Food has always been front and centre on Instagram – but you may have spotted an extra flurry of delicious meals being shared in the past fortnight.
Chefs and home cooks, foodies and restaurateurs, have all been posting pics of the most delicious Asian meals they’ve cooked and eaten using the hashtag #ESEAeats – and they’re enough to make you very, very hungry.
Georgie Ma, 38, host of Chinese Chippy Girl, a podcast about the British-born Chinese experience, initiated the hashtag with her friend and co-creator Anna Chan, 31, a London-based technologist, to connect and share food stories around the Asian community – and beyond.
“Celebrating our food heritage is such a big part of our culture,” Ma tells HuffPost UK. “Asian parents don’t usually show their affection to their children by saying ‘I love you’ – instead they show their affection to one another through food.”
Ma and Chan’s hashtag was prompted by controversy surrounding London-based chef, Philli Armitage-Mattin, a contestant on BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals, who branded herself as an ‘Asian specialist’ on the show and previously in her Instagram bio – and describes her cooking style as “dirty food refined”.
Clarence Kwan, author of the Chinese Protest Recipes zine, and Dr. Anna Sulan Masing, co-founder of the food research project, Sourced Journeys, are among those to express dismay at this framing of Asian food – in a year where East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) communities have found themselves vilified.
The pandemic has revealed a lot of racism towards Chinese people in particular, who were initially blamed for creating the virus and are still associated by some with carrying it. This has had impacts on Chinese families – and businesses.
This feels deeply personal to me, as someone who grew up in rural south Wales with parents who ran a Chinese takeaway and who had to anglicise their cooking to suit a Western palette in order to survive.
Earlier this year, I was also a victim of racial discrimination in London and sadly, I know that this wasn’t a standalone incident – the level of verbal and physical abuse towards ESEA communities has skyrocketed by more than 400%, according to data from the British Transport Police and Metropolitan Police.
Misinformation and fear around coronavirus is behind much of this racism as well as the rise in racist tropes labelling Chinese people as eaters of “weird” food and many as “filthy disease carriers”.
And this is why calling our food “dirty” feels so fraught.
In the face of criticism, Armitage-Mattin has expressed upset at the backlash she has received, apologising on social media for any offence caused.
“I have never called Asian food ‘dirty’ in a derogatory manner. I have never used the phrase ‘dirty’ to reflect being unclean or unhygienic. The way I mean ‘dirty’ is indulgent street food; food that comforts you as in ‘going out for a dirty burger’,” she wrote in a statement on Instagram, where her bio now reads: “learn how to make crave worthy food”.
“As a chef, I only cook food I personally find interesting, delicious and that I’m passionate about which includes street food from around the world. It has never occurred to me to connect ‘dirty’ and ‘Asian’ in the manner I’m accused of, that has never been my intention.”
She later tweeted and posted to Instagram a second statement explaining her approach to cooking, highlighting her own mixed heritage – “my mother is Indian and my father is English” – and her place as a 28-year-old female chef learning and trying in a tough industry. “I apologise unreservedly for causing offence,” she added.
In response to what some see as poorly chosen words for an apology, the #ESEAeats hashtag has exploded. Figures from all walks of life, from chefs to scientists to food writers, have been sharing mouthwatering photos of Cantonese roast meats, hot pot gatherings, and dim sum feasts.
This outpouring of memories of homecooked meals with friends and family and tributes to the best Asian meals eaten at home and abroad has shown a community with a loud and passionate voice.
“It’s really moved me and I know it’s created comfort to people in the ESEA community,” says Ma of a hashtag she never imagined would get this big.
“It’s really inspiring to see groups such as Besea.n sharing their stories [Britain’s East and South East Asian Network], right through to individuals who have only just found a community for the first time on Instagram.”
The message emerging from the pictures and their captions is that language is important and that the words used to describe food culture matter.
As Kwan writes on his God of Cookery Instagram, under a delicious picture of steamed sea bass with ginger and spring onions: “Chinese food has never been ‘dirty’. What’s actually dirty are the social conditions and narratives that continue to suppress Chinese people through our food.”
And as Ma herself reflects: “While I don’t think [Armitage-Mattin] meant it in an oppressive manner, it just played on my mind and took me back to my childhood when kids at school commented on my school lunch being dirty.”
BBC Good Food columnist, Melissa Thompson, has also contributed to the hashtag, writing on her fowlmouthsfood Instagram: “If you’re cooking the food of a different background to your own – especially if you’re profiting from it – respect isn’t enough. You need to be entirely deferential to it and realise that you stand below that cuisine.”
Thompson adds: “Seeing it be appropriated and disrespected, then you don’t have the right to talk about refining or elevating it, or talking down about it. It’s already good enough. That’s why you’re drawn to it.”
Some people have been left annoyed, frustrated, or triggered by the “dirty” food debate. These are old wounds and conversations we are tired of having again and again – like the sacking in 2018 of a chef at Thai restaurant Som Saa in London for his racist YouTube content, or the 2019 row around ‘clean’ Chinese American restaurant Lucky Lee’s – run by two white restaurateurs – in the US.
Ma hopes that sharing our experiences can educate people from a non-Asian background. “Our food is not dirty and it does not need refining,” she explains. “We should appreciate the love and effort that has gone into making our food.”
Something positive and celebratory is emerging from a moment that could have been brushed off or swept under the rug. Elizabeth Haigh, chef and owner of Singaporean Kopitiam, Mei Mei, in London’s Borough Market, is among those to reminisce on the hashtag, in her case remembering delicious hotpot and eating durian on the floor when she was just three-years-old.
“Food doesn’t need refinement,” Haigh explains in her post. “The refinement is through the knowledge and experience of the food in which we are grateful and lucky to receive. Food is community, food tells the stories of our ancestors and food is one of the only ways we can still connect with our culture – and it certainly doesn’t need to be made ‘pretty’.”
Others are having some fun with it, such as Kelvin Tan, sous chef at the two-Michelin starred Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham, who posted his signature “dirty quacking noods” – and some bonus AMSR of him eating them.
There has also been a sharing of snaps from trips abroad – which can also be trips home. Many in the ESEA diaspora are based in the UK, but grew up elsewhere, or have family abroad, and still carry strong ties with their motherland.
Kuala Lumpur-born Mandy Yin, chef-owner of Sambal Shiok Laksa Noodle Bar and Nasi Economy Rice in North London, reminisces about trips to Malaysia remembering coffee shops, hawker centres, and food markets fondly.
Burmese supper club hosts and cookbook authors, The Rangoon Sisters, have shared some of their favourite meals in Myanmar. “Yes, this flat lay is quite beige and brown, but the subjects are beautiful and delicious,” they write, recalling the dishes they grew up eating, from bowls of Mohinga, and plates of mutton curry to nangyi thoke – thick round noodles with chicken.
“There’s nothing quite like the buzz of eating these dishes in a teashop – probably what some might call ‘not refined’ – but to us, perfect and we are missing it a lot right now,” they add.
The Celestial Peach team also take a trip down memory lane, to food eaten on a 2013 Asian backpacking trip, including fresh-off-boat-crab in Kep and stir-fried ants in Phnom Penh, eating their way through multiple countries.
Closer to home, the platform celebrates and champions the brightest East Asian and Southeast Asian voices who work with Hackney Chinese Community Centre to organise potlucks and, during the pandemic, postal Asian dessert exchanges.
This latest iteration of the “dirty” Asian cuisine debate has certainly highlighted the gap between intention and impact in the language we use about food.
Growing up in a predominantly white community and often being the only person of colour in social or educational settings, I know what it means to be bullied and alienated. Many have a similar upbringing and share the same experiences I did of being branded a “forever foreigner” or “honorary white”. But strength comes from our lived experiences and pride in our collective traditions.
Many still misunderstand the weight of words on a culture, especially for people who have had to live their whole lives with the threat of racial abuse and othering, because of the food they eat and its connotations.
No one owns food just as no one owns culture. But the #ESEAeats hashtag has created a platform, widening a sense of community for anyone who might have similar feelings to take up space, but to do so while critically interrogating our own positions and privileges. By breaking down these boundaries, we help breed integrity and respect for one another.
Food is ingrained and esteemed in East and Southeast Asian culture – and it’s great to see our community reclaim identity and fight for social justice and equality through celebrating what we eat.
It’s a grounding ritual for many – and being able to learn and honour those who came before us through sharing these meals is also remarkably delicious.