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Students Say College's General Tso's Chicken Recipe Is 'Cultural Appropriation'

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Liberal arts students at Oberlin aren't happy with the food service's treatment of "traditional" Asian recipes.

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Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

Sure, General Tso's chicken is a product of American-Chinese restaurants, but it deserves authentic treatment, according to student at Ohio's Oberlin College. Students at the liberal arts college are dyspeptic over the school's "culturally appropriative" cafeteria menus. In statements to the Oberlin Review, international students bemoan the "gross manipulation" of such "traditional recipes" as General Tso's chicken, sushi, and banh mi.

"How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country's traditional food?"

In one incident, Vietnamese student Diep Nguyen recalls being "disappointed" after encountering a "cheap imitation" banh mi recipe that featured ciabatta bread, pulled pork, and coleslaw in place of a baguette and pickled vegetables. Disappointing indeed. "How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country's traditional food?" he asks.

In another gastronomic error, one student found the General Tso's chicken was made with steamed chicken rather than fried and covered in a sauce that was "so weird that I didn't even try." The sushi, too, fell flat with a student who said "the undercooked rice and lack of fresh fish is disrespectful." College junior Tomoyo Joshi tells the paper, "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." Adding, "So if people not from that heritage take food, modify it and serve it as ‘authentic,' it is appropriative." 

Not all students on the campus are convinced that the poorly executed food qualifies as cultural appropriation. Malaysian international student Arala Tian Yoon Teh says the food is more about a "cultural collision." The service operator Bon Appétit also responded to the accusations stating that the company didn't intend to be disrespectful. "Maybe what we should do is describe the dish for what it is as opposed to characterizing it with a specific name," director of business operation and dining services Michile Gross says, adding that she plans to host a meeting with students to discuss their grievances.

The quest for authenticity — whether it exists or not — isn't new. In 2014, a Thai diplomat who was fed up with poor imitation Thai dishes pushed forward a plan to build a robot that would evaluate the validity of Thai food at the chemical level. However, in the case of some menus, it doesn't take a computer to determine whether the food is racist. Last February, Wright State University had some explaining to do after its cafeteria served fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread on a Black History Month menu.

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