It was over winter break when I first saw the commercial for Wendy’s new “Spicy Sriracha Chicken Sandwich.”
I was flipping through channels on the television out of boredom when all of the sudden a white teacher appeared on my screening pointing to a chalkboard with the words “SRIRACHA (SEE-RAH-CHA)” written in plain view.
Then, the commercial cuts to a white man tattooing a heart with the word “sriracha” in the middle and a young girl in her sriracha themed room dreamily uttering the word, “sriracha…”
Finally, the commercial ends with a full description of Wendy’s new “Spicy Sriracha Chicken Sandwich” which includes a sriracha jack-cheese, sriracha aioli, and a sriracha infused bun.
Now, while the commercial is obviously an innocuous, kooky advertisement promoting Wendy’s new product, it got me thinking about the way white westerners are consistently fascinated by “exotic,” non-western foods and use that fascination to create dishes that, in my opinion, are neither bona fide nor appealing.
This isn’t the first time that Wendy’s has introduced a dish with an “Asian flavor.”
A few years ago, Wendy’s unveiled their “Asian Chicken Salad” which consisted of edamame, cashews, grilled chicken breast, sliced cucumbers, diced red bell peppers, and a lettuce blend dressed with a light spicy Asian chili vinaigrette.
Although this chicken salad, like the sriracha sandwich, seems completely benign, I feel it is worth questioning what exactly makes this dish “Asian”?
Is it the edamame?
What ingredients make this salad go from an ordinary salad, to an exciting, “Asian” salad?
Now, I’m not someone who expects Wendy’s to be the kind of restaurant that keeps cultural awareness at the forefront of their recipes, but I feel that some of their dishes are a part of this larger trend of slapping the “Asian” label on any foods that happens to include ingredients like peanuts, mandarin oranges, sriracha, and soy sauce.
Take, for instance, this Home Chef “Korean Pork Medallions” recipe.
At the heart of this recipe lies a, what do you know, sriracha marinade.
And in spite of the fact that sriracha was created by David Tran, a Vietnamese-American man, this recipe is still given the label of being inspired by “Korean flavors,” which begs my previous question, “what is it about this dish that makes it Korean”?
Running in the same vein, this advertisement pointed out by Twitter user @CarmanTse showcases bibimbap (a Korean “mixed rice” dish consisting of seasoned vegetable, white rice, red pepper paste, and a fried egg) with kale and avocado which would make any Korean person go, “… excuse me?”
At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering, “why does this even matter? It’s just food. Why do you care?”
And to that, I respond by saying that as a Korean-American who grew up eating the foods that are now becoming the dish du jour, it is upsetting to see foods of my childhood be the source of an inspiration that has little regard for them.
Whenever I see “Asian” dish this or “Asian inspired,” I see dishes made by people who do not understand that Asia is a huge continent with a diversity of cultures, people, and cuisines.
East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian dishes all differ from one another, so the flippant use of the word “Asian” do not do these foods justice and displays a clear lack of specificity.
All too often, I feel that non-western cuisines are not allowed to be autonomous and are, instead, lumped with ingredients that do not make sense and are advocated by people outside of said cuisines’ cultural context.
For instance, a controversial article by Bon Appetit last september featured a white chef showing Bon Appetit’s audience the “proper way” of eating Pho (you can read more about the controversy here and watch the video here).
Rather than feature a local Vietnamese Pho restaurant to discuss the topic at hand, Bon Appetit opted for a non-Vietnamese man to act as the cultural kiosk for this dish.
Time and time again, people who are not a part of a food’s culture do the dissemination and education as opposed to people who have the cultural background.
The “Korean Pork Medallion” recipe was not created by a Korean individual, and I find it hard to believe that a Korean person came up with the “kale and avocado bibimbap” recipe.
However, this article should not suggest that people should only make food from their own culture and that not doing so is cultural appropriation.
Rather, within this context, I feel it is important to think about the words we choose to use when describing food, to be respectful of the culture of where this food is coming from, and to be mindful of who has and doesn’t have a seat at the dinner table during these conversations.
In their “Spicy sriracha Chicken Sandwich” advertisement, Wendy’s claims to be “fluent” in sriracha.
But, for the sake of fluency, Wendy’s, and many other chefs, recipes, and restaurants, detracts attention from the nexus of where this food is coming from resulting in a contrived, whitewashed dish that quite frankly leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
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Cover Photo Credit: Wendy’s Canada/ Youtube (Screengrab)