ASEAN countries may have a hard time agreeing on issues like border disputes, human rights or economy integration. But it's really, really easy to unite the people of Southeast Asia when it comes to food. As we've seen in the last week, all it takes is a viral tweet by a white Westerner ranking the cuisines of Southeast Asian countries.
In the wee hours of last Sunday, Tom Pepinsky, an academic and expert on Southeast Asian politics at Cornell University, tweeted a short list of "Southeast Asian national cuisines," placing Vietnamese food as the most delicious and food from the Philippines the worst.
The tweet was a bad idea, to say the least. And if Pepinsky meant this only as a joke, it still feels a bit ironic, as many dishes across Southeast Asia are influenced by one another. This tweet by itself was enough to spark outrage on Twitter, but adding fuel to the fire, Pepinski wrote in another tweet: “list is objectively correct, but ignores regional and ethnic sub-cuisines.”
For days, it seemed like people from all kinds of Southeast Asian backgrounds were roasting Pepinsky on Twitter. And because he placed Filipino cuisine at the bottom of the list, Pepinsky received most of the backlash from Filipinos. I mean, as a white male from the US who's supposedly an expert of the region, what else did he expect?
It's bad enough that he compared food from different countries for apparent reason whatsoever. What makes his tweet even more problematic is that he used the term “national cuisine,” which is quite an absurd concept. What is a national cuisine? Indonesia alone has some 300 ethnic groups, each with its own dialect, traditions, and cuisine. So the tweet isn't only ignorant, but also really useless.
Fadly Rahman, a culinary historian at Padjadjaran University, told VICE that it’s problematic to link culinary to the concept of nation-state. Such assumptions will only make one culture feel more superior than others. For decades, for example, Malaysians and Indonesians have always fought over beef rendang, with each country claiming that rendang is its traditional dish. For Rahman, it’s all a waste of time.
“Minang people [from Indonesia] and Malaysians belong to the same ethnic group," he said. "They’re Malays. The emergence of the post-independence nation-state, apart from colonialism, made people say things like. 'I’m Indonesian Malay,’ and ‘You’re Malaysian Malay.' In the end, they became divided. Without realizing it, the culture that was supposed to unite them became a divisive tool.”
Benedict Anderson, a renowned specialist in Southeast Asian studies (who was also a professor at Cornell University) considered that the geopolitical boundaries of colonialism had an impact on its cuisine. In his book Imagined Communities, Anderson revealed that Southeast Asia used to be a more fluid region in terms of culture, including in the culinary tradition. It was only in the last two centuries that formal boundaries were created because the colonial administration introduced the concept of racial and national differences.
If only Pepinsky remembered what Anderson said, maybe he would think twice before tweeting his list.
This article was originally published on VICE Indonesia.