an ethnic studies class and ask what you think?

What makes something authentic? Are food blogs changing the way ethnic foods are documented?  Do we have a responsibility to document that which is culturally “authentic?”  Other ideas?


10 thoughts on “Homemade Sushi and an Ethnic Food Rant

  1. Susan says:

    You’ve posed some interesting and provocative questions here. I probably tend to err on the side of not pretending to authenticity. The only food where I can reasonably claim any “authentic” knowledge is Polish food, and after I posted my mother’s recipe for krupnik (a soup) a native Pole wrote me an incensed email saying “this is not krupnik!” Since it was my (Polish) mother’s soup, this just goes to show that even within a region there are great differences of opinion regarding what goes into a local dish.

    When I read blogs I tend to take people’s claims to authenticity with a grain of salt, unless they substantiate those claims with an explanation that provides sufficient validation — e.g., heritage, direct exposure to a cooking tradition, legitimate study, etc. So reading the blonde, blue-eyed Floridian’s discussion of “authentic” Latin American food (I googled the post and found it), I take her claim with a hefty dose of salt, especially since she appears to be conflating Cuban-American cooking with Latin American cooking, which itself comprises many nationalities, each with their own many different techniques, regional flavours and dishes and methods. I.e., as a general descriptor, “Latin American” doesn’t say much. It would have been much better, I think, for her to say, “I miss Cuban-American food” and explain that her post was her attempt to replicate the flavours she loved….

    That said, appropriation is one of the great joys of cooking, right? Hence your (beautiful) “sushi.”

    • Karla says:

      “appropriation is one of the great joys of cooking, right?” Absolutely! My concern is her strong readership and representation of a culture through food (even if it wasn’t her intention to do so). People see her as an expert. I guess my basic point is the risk of misrepresentation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. HazMo says:

    Dude, how much do you spend on plates? That looks like a fancy sushi set for someone who only just started making sushi at home. I mean, the pictures look great which was probably the point but damn, you must have plates for every occasion!

    • Karla says:

      Haha funny you should mention that. I borrowed them from my sister 🙂 Actually I borrowed everything you need in this picture from my sister (including rice and sesame seeds). She knows I’m poor and is supportive of my cooking endeavors.

  3. Tiffany says:

    Ok, your sushi looks beautiful. My roommate has a sushi making kit so I hope to make some of my own soon.

    As for your questions, you bring up some interesting points. Being one from South Florida and moving away from there, I can see the bloggers point and how we goes to a Cuban restaurant but it doesn’t taste as good as she is used to in South Florida with the huge Cuban culture there. However when someone is talking authentic I really don’t think it is fair to judge them by their background and not take their past and experience into play. Example-one of my fair skinned friends (blond hair, blue eyes) lived in Argentina and Chile for six years and was well immersed in the culture since she worked and lived there instead of just vacationing. She has taught me more than I would ever imagine about that culture and when she says something is authentic, I trust her.

    • Karla says:

      I absolutely agree. Plenty of people have legitimate experiences in foreign cultures and genuinely know what is authentic. I didn’t mean to imply that the way someone looks affects their knowledge of a culture. Most members of my family don’t look like the typical Guatemalan, so we’re perfect examples of that.

      It’s tough for me to judge anyone based solely on their blog (although I guess I’m sort of doing that? my intention isn’t to attack a specific blogger, rather use her an example of something I see a lot), but ultimately it still brings up the question of insider/outsider knowledge.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. bananasforbourbon says:

    Girl, that looks like some dang fine sushi to me! Oh, but I’m not Japanese, so what do I know. Does it count that my husband is 1/2?

    As a white chick who grew up in a community where I was the minority, I have to say, I don’t give two fat flying figs about food being “authentic”. In fact, that term is a huge turnoff for me. I think when people use it they mean NOSTALGIC. They want something that is made the way they know and are familiar with and brings back memories for them. I don’t think people would enjoy eating the truly authentic meals of their ancestors. I care more about taste. Did it taste good? Yes! Was it “authentic”? WHO CARES?!

    My favorite example is when my friend took me to this godawful bar, claiming how authentic it was. A real AUTHENTIC English pub! And how he really loved AUTHENTIC English pubs! My interest was piqued. “Oh, have you spent time in England then?” I didn’t mean it as a challenge. I genuinely thought he was recalling a time in his life he was fond of. Turns out, nope! Never even been there. So what makes it authentic? That they served Boddingtons and fish and chips. Seriously.

    • Karla says:

      I agree. I think authentic a lot of times does mean nostalgic. But it makes me wonder about nostalgia for who or what?

      Obviously every person and situation is different but my concern is misrepresentation of someone’s culture (especially with food blogs gaining popularity, I’m thinking more along the lines of unintended consequences).

      We can all have opinions about whether or not we think something tastes good but to follow your lead… Did it taste good? No. Was it “authentic”? Yes, I should probably respect someone else’s palate and established way of doing it. Maybe I’ll avoid it in the future but at least I know that other people like it that way and I’m simply not a fan.

      In reality, no one probably thinks about this stuff (I have a tendency to overthink things), but I appreciate the discussion 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Antonio Tejada says:

    What an insightful post! (The same goes for the comments so far!)

    Indeed, I know exactly what you mean. I’m an American living in Switzerland, and I’ve had locals lecture me on what “real” American food, culture, etc. is. They think that because they spent two weeks traveling around the country (Route 66! Gotta see Route 66!) that it makes them an expert.

    I found your blog because a friend posted on FaceBook if anyone had Latin American recipes to share, specifically asking for ones with memories. That in turn made me remember my grandmother in Guatemala, and the foods we ate together. Of course the food was delicious. But I’ll never forget having frijoles volteados *with Abuelita*. Abuelita’s maid made them with a food mill. You use a blender. So what? Neither one is more or less “authentic” than the other. And when I eat those beans, it still takes me back! ❤

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