Hainanese chicken rice has long been a comfort food staple for untold millions around the world, including many who aren’t of Chinese descent. And when Theodore Rice, a writer who falls squarely in that not-of-Chinese-descent category, set out to learn to make one of his favorite dishes, he found himself embroiled in an existential dilemma that has settled over the larger culinary landscape. Yes, this story’s reductive dek (“Can a white guy from New York cook authentic Hainanese chicken?”) might induce a well-warranted shudder. But if you read past it, you’ll find a well-reported, nuanced piece that’s unafraid to interrogate food’s inescapable subtext — as well as the pitfalls of reflexive lockstep.
I began speaking to cooks, food writers, and restaurant owners about Hainanese chicken rice. I asked about their recipes, and also if they thought what was I was doing was cultural appropriation. Most drew a distinction between home cooking and the conflicts in professional settings. You could, it seemed, make whatever you wanted in the privacy of your own home. Turning a profit was the issue. I did not argue. Twitter was unlikely to get mad at me for making my family a crappy chicken rice. But the logic of cultural appropriation and food, which I was as interested in as an ethical dinner, suggested otherwise. The impulse to take from another culture, as a white person in the United States, was “problematic” even if I did not sell the final product.
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