On Thursday, The New York Times labeled salad racist.
That’s right, salad.
In an opinion piece titled Why Is Asian Salad Still On The Menu? by Bonnie Tsui, it is argued that the Asian Salad reeks of cultural appropriation by racist Westerners who often use offensive puns and stereotypes to name such Americanized cuisine while fetishizing Asian culture.
Tsui’s anti-salad rant was triggered by the “Asian Emperor Salad” listed on a menu at a San Francisco joint she was dining at last Friday.
“I tried to identify exactly what that was,” wrote Tsui. “I made a halfhearted joke to my husband about just which Asian emperor this salad was honoring. I thought about its grand imprecision, which irritated me as a Chinese-American. And I wondered, ‘Who cooked up this thing?'”
Not Asians, apparently, and that’s racist.
“When the Asian salad fad exploded, something that was cooked up by non-Asians became, well, ‘Asian’ in the popular imagination. A single Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Cafe or Applebee’s could sell 500 Asian salads a week,” complains the NYT columnist.
Then things get real: Tsui is upset that the $12 “Oriental chicken salad” at a restaurant chain isn’t made with authentic Asian ingredients:
So what’s my problem with Asian salad? It’s not the salad itself, though it’s not my favorite. It’s the words — which, I think, matter. In many ways, the broad, generic terminology used to refer to an entire continent is the heart of it. Applebee’s menu features an “Oriental chicken salad” with the following description: “fresh Asian greens tossed in a tasty Oriental vinaigrette.” The “Asian greens” and “Oriental vinaigrette” are so laughably vague as to have no meaning at all. When I asked Applebee’s for more specifics on what made its Asian greens Asian and its Oriental vinaigrette Oriental, a spokesman told me the company was unable to “provide a thorough response.” No kidding.
Oddly, Tsui acknowledges that this sort of Americanized fusion happens with other cultures’ food too, but suggests that it’s somehow more important or worse with Asian culture:
While the Greek salad has some integrity — by this I mean that in Greece you will actually find a salad that looks like this — and the Caesar is a creation attributed to the 1920’s-era restaurateur Caesar Cardini, the Asian salad stands apart as a strange kind of fiction.
“Am I taking this too seriously?” she asks.
But there is no reflection upon the rhetorical question; Tsui simply doubles-down on the sensitivity.
“The casual racism of the Asian salad stems from the idea of the exotic — who is and isn’t American is caught up wholesale in its creation,” she writes. “This use of ‘Oriental’ and ‘Asian’ is rooted in the wide-ranging, ‘all look same’ stereotypes of Asian culture that most people don’t really perceive as being racist. It creates a kind of blind spot.”
In closing, Tsui says her main beef with Asian salad is the name, which belongs to the continent of Asia, not Westerners.
I find something bittersweet in this nostalgia for a fake fusion cuisine. Something created in the name of Asians by non-Asians has become a touchstone for non-Asians. I understand that it’s possible to feel fondness for a dish that is deeply inauthentic and I don’t resent that one bit. It has become its own thing. Just don’t call it Mr. Mao’s Chicken Surprise.
In sum, everything is racist.