The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw.
“It was ridiculous,” Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”
Nguyen added that Bon Appétit, the food service management company contracted by Oberlin College, has a history of blurring the line between culinary diversity and cultural appropriation by modifying the recipes without respect for certain Asian countries’ cuisines. This uninformed representation of cultural dishes has been noted by a multitude of students, many of who have expressed concern over the gross manipulation of traditional recipes.
Prudence Hiu-Ying, a College sophomore from China, cited an instance when Stevenson was serving General Tso’s chicken, but the product did not resemble the popular Chinese dish. Instead of deep-fried chicken with ginger-garlic soy sauce, the chicken was steamed with a substitute sauce, which Hiu-Ying described as “so weird that I didn’t even try.”
According to CDS management, these dishes are a result of Bon Appétit’s foray into nutritional diversity. The food service company has recently been upping their output of cultural dishes in an attempt to diversify students’ options in taste and flavor profile.
“Hopefully, if you dined with us in Stevenson, there would be one thing in every meal that you would want to eat,” said Michile Gross, director of Business Operations and Dining Services.
Perhaps the pinnacle of what many students believe to be a culturally appropriative sustenance system is Dascomb Dining Hall’s sushi bar. The sushi is anything but authentic for Tomoyo Joshi, a College junior from Japan, who said that the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful. She added that in Japan, sushi is regarded so highly that people sometimes take years of apprenticeship before learning how to appropriately serve it.
“When you’re cooking a country’s dish for other people, including ones who have never tried the original dish before, you’re also representing the meaning of the dish as well as its culture,” Joshi said. “So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,’ it is appropriative.”
Still, some students are not convinced that Bon Appétit’s menu qualifies as cultural appropriation. Arala Tian Yoon Teh, a College sophomore from Malaysia, said the dining service’s food selections are a reflection of cultural collision, not cultural appropriation. She added that she thought Bon Appétit was inspired by Asian cuisine and just made dishes with the available ingredients.
Gross said Bon Appétit did not intend to serve the dishes disrespectfully and that there is room to correct the issue.
“Maybe what we should do is describe the dish for what it is as opposed to characterizing it with a specific name,” Gross said.
Richard Tran, a Vietnamese-American College senior, suggested that Bon Appétit look into the history and original recipes of the foods they are trying to make, as there are food taboos within cultures they should avoid. Mai Miyagaki, a College junior from Japan, added that a meeting between Bon Appétit employees and international students could help alleviate tensions.
“I wish they could do something like a collaboration with the cultural student [organizations] before starting new stuff like this [sushi bar],” Miyagaki said. “Overall, I think we — including myself — can always learn more about how to admit that we don’t know everything about every culture in the world and have a ‘We’re still trying to learn more’ kind of attitude.”
In line with Miyagaki’s hopes for collaboration, Gross said she is planning on setting up a meeting in upcoming weeks to discuss these issues.
“It’s important to us that students feel comfortable when they are here,” Gross said.