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The Cultural Politics of Fusion Cuisine Under Liberal Multiculturalism

Gazel Manuel argues for Zilkia Janer's essay, "(In)edible Nature: New World Food and Coloniality" (2007).

Published onDec 11, 2018
The Cultural Politics of Fusion Cuisine Under Liberal Multiculturalism

Zilkia Janer, “(In)edible Nature: New World Food and Coloniality,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (2007): 385–405.

This essay is concerned with the discursive framing of fusion cuisine in contemporary North American society. In North America, fusion cuisine is commonly understood as the amalgamation of an “ethnic” cuisine—often considered to be the cuisine of non-white subjects—with other cultural cuisines, although the latter usually refers to “American” or “European” cuisines. I argue that a critical analysis of fusion cuisine in the North American context must go beyond liberal multiculturalism and include other systems of power, such as settler colonialism and white supremacy. In particular, I take up Zilkia Janer’s 2007 article, “(In)edible Nature: New World Food and Coloniality,” as an example of successful analysis of the ways in which contemporary culinary epistemologies are ideologically and discursively informed by colonial repression and white supremacy.

At a basic level, fusion cuisine is defined as the mixing of ingredients and cooking techniques from different culinary traditions. In the contemporary moment, fusion cuisine represents cosmopolitanism as well as the embodiment of positive outcomes deriving from globalization and state multiculturalism. However, some consider it a threat to culinary “authenticity.”[1] Still others argue that fusion cuisine is part of liberal multiculturalism’s interest in assimilation for the end of nation-building.[2]

To better understand the contemporary phenomenon of fusion cuisine, Janer discusses the ways in which the historical repression of indigenous knowledge has a lasting impact on the culinary epistemologies that inform food preparation and consumption in the Americas (385). More specifically, her article focuses on the following three dimensions: (1) the degradation of indigenous culinary knowledges in the colonial era; (2) the enduring hegemony of French cuisine in the global culinary world; and (3) the practice of fusion cuisine in contemporary North American society that dehistoricizes and depoliticizes so-called “ethnic” cuisines by reducing them as sources of ingredients. In what follows, I will use these three points to discuss the cultural politics of fusion cuisine in North America from a perspective that considers cultural racism and settler colonialism.

Various systems of classification were introduced in the early stages of North American colonization, such as the racial classification system.[3] According to Janer, similar logics were employed by colonizers to classify indigenous foods into categories according to “hegemonic social, religious and medical knowledge” (385). These classification systems were also used to distinguish the edibility of foods, assess the cultural value of foods, decide when foods were considered appropriate for certain events or rituals, or prescribe which foods were healthy. Europeans used these classification systems as a means of subordinating indigenous culinary knowledges, which validated the colonizer’s civilizing mission. Indigenous ingredients and traditions were framed as “barbaric” and “inferior” in contrast to the more “civilized” and “rational” European diet. As such, it is worth critically examining how contemporary food discourse has been shaped by racist and colonial epistemologies as well as the impact on existing food practices. Classifying indigenous and ethnic cuisines as “inferior” and “pre-modern” has ramifications regarding how fusion cuisine is conceptualized today. For example, in the context of fusion cuisine, European cuisine is thought to “elevate” ethnic cuisine into modernity, reflecting a colonial discourse. Indeed, the ongoing legacy of colonization has left a lasting impact on the “major discourses and disciplines that categorize foods and regulate their consumption” (391).

In contemporary culinary discourse, French cuisine continues to be referred to as the “gold standard” according to which other cuisines are evaluated. According to Janer, the hegemony of French cuisine was only made possible due to the colonial subjugation of indigenous or non-European culinary knowledges (391). As an example, Janer interrogates the ways in which influential institutions such as the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), which is responsible for the training and education of chefs in the United States, leans heavily towards French standards of cooking and dining. Conversely, Asian cuisines are treated monolithically and condensed into a singular category as the “Cuisine of Asia.” The juxtaposition between France, a country, and Asia, the largest continent in the world with hundreds of diverse cultures and culinary traditions, underscores the Eurocentric bias and implicit white European supremacy in today’s culinary discourse (395). The positioning of French cuisine at the top of the North American culinary hierarchy above all other cuisines, especially ethnic cuisines, is also reflective of the politics of race and ethnic identity under liberal multicultural governmentality.[4] Despite the discourse of tolerance and cultural pluralism, politically, “non-ethnic” subjects, usually raced as white, occupy a central position in society while ethnic subjects are marginalized.

Relatedly, Janer’s last observation challenges the idea of fusion cuisine as a modern phenomenon that was only possible through twentieth-century globalization by historicizing fusion cuisine in the Caribbean. The notion that fusion cuisine is a product of modernity perpetuates colonial binaries of the old/modern and irrational/rational. It also reinforces the idea that fusion cuisine could not be possible without European intervention, overlooking the fact that throughout history, culinary fusion was practiced prior to colonization.

Janer’s article challenges us to think about the ways in which fusion cuisine is not constructed in a vacuum but is a result of historical, social, and political conditions. We, as food studies scholars, must think about how power and subordination factor in the making of fusion cuisine. Indeed, fusion cuisine is not merely a byproduct of different cultures mutually coming together to blend culinary traditions but is also formed as a result of transculturation, which, as Janer argues, is a process that includes the partial loss of a culture and the partial acquisition of another. Fusion cuisine is sometimes problematically romanticized as a positive byproduct of multiculturalism’s cultural pluralism, an approach that overlooks the ways in which colonization and white supremacy are also involved in its


Gazel Manuel is a second year PhD student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. Gazel’s doctoral research focuses on Filipino culinary activism, a form of cultural activism practiced among 1.5-generation and second-generation Filipino-Canadians that use culinary arts as a means to enact social change, decolonize, and challenge existing narratives about Filipinos in Canada. Her primary research interests examine the intersections of food culture, colonialism, and cultural racism, specifically the ways in which the legacy of colonization and contemporary racism impacts the entrepreneurial and culinary practices of marginalized chefs and restaurateurs.

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