In the video, Ng slammed BBC Food presenter Hersha Patel’s unconventional way of cooking Chinese-style egg-fried rice, which included draining the rice through a strainer after boiling.
“What she doing? Oh my god. You’re killing me, woman. Drain the — she’s draining rice with colander! How can you drain rice with colander? This is not pasta!” he exclaimed.
Shortly afterward, he groaned, “You’re ruining the rice,” as Patel used tap water to wash it of starch.
What Ng intended to be a comedic video sparked a firestorm of dismay and disbelief as it ricocheted around the internet, gaining more than 7 million views on YouTube and nearly 40 million on Twitter.
Many viewers, including Asian-American celebrities such as writer Jenny Yang, derided Patel’s methods for departing from how Chinese egg-fried rice is traditionally made. Patel hadn’t washed the rice before boiling it. She had added too much water. She should have used day-old rice. The scrambled egg was overcooked instead of runny.
The BBC has not publicly commented on Ng’s or Patel’s remarks.
But the issue at hand goes beyond a difference in opinion on the varying methods of cooking rice.
The controversy over the BBC Food clip, and the reaction it provoked within certain Asian communities, speaks to a broader, long-standing debate about the intersection of food, ethnicity and culture — the fundamental question of who is allowed to cook what food.
Appropriating and whitewashing food
Countless White chefs in recent years have been accused of cultural appropriation by creating food from other ethnic groups using methods and phrases that are deemed “unauthentic,” disrespectful, and sometimes outright racist.
The restaurant didn’t differentiate between wildly different and unique types of Asian cuisines, lumping them all together as generically Asian. And at the time of the opening, it did not appear to have any Asian chefs.
CNN reached out to Ramsay’s restaurant group for comment after the initial controversy.
Tokenism is when racial, ethnic, or cultural diversity is emphasized only on a symbolic level, without much substantial effort to understand that culture — in Ramsay’s case, labeling a restaurant “Asian” without taking the time to differentiate between these individual nuanced cuisines.
Food is not just sustenance, it carries history and heritage, which is why many people are deeply offended when these traditional methods of cooking are cast aside.
Sometimes chefs don’t just change up cooking methods, they blatantly insult the cuisine and culture of origin.
And then there are chefs who fail to acknowledge a dish’s ethnic origins at all — the equivalent of whitewashing food.
In response to the backlash, NYT eventually added a line in Roman’s recipe on their website, saying it “evokes stews found in South India and parts of the Caribbean.”
But some people have pushed back against the idea of cultural appropriation.
Setting boundaries around food — for example, saying only Chinese people can cook Chinese food, or Chinese food can only be cooked a certain way, as those reacting to Ng’s video posit — seems like the antithesis of this sharing spirit in our globalized world.
But sharing is different from appropriating without respect, especially when the chefs who do it profit from portraying those foods.
A reckoning in food media
The Uncle Roger video is the latest in a string of incidents that have drawn attention to issues surrounding food and culture. This summer has seen the reckoning on race and racism, embodied by the Black Lives Matter movement, spread from the streets to newsrooms and companies.
Within food media, Bon Appetit — owned by Conde Nast — is the best-known example. Current staffers, including assistant food editor Sohla El-Waylly, accused the company of underpaying and exploiting employees of color, and viewers called out the brand for numerous instances of food appropriation.
Each time, the brand would issue an apology and a promise to do better — but it has been happening for years.
“In all these cases and more, BA has been called out for appropriation, for decontextualizing recipes from non-White cultures, and for knighting ‘experts’ without considering if that person should, in fact, claim mastery of a cuisine that isn’t theirs,” wrote Joey Hernandez, BA’s research director, in the statement.
These themes sound abstract at times — but they’re linked to and help perpetuate broader real-life inequalities such as workplace discrimination, pay inequity, power imbalances and prevailing Whiteness in the food world.
Ng and Patel may not have intended for their respective videos, and upcoming collaboration, to raise these questions.
But viewers’ frustrations are inherently tied to the idea that there is an authentic way to cook fried rice, and that Patel’s errors are made worse by the fact she is a non-Chinese chef presenting herself as an authority on the dish.