keywords | cultural food colonialism, superfoods, tea, authenticity, nutritionism, health-conscious eaters
abstract | Matcha has served as the focal point of the Japanese tea ceremony, chanoyu, for hundreds of years. More recently, this powdered green tea has arrived on the shores of North America as one of the latest superfood “discoveries.” Like many of the other superfoods that have captured the attention of the West, matcha’s newfound global popularity reflects what philosopher Lisa Heldke calls “cultural food colonialism.” However, while many ethnic foods and superfoods are viewed and judged through the lenses of authenticity and exoticness, matcha has seen an erasure of its cultural identity since its arrival in the United States. This essay extends Lisa Heldke’s concept of cultural food colonialism by applying it to a new population: health-conscious eaters, writers, and marketers in the United States. By discussing matcha largely in the context of its health and nutritional benefits while ignoring its cultural ties to Japan, this population is engaging in a novel form of cultural food colonialism.
A small lump of mossy green powder with a slightly chalky consistency transforms, when whisked inside a cup of hot (but not quite boiling) water, into one of the most culturally significant beverages in Japan. This fine powder is the end result of a process that involves the grinding of Camellia sinensis leaves cultivated in a particular Japanese style—a process that results in the Japanese green tea known as matcha. In the most traditional of settings, this tea is consumed in a teahouse within a garden. Guests arrive, wash their hands and mouths with water to purify themselves and remove their shoes before entering. They then kneel on straw mats in an arrangement chosen by the host. The host arrives last and formal greetings are exchanged. The host prepares the tea in special bowls while the guests converse. The host serves tea to each guest in a bowl specifically selected with them in mind, and the guests drink. After the tea is consumed, everyone sits in silence, first to admire the tea bowls, then to observe the host cleaning the bowls. The host then leaves to get more water for the next tea ceremony, regardless of whether or not a second ceremony is expected. At this point, goodbyes are exchanged, and the guests leave.
This intricate ritual, known as chanoyu or the Japanese tea ceremony, is one of the traditional ways that matcha has been consumed in Japan for hundreds of years. Within the last decade, this powdered green tea has arrived on the shores of North America as one of the latest superfood “discoveries.” Like many of the other superfoods that have captured the attention of the West in recent decades, matcha’s newfound popularity in the United States reflects what philosopher Lisa Heldke calls cultural food colonialism.
Heldke describes cultural food colonialism as the penchant among Western food adventurers for “cooking and eating ethnic foods—most frequently the foods of economically dominated or ‘third world’ cultures.” Heldke’s concept focuses on the way that the food adventurer—a term she uses to represent a particular group of eaters who seek out new eating experiences—consumes ethnic food. In this context, novelty, exoticness, and authenticity all help to frame the way these food adventurers eat and think about what they eat. The consumption of superfoods like matcha in the United States likely includes food adventurers seeking a new and unusual drink. However, these foods are frequently consumed by a different category of eaters, those more concerned with a food’s health benefits than its origin. This category of eaters who engage in cultural food colonialism do not fit into Heldke’s food adventurer model, revealing the possibility that it might be expanded to an additional group.
This essay does not aim to redefine cultural food colonialism, but instead, extends its use to another category of eaters. Heldke depicts cultural food colonialism as enacted by food adventurers engaged in the conquest of new cuisines and dishes. I argue that cultural food colonialism is a useful frame to apply to another population: health-conscious eaters. By reframing or erasing the cultural markers of certain superfoods, these health-conscious eaters eat ethnic foods with a different set of motivations than food adventurers but with ultimately the same effect.
Exploring the way in which matcha is discussed in the U.S. health and wellness context illustrates how a health-centric focus can serve to erase the cultural context from which a superfood originates. While many ethnic foods and superfoods are viewed and judged through the lenses of authenticity and exoticness, matcha has seen its cultural markers largely erased from mainstream U.S. discourse. It is only rarely consumed in a way that is reminiscent of its traditional preparation in Japan. Instead, matcha has been reinvented in the United States as a healthy ingredient that can be added to anything from smoothies to muffins. This consumption of matcha in the United States is predominantly health-focused, and U.S. marketers and health-food writers highlight its high antioxidant content, along with its multitude of health benefits, including fat-burning and cancer-fighting properties. In transforming the way that matcha is consumed and framing it based on these properties, health and wellness writers, health food marketers, and health-conscious eaters have effectively erased the cultural context from which matcha originates. In the United States, matcha is not clearly tied to Japan or the traditional ways it is consumed there. In a sense, matcha has become a food from nowhere. The process by which matcha has been extricated from its origins is the focus of this essay.
In this essay, I argue that the way that many people in the United States talk about, think about, and consume matcha serves to erase its cultural distinctiveness. To make this argument, I first provide context for the popularity of superfoods in the United States, as well as specifically for the rise in popularity of matcha. In the following section, I provide a brief historical and cultural background of matcha in order to provide context for how consumption in the United States has shifted away from these origins. I then introduce Lisa Heldke’s concept of cultural food colonialism and its primary population of analysis: food adventurers. In the next two sections, I explore how health-conscious eaters practice a form of cultural food colonialism in the consumption of certain superfoods by engaging in cultural erasure. I do this by discussing how matcha is framed in the U.S. public imagination through a content analysis of articles from popular media sources on health and eating, marketing materials from North American matcha companies, and reviews of matcha products from health-conscious eaters. Using two of Heldke’s frames for understanding cultural food colonialism as enacted by food adventurers—exoticness and authenticity—I build on Heldke’s concept to argue for its utility in understanding a greater range of ways in which U.S. eaters problematically engage with the cuisines and dishes of other cultures.
The term superfood is used to describe “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.” These nutrient and energy dense foods have captured the attention of many in the United States in recent years and become an important economic force (the 2015 global projection for nutritional foods was $130 billion). In addition to an important economic influence, superfoods have become cultural foci in the United States; each year provides an array of new and trendy products as well as branding and marketing materials that proudly trumpet these foods as the latest nutrient-loaded wonders.
In “Superfoods That Don’t Have Publicists,” Ian Marber, a nutrition consultant and columnist, suggests that the key factor that determines whether or not a food is identified as a superfood has little to do with scientific research and is more closely tied to its marketing. Marber identifies a superfood as “any food with a publicist,” pointing out that superfoods are easier to publicize if they have an exotic origin: “Ideally, it would have been favoured by local tribes for many thousands of years to give them energy to prepare them for battle or fight pain. If it has anything to do with fertility or sexual stamina, that’s marketing gold.” This provocative statement suggests that superfoods are marketed with a similar emphasis on their authentic, exotic nature as other ethnic cuisines. However, Marber’s narrative does not capture the complete story. For one, this argument overlooks many popular superfoods that lack the same exotic appeal. Items like kale, flax seeds, blueberries, turmeric, and hemp are a few examples of popular superfoods that are marketed with little to no emphasis on their geographic or cultural origins. The 2016 book Superfoods provides a variety of perspectives on superfoods with chapters by food writers, physicians, medical journalists, and nutritionists, including Marber, whose above-mentioned piece is featured. Numerous authors talk about the rising popularity of these foods in restaurants, packaged products, the farmers’ market, and a number of other venues. Few chapter authors, Marber aside, explicitly reference the origins of any of the superfoods they discuss. What is discussed in much more detail is the multitude of health benefits that have been associated with these superfoods.
Superfoods have been variously claimed to provide anti-aging, weight-loss, detox, muscle building, and other health benefits. It is these perceived benefits that push many consumers to purchase these foods. The typical consumers of superfoods have been described as “health-conscious shoppers.” These buyers engage in the consumption of foods from around the world but not explicitly because these foods are exotic or foreign. One such food that has become incredibly popular in the United States over the last five years is matcha.
In the United States, matcha has been redefined as the latest trendy essential among health food and superfood advocates. As one article exclaims, “[Y]ou’ll find everything from matcha muffins, brownies and puddings, to matcha soup, stir frys, and even matcha guacamole!” This quote expresses the variety of non-traditional ways that matcha is consumed in the United States.
The rise in matcha’s popularity follows a trend of rising tea sales in the United States. Between 1990 and 2014, sales of tea increased from about $2 billion to over $10 billion. Matcha’s rise in popularity is even more recent. There is limited data reflecting matcha sales or imports in the United States, but a look at its rising use as a search term can provide a sense of matcha’s growing popularity. A Google Trends analysis of the search term “matcha” in the United States reveals that Google searches started to pick up around 2012 and have steadily increased year-after-year, with significant spikes in popularity during April 2015 and June 2017. This trend suggests that matcha has steadily gained popularity in the last five years in the United States and seems likely to maintain a popular product in the near future.
Matcha is distinct from most other tea due to the way it is cultivated, processed, and prepared. This green tea is made from shade-covered leaves, called tencha. Growing tea in the shade is a largely Japanese tradition, and it produces a tea described as having less astringent qualities and a stronger vegetal taste. Tencha and other shade-grown Japanese teas (including gyokuro and kabusecha) are high quality teas that often come with an equally high price tag. The harvested tencha leaves are deveined and ground into a fine powder. Unlike most contemporary teas, where the leaves are steeped and then removed from hot water, traditional ground matcha is whipped. The green tea powder is whisked into water until it dissolves. This process leaves a cup of opaque green liquid with wisps of white froth on top.
Zen Buddhist monks, returning from China, introduced whipped teas to Japan in the late twelfth century. Initially, this tradition was confined to temples, where monks used whipped tea as an aid for meditation. However, over the next few centuries, whipped tea spread to elite and ordinary people alike, where it became an important piece of the social fabric as well as a ceremonial staple. Consumption among elite classes took on an element of terroir, in which “foods grown in a particular area acquire a flavor profile derived from the area’s climate, water, and terrain.” Tea tasting competitions became prominent, during which participants were tasked with identifying a cup of matcha according to the region or plantation where it was grown. It was not until the eighteenth century that steeped tea, also introduced from China, overtook whipped tea as the mainstream method of tea preparation in Japan.
Matcha’s significance in Japanese culture is largely attributable to its role in chanoyu, the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The origins of chanoyu are difficult to place precisely, but they likely can be traced to various ceremonies and the tea’s use as a meditation aid at the various Japanese monasteries and temples where whipped teas were first consumed after arriving from China. Many of the guidelines and beliefs of the modern practice of chanoyu can be traced to tea master Sen no Rikyū during the sixteenth century, including a philosophy focused on harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility designed as a parable for everyday life. These origins situate the ceremony firmly in Zen Buddhism.
The ceremony itself is incredibly ritualized and includes precise steps and etiquette for the host and guests, guidelines for preparing the tea, specific utensils, and intentionally chosen drinking vessels. Simultaneously, chanoyu emphasizes flexibility. Chanoyu draws on the Japanese concept of ichigo-ichie, or “one meeting, one time,” which emphasizes that, despite the ordered ritual surrounding the chanoyu, no two ceremonies are alike: the conversations, the individual participants, the atmosphere of the setting, and the tea itself all differ with each ceremony, making the occasion unique and unrepeatable.
The amount of attention and specificity that is given to all parts of chanoyu reflect folklorist Roger Abrahams’s discussion of food choices. Abrahams, in his book chapter “Equal Opportunity Eating: A Structural Excursus on Things of the Mouth,” argues that food choices extend far beyond the ingredients and the type of food served to include how the item is prepared, when it is consumed and with whom, as well as the etiquette that surrounds the occasion. For matcha, its consumption as a culturally significant food choice in Japan is tied to the way that it is prepared and consumed with the etiquette and ritual of chanoyu serving as one means of its traditional consumption in Japan.
While today matcha is often consumed outside of these traditional confines in Japan and has historically been consumed outside of the tea ceremony, the relationship between matcha and chanoyu is clear. However, by facilitating the popularity of matcha in the United States without similarly carrying over knowledge of chanoyu, health-conscious eaters and the marketers of health foods are serving to erase matcha’s cultural significance. In this sense, these American matcha consumers and marketers are engaging in a form of cultural food colonialism.
In her book Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer, Heldke introduces the term cultural food colonialism to describe the appropriation of cultural food practices that occurs when food adventurers engage in “cooking and eating ethnic foods—most frequently the foods of economically dominated or ‘third world’ cultures…and strongly motivated by an attitude with deep connections to Western colonialism.” Heldke’s articulation of cultural food colonialism is concerned with the economic and political power differentials that exist between historically colonized and colonizer cultures. This power-laden relationship plays out in the ways that Euro-American eaters seek out ethnic foods as well as in their expectations regarding the authenticity, novelty, and exoticness of these foods from colonized cultures.
Heldke discusses cultural food colonialism as enacted largely by a particular group of eaters, a group that she refers to as food adventurers. Food adventurers, as Heldke describes them, engage in eating ethnic cuisines as “an expedition in the unknown, a pursuit of the strange.” This curiosity about and pursuit of certain cuisines because of the very fact of their unfamiliarity is central to how food adventurers engage in cultural food colonialism. However, as Heldke herself notes in the introduction to Exotic Appetites, this is only one way in which cultural food colonialism can be enacted in relation to a particular cuisine. The homogenization of certain cuisines to make them more appealing to “the American consumer” is another such context. I will make the argument that another group of consumers in the United States, whom I refer to as health-conscious eaters, also engage in cultural food colonialism but by a different means than Heldke’s food adventurers.
One of the primary lenses through which food adventurers perform cultural food colonialism is that of the exotic. Heldke defines exoticness as “that which is not native to a place becoming ‘excitingly unusual’—fascinating and desirable because of its ‘foreignness.’” This definition combines notions of foreignness with those of the “excitingly unusual.” Johnston and Baumann, in their book Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape, offer a similar characterization focused on social distance and norm-breaking. In their respective discussions of food adventurers and foodies, Heldke as well as Johnston and Baumann point out that the lens of the exotic is bound up with subjectivity. For the most part in the U.S. context, exoticness is used in popular culture and mainstream media to describe foods and cultures that lie outside white, Euro-American cultural expectations and norms.
Heldke’s discussion of exoticness is intimately linked to perceived novelty, another central lens through which she argues that food adventurers engage in cultural food colonialism. The desire for new food experiences among food adventurers leads to a constant search for the latest dish, ingredient, or flavor. Novelty by its very nature is fleeting and quickly leads to a dish losing this appeal among food adventurers. This issue comes up in the context of some superfoods, such as noni juice, baobab powder, and dandelion greens, which became major hits only to fade from popularity and many supermarket shelves months later.
The concept of the exotic draws significantly from Edward Said’s seminal 1978 work, Orientalism. Among the meanings that Said says can be applied to Orientalism, two are significant to discussions of cultural food colonialism and the exotic. First, Orientalism can be understood as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” This style of thought informs the actions of Heldke’s food adventurers or Johnston and Baumann’s foodies as they identify cuisines outside their own cultural background and experience as exotic. In a related sense, Said describes Orientalism as meaning “a Western style of dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” This interpretation of Orientalism is more significant when one considers Heldke’s project of cultural food colonialism, which is partially enacted through relying on the exotic as a lens.
While some superfoods are popularized in the United States by marketing their exotic origins, this has largely not been the case with the rise in matcha consumption. Rather, matcha’s popularization in the United States appears to largely be a reflection of its health benefits. A survey of articles from popular online sources for health and wellness information reveals that the health benefits of matcha receive significant attention, while many articles make only a passing reference to its Japanese origins and cultural significance there.
Gigi Engle of Elite Daily, an online news and popular culture platform whose target audience is predominantly millennial women, provides one of the clearest examples of the erasure of matcha’s Japanese cultural markers in the United States in the article, “If You’re Not Drinking Matcha, I Don’t Know WTF Is Wrong With You.” The article opens in a way that suggests the clear health focus of Engle’s argument: “What if I told you that you could walk into Starbucks and get a drink that improves your metabolism, cures the worst hangovers and even fights cancer for just 87 cents?” In a nearly 1200-word article, Engle quotes several experts to discuss matcha’s high levels of antioxidants, in particular catechins or EGCGs, its concentration of L-theanine, which provides “calm alertness,” and its cancer fighting properties. By contrast, Engle mentions matcha’s Japanese origins twice, providing the bare minimum of detail as she writes “[Matcha] is so hot right now despite being a really, really old Japanese tradition.” This overwhelming preference for discussing the health effects of matcha over its cultural origins is similarly reflected in articles in the Washington Post, Refinery29, and Health.com.
In a Bodybuilding.com article called “The 8 Wonders of Matcha Green Tea,” Dr. Sara Solomon, continues this focus on the health effects of matcha consumption, providing eight benefits including: cancer preventer, anti-ager, detoxifier, mind improver, and “energy energy.” However, this article is also somewhat of an outlier in the discussion of matcha in health and wellness popular literature. In describing matcha’s anti-aging qualities, Solomon highlights the tea’s Japanese origins in a way that is reminiscent of how other superfoods are marketed:
One of the locales in the world where people live the longest is Okinawa, Japan. The Okinawan people’s longevity has been partly attributed to regular consumption of Matcha Green Tea.
By describing Okinawa in this way, Solomon is creating an allure or mystique around life there. In this context, Okinawa is presented in a way that gives it an othering or exotic quality as a place where long life is common. However, the purpose of this othering is to further promote the health benefits of matcha.
It should be noted that some writers do provide a more contextualized description of matcha and its cultural heritage, such as Kathy Y.L. Chan of Eater, an online platform dedicated to culinary news, who provides roughly equal time to discussing the beverage’s cultural origins as to its nutritional benefits. However, Engle’s description, which focuses on health benefits and limits references to history or culture, is much more representative of how matcha is discussed in the U.S. food, health, and nutrition media context.
Rather than highlighting the cultural markers of matcha that make it distinctly Japanese and framing it as other or exotic, the authors of these pieces are instead hyperfocused on its nutritional qualities. This focus reflects what Gyorgy Scrinis refers to as “nutritionism”—a nutritionally reductive approach to food in which the focus on nutrients “has come to dominate, to undermine, and to replace other ways of engaging with food and of contextualizing the relationship between food and the body.” Matcha fits the description of what Scrinis refers to as a “functionally marketed food” or a food that is marketed based upon claims linking the food to certain nutrients, diseases, or states of health and well-being. In the case of matcha, the focus on its nutritional benefits has served to decontextualize it from culture as well.
Further evidence that matcha is discussed in a nutritionally reductionist way in the United States, rather than focusing on its origins or framing it as exotic, can be seen in the way some leading matcha companies market the product to consumers. A number of companies have begun selling and marketing matcha as online retailers. These brands, including Midori Matcha, My Matcha Life, and Matcha Source, feature modern websites that serve to frame matcha as a functionally marketed food. Midori Matcha, a cold-brewed matcha company based out of Los Angeles, refers to the high mountains of Japan as the source of its ceremonial grade matcha and makes passing reference to the Japanese tea ceremony. However, the limited content on its website is largely concerned with matcha’s nutritional and general health benefits. This is evident as one scrolls down to the benefits section of the website, which features an image of a well-built shirtless man running on the beach and is marked with three headers: “Energy, Focus, and Antioxidant.” Similarly, upon opening the homepage of My Matcha Life, the most immediately visible content is the three part descriptor “More Clarity; More Energy; More Life.” My Matcha Life does provide a page on the history of matcha (and green tea generally), although this information is not as prominently displayed as the health benefits on the homepage.
Matcha Source, an American company that sells matcha, dedicates an entire page of their website to its health benefits, the headline of which reads: “a cancer-fighter, a fat-burner, and much more, matcha leaves other green teas far behind.” Matcha Source uses a three part Ven diagram to frame matcha as an “Energy Booster; Calorie Burner; and Detox Deluxe.” The health claims connected to matcha mainly focus on its incredible concentration of antioxidants, and Matcha Source provides a graphical representation of the overwhelming number of antioxidants available in matcha compared to other superfoods. These antioxidants are suggested to have a range of health benefits, including protection against heart disease and cancer, anti-aging benefits, and increased metabolism.
It is worth comparing the way that these U.S. companies frame matcha as a functionally marketed food with the website of Sugimoto, a Japanese tea company that recently began distributing in the United States. This company sells a range of Japanese green teas of which matcha is just one line of products. Tradition is placed at the forefront of their website with the statement “Japanese Green Tea Maker Since 1946,” the first visible content on the home page with multiple pages dedicated to the story of the company and the geographic areas from which they source their tea. Sugimoto also provides information on the health benefits of green tea and links to scientific studies on the health benefits, but missing are the catchy health-focused taglines.
The way that matcha is discussed in both the health and wellness media and by the U.S. companies that market it online suggests that the product is rarely marketed as exotic. Rather than emphasizing its geographic origins and building up cultural difference by, for example, emphasizing the unique Eastern qualities of the Japanese tea ceremony or its relationship to Zen Buddhism, these groups largely overlook matcha’s context to focus on one particular area of interest—the health benefits that matcha provides. In doing so, U.S. health and wellness writers and salespeople have framed matcha as a functionally marketed food—one that caters to its health benefits without providing a greater context. In this sense, Heldke’s focus on the exotic is not helpful in understanding the way that U.S. matcha consumption perpetuates a form of cultural food colonialism.
Reviewing the way in which matcha is discussed in the health and wellness media as well as by food marketers suggests that it is not exoticized. In looking at how matcha is consumed by a segment of the U.S. health-conscious eater population, this essay now moves from Heldke’s exotic frame to another central frame by which food adventurers engage in cultural food colonialism: authenticity.
Cultural food colonialism is also enacted through the lens of authenticity. Food adventurers desire authentic food experiences. However, the ambiguity of this term leads to complications in its usage by food adventurers and other eaters. According to Johnston and Baumann, authenticity is both socially constructed and relational. Concerning a particular food, this suggests that the product itself has no authentic qualities; rather, its authenticity is constructed by its relationship to a particular individual or social group. In the context of Heldke’s food adventurers, authenticity is determined by these eaters’ relationship with, and perception of, a particular ethnic food from outside their own culture. This situation reinforces the power dynamic of cultural food colonialism whereby food adventurers determine the authenticity of other people’s foods.
Johnston and Baumann suggest that geographic location, history and tradition, and ethnic connection are prominent factors in determining authenticity. These interpretations of authenticity closely replicate a few of the ways in which Heldke posits that food adventurers view authenticity: namely, authentic as replicable and authentic as native. In the first sense, Heldke says authentic food is “prepared the way it would be in its culture of origin.” Both of these interpretations of authenticity are very much concerned with origins. Examining the ways that health-conscious eaters talk about the matcha they consume complicates this focus on origins and brings into question the utility of authenticity as a characteristic of how cultural food colonialism is enacted.
The degree to which matcha consumption has strayed from tradition and concern for origins and authenticity is captured by a number of reviews of Republic of Tea’s green tea matcha. Diana, from California, blends matcha “with soy milk, ice, stevia and honey or agave nectar for a refreshing summer cooler!” Andy, from Oklahoma, includes matcha in his health-focused smoothies: “I generally use it in smoothies with Soy Milk, Protein powder, banana and ice…Always feel so good after drinking it.” Molly, from Florida, likewise consumes matcha for its health benefits: “A little bit goes a long way. I make a batch and refrigerate. I add fruit juice for flavor. I suffer from auto immune and am using this tea to improve stamina.” Diana, Andy, and Molly have created their own uses for matcha that focus on its health benefits while preparing it in a way that distances it from its traditional context and eschews authenticity.
While the reviews from Diana, Andy, and Molly neglect or overlook the cultural context from which matcha is drawn, other reviewers explicitly reject matcha in its more traditional form. Amy, from New York, describes it as undrinkable: “[T]his tea tastes like poster paint (not that i know what that’s like), so bad i thought i had bought an expired product…[sic]” Rebecca explicitly recommends altering the traditional bitter, vegetative taste: “I had this tea in Japan and hated it. Then had Matcha Tea ice cream. Sugar definitely improves the flavor!” In Amy and Rebecca’s respective cases, the “traditional” Japanese style of consuming matcha is described as undrinkable or disgusting. Preferred consumption of matcha among reviewers focuses on preparations that combine a variety of ingredients largely unused in the traditional Japanese context.
Other Republic of Tea reviewers consume matcha in a way that is more in line with traditional matcha consumption. MariC, from New Jersey, says, “I love this tea, it’s one of my favorites!! Every afternoon I whip a cup of it. I love it’s [sic] earthy taste and lovely green color. After I drink it I feel happy and uplifted…” Likewise, Brynn Naomi, from Connecticut, bought some for his sister as a gift, and she is concerned with “the science behind proper preparation.” Interpreted together, MariC and Brynn Naomi suggest that there are a variety of matcha consumers in the United States.
While MariC and Brynn Naomi talk about enjoying and consuming matcha in a similar way to traditional Japanese consumption, the dominant narrative around matcha in the United States frames it as a superfood consumed predominantly with health benefits in mind, an enactment of Scrinis’s nutritionism paradigm. These uses of matcha serve to decontextualize it from its geographic and cultural origins but do not fit cleanly into how food adventurers engage in cultural food colonialism as described by Heldke.The majority of Republic of Tea reviewers do not drink matcha with the explicit motivation to consume something exotic or with a concern for its cultural authenticity. However, this consumption of matcha is an enactment of cultural food colonialism of another form. By focusing narrowly on the health benefits of matcha and transforming it in a way that erases the context of its origins, U.S. health-conscious eaters are delinking matcha from Japanese culture—they are creating a food from nowhere.
This erasure of the cultural origins of matcha represents a form of cultural food colonialism that is reminiscent of cultural anthropologist Mario Montaño’s discussion of cultural erasure concerning fajitas and menudo along the Rio Grande (the border between Texas and Mexico) in his book chapter “Appropriation and Counterhegemony in South Texas: Food Slurs, Offal Meats, and Blood.” These dishes have been adopted by Anglo-Texans and altered to fit their cultural and culinary preferences. In both cases, the dishes have become dissociated from their cultural origins and no longer reflect the Mexican and class contexts from which they arose. In much the same way, matcha in the United States has been disassociated from its original meaning and assimilated into U.S. health-conscious eating trends.
Heldke’s original articulation of cultural food colonialism focuses on the way that the food adventurer consumes ethnic food. In this context, novelty, exoticness, and authenticity all help to frame the way that food adventurers eat. The consumption of superfoods, like matcha, is likely to include food adventurers seeking the exotic experience of something authentically Japanese. However, as this essay has argued, matcha is frequently consumed by a different category of eaters, a group more concerned with its health benefits than its novelty or authenticity.
This essay suggests that health-conscious eaters of matcha and other superfoods are not engaging in the same activity of food adventurers—that is to say that they are not explicitly consuming matcha as “an expedition into the unknown, a pursuit of the strange.” To revisit my discussion of Said’s two articulations of Orientalism, these eaters are not consuming matcha because they view it and Japanese culture as epistemologically and ontologically distinct from themselves in the way a food adventurer might. However, in consuming and discussing matcha in a way that erases its cultural context, these health-conscious eaters and those who discuss and market matcha in the United States are engaging in the project of cultural food colonialism, which connects to Said’s other articulation of Orientalism—that of “dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” This narrative around matcha in the United States, one that focuses predominantly on its health benefits and abides by Scrinis’s nutritionism paradigm, is a reflection of the very same unbalanced power dynamics that Heldke identifies as allowing a U.S. food adventurer to determine what is authentic Thai cuisine. In the various ways that they eat and talk about cuisines and dishes from other cultures, U.S. food adventurers and U.S. health-conscious eaters are doing different things, yet the end result in both cases is a perpetuation of cultural food colonialism with all of its consequences.
This essay reintroduces Heldke’s concept of cultural food colonialism as a valuable concept to understand and discuss the effects of the many ways that globalization and cultural exchange impact cuisine. Expanding the concept of cultural food colonialism provides a valuable framework for future research that seeks to understand the phenomenon of superfoods.
As I noted earlier in the essay, matcha’s popularity in the United States continues on an upward trajectory. This staying power poses interesting questions for further research. While many exotic or novel foods are discussed as having a shelf life or expiration date for their popularity, this has not been the case with matcha, a product that has instead been framed as a health food and undergone cultural erasure. This relationship between nutritionism, cultural erasure, and the longevity of a particular dish’s popularity merits further research and discussion.
In Foodies, Johnston and Baumann caution against the unrealistic possibility of halting cultural exchange of cuisines:
Culinary isolationism is particularly unrealistic in today’s age of global travel, transnational commodity chains, and globally integrated food economies. In conditions of cultural interpenetration and heightened awareness of ecological interdependency, the question of non-colonial eating is not about whether transnational culinary exchanges should take place, and more about how these exchanges can happen through more equitable, less exploitative processes that address political, economic, and cultural privilege.
In this context, it is important to think about how culinary cultural exchange should occur. Heldke argues for strategic authenticity, which emphasizes the voices and perspectives of the people from whom a particular dish or cuisine originates to have control and influence on how this dish is exchanged and understood in a new cultural context. This strategic authenticity will help to prevent the food adventurer from shaping a food’s meaning based on their own subjective understanding of and relationship to a particular ethnic cuisine. Similarly, a model of cultural exchange that allows the originators of a food item like matcha to shape the discourse around it allows space for culture alongside its health properties. In this way, these foods will be connected to a culture and a place. They will not be like matcha in the United States today: a food from nowhere.
Matcha’s prominence in U.S. culture is likely to grow even greater in the next few years, as is the prominence of a number of yet-unknown new superfoods. As superfoods continue to arrive in the mainstream conscious of health-conscious American eaters, cultural food colonialism will continue to have relevance in understanding the role these foods play.
Nick Dreher received a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Oregon in 2016 with concentrations in food studies and sociology. His research interests lie in studying the ways that food shapes identity, interpersonal relationships, and cultural exchange. He is currently a resident of Seattle, Washington.