Maybe you’ve noticed that ingredients like matcha, spirulina and turmeric have been trending in certain dishes and drinks, such as lattes. If you aren’t familiar: Matcha is a powdered green tea; spirulina is a powdered algae, which is recognized as a superfood; and turmeric is a yellow spice used in curry that can work as an anti-inflammatory. Bon Appétit noticed too, and had an, um, interesting take on the phenomenon: The magazine’s Healthyish vertical published a piece this week that posed the question, “Why do this year’s biggest food trends taste like dirt?”
“What do matcha, turmeric, and spirulina have in common besides their status as wellness A-listers? They’re powder, they’re pretty, and they taste like dirt. Yes, I said it. If you drink a mug of matcha without knowing that it was matcha, you’d probably hate it,” wrote Kate Dwyer in a now-amended article. The story referenced a Google trend report that said “earthy” flavors are gaining in prominence — though many matcha and turmeric beverages in coffee shops are heavily sweetened.
There’s a big problem with this analysis, as some were quick to point out on Twitter. These powders may be suddenly mega-trendy in America, but they’ve been used in other cultures for centuries. Calling them “dirt” flavored perpetuates a false notion that foods from other cultures, particularly the cultures of people of color, are less worthy.
The Twitter user @joadanso summed it up: “Shoutout to @healthy_ish for throwing POC under the bus because white people finally caught onto their spices.”
The conversation continued on Twitter, with other people of color sharing their frustration with the tone of the article and others like it.
Meanwhile, Bon Appétit removed references to dirt in the story, and posted an apology: “An earlier version of this article was dismissive of cultures that’ve used matcha, turmeric, and spirulina for far longer than they’ve been trending in the Western world. We sincerely apologize and have amended the text.”
It’s great that people’s once-limited palates are expanding in new directions. But as they do, the language that we use to discuss food must be carefully considered. When people say they’re “refining” an immigrant cuisine, for example, it’s a code word that implies the food was not good enough before a (usually white) chef’s intervention. When people “discover” a great new ingredient that already existed, it’s Columbusing.
“Ethnic cuisines are considered low, and fusion cuisines are considered haute cuisines,” said Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches about the relationship between food and international conflict at American University’s School of International Service, to The Washington Post’s Lavanya Ramanathan, who wrote about why we should stop using the term “ethnic food.”
When people say that an immigrant food tastes like dirt (or any other negative trait), it’s food-shaming. It’s an issue that Post writer Tim Carman considered for his report on the rise of Filipino food: “It’s called ‘hiya’ (pronounced ‘hee-yah’ in Tagalog), and the word translates into English as ‘shame’ or ‘dishonor.’ Some Filipino immigrants in America have felt a sense of hiya around their food, with its duck embryos, pig’s blood, shrimp paste and other potentially hard-to-swallow ingredients.”
These traits all have serious economic consequences, too. A recent study found that foods from European cultures, like French and Italian, command among the highest prices (Japanese food also commands a high price). Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai foods command the lowest prices. Just don’t call them dirt cheap.
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