It’s safe to say that millennial foodie culture has skyrocketed in the past decade: the diversity of restaurants is admirable. Many ethnic foods have been transformed into major restaurant chains and popular hipster alternatives that have been economically successful. On the other hand , many smaller, localized—often people-of-color-owned—restaurants have closed due to gentrification of their own ethnic food. While it may seem progressive for a culture without as much representation to gain recognition, “trendifying” ethnic food becomes commercialized and it is rarely the ethnic group that benefits economically.
Let’s take the popular craze of the once-traditional Hawaiian Poke—often coined as a “sushi bowl”—where restaurant-goers can customize their own Poke bowls, consisting of a base layer of rice, topped with diced raw fish, dressings, and vegetable toppings. Even though Poke is in demand now, it did not start out this way. Poke has been a Hawaiian staple dish for many generations, as its traditional ingredients reflect the culture. When restaurant chains add new, trendy toppings to this dish or add a diacritical mark (poké) even though it doesn’t need one, a disassociation forms, and this can be seen as a form of appropriation.
We can see that many Eurocentric chefs and businessmen adapt these cuisines in a way that the majority of people will flock to, instead of supporting communities from which the ethnic food stems. Sons of Thunder, a popular spot located in Manhattan’s Murray Hill, serves poke along with burgers, hot dogs, and milkshakes. Owners, John and James describe their restaurant as, “west coast inspired—what you might find on a sunny day at a beach shack.” Their tagline, “quality west coast fare in NYC” itself is a problematic statement, compartmentalizing and commodifying poke as a “west coast” food, associated with burgers and shakes, when it in fact stems from a long Hawaiian tradition, completely unrelated.
Mark Noguchi, a well-respected Hawaiian chef, is pleased that Hawaiian cuisine is gaining the attention that it deserves, but he is opposed to the trivialization and commodification of poke. In an essay he wrote for First We Feast, Noguchi states: “People are writing about the poke trend, but no one is paying attention to the history of it. No one is bothering to ask how these new places became inspired. Everyone co-opts dishes today, including poke, all across the board. But here’s my question: Do you know and respect where the dish came from? If not, then you have no business making it.”
According to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot: Top 10 food trends for 2017,” “African flavors” took the tenth spot. Classifying ethnic foods as trendy is a form of gentrification. It is dismissive towards the past history and culture by suggesting that ethnic food has an expiration date. “It’s the next generation of sushi, but easier to eat” Dakota Weiss claims, owner of Sweetfin Poke, located in NYC. However, ethnic foods are not fads; they have been feeding millions of people for thousands of years.
This isn’t an issue we can fix overnight. However, as consumers, we need to be more aware of the repercussions from gentrifying cuisines when selecting where we choose to eat out. Instead, we need to vouch for the local businesses from which the ethnic food historically stems. Before we set out to try the next “sushi bowl” or another “trendified” ethnic food, consider the effects : Who are we really supporting?