by Ollie Arci
In this week’s social media furore, fast-food giant Burger King attracted scorn after an ill-advised marketing video was posted on the company’s Instagram account before being shared widely and mocked on other platforms.
In the short clip, several diners are shown attempting to eat a ‘Vietnamese Sweet Chilli Tendercrisp’ burger with oversized chopsticks. Like any good scandal du jour, it was quickly pounced upon with fans and foes taking things too far. The clip does, however, highlight a grander injustice.
The poor attempt at humour has a heritage, following hot on the heels of Dolce & Gabbana’s own brush with insensitivity just a few months ago. Cultural appropriation is nothing new, with Native American headdresses a common site at decidedly middle-class music festivals. This particular swipe hurts all the more because of its condescension.
Captioned "Take your taste buds all the way to Ho Chi Minh City", the burger-based marketing blunder is just the latest in western ‘borrowing’ of Asian culinary culture. Although perhaps not bona fide racial discrimination, at the very least the ad was mindless stereotyping of a varied region with rich food traditions. Never mind the burger, the tastelessness resided in the reduction of venerated history to a gag on eating utensils. ‘Isn’t it funny how they eat with little sticks!’ while presumably the cultured masses dig in with their grubby mitts.
Indeed, questioned on the streets of Hà Nội, one local student remarked how it felt like “discrimination between Western and Asian cultures”.
The chopsticks joke is just the tip of the boorish iceberg. Meticulously catalogued on Twitter, the foody faux-pas are legion, with clueless western admen churning out Asian twists on limp house salads to sate the latest fad. Bowls are then tweeted and shared by the all-knowing influencers, further diluting the food scene of yet another country.
Like the ‘breadless’ bánh mì, BK’s burger sounds about as Vietnamese as bangers and mash.
Burger King, and by extension all those guilty of using a nation to ‘exoticise’ a soggy menu, are taking the cheap route to revamp flagging sales. Vietnamese dishes are not slathered in sweet chilli sauce (which is not particularly Vietnamese anyway), but found from the street food sellers in cities and towns across the country. The real meal not on fluorescent-lit Formica, but spread between a smattering of bowls on a bamboo mat.
For Anthony Bourdain, certainly no fan of the identikit burger joints, Việt Nam was a paradise. It had "[a]ll of the things I need for happiness: Low plastic stool, check. Tiny little plastic table, check. Something delicious in a bowl, check".
Fruit is not safe either. A recent Guardian headline heralded the western discovery of the jackfruit, claiming it was left to rot on trees across the Indian subcontinent. Thank God for enlightened vegans rescuing the maligned fruit from an eternity of disdain. Perhaps it would go well in a tofu-phở?
The kitchen is no doubt a place for experimentation and the success of fusion cuisine is testament to the fact the quality flavours can be mixed in a culturally sensitive and delicious way. The quick and dirty rebranding of what is essentially a chicken sandwich is as far from gastronomy as you can get. It’s a cheap insult to the recipes passed down the generations, from the care and love imbued from the selection of ingredients to the patience required in preparation.
In a culture where food is rich with flavours and meanings, from the bánh chưng shared during Tết to the bánh Trung thu celebrating mid-autumn, eating is an integral part of identity.
In stark contrast to the philosophy of fast food, the breaking of bread is recreational and leisurely. A revered time to socialise with friends and family. Meals are offered at the altar, before being shared between nearest and dearest. It’s around these moments that much of daily life revolves. Throwing a bunch of ingredients together and calling it ‘Vietnamese’ is spitting in the face of that legacy.
Marketing choices like these also lump together the diverse regions of the country, along with their distinct culinary variations. Each known for their particular speciality, and each proud of the flavours inherited from their ancestors. Not one menu, but many.
For Việt Nam, the heart of the home is in the kitchen. It’s a bustling place of sounds and smells, of noise and activity. It is as central to festivities as to daily sustenance, and both joy and sorrow are shared in the steam-filled space. It reminds me of my Italian grandmother’s kitchen – alive with a passion for food.
This is what is lost when a culinary culture is reduced to buzz words. Slapping a term like ’Vietnamese’ or ‘Asian’ does nothing to enhance the flavour or increase a food’s authenticity, but lays bare the cultural vapidity from whence it came. The tendercrisp chunk of chicken may well have won over the focus groups, but at what cost? Thousands of years of history as a punchline? I’ll stick with my bún chả. VNS