Rushani Epa, Time Out’s Melbourne Food & Drink editor, discusses the rules we follow when it comes to reporting on food in a culturally sensitive way
I’m Time Out Melbourne’s Food & Drink editor and a proud Sri Lankan Australian who was born in Melbourne. As a Person of Colour, I aim to be as respectful as possible when commenting on other cuisines and cultures – and this is through a lived experience of having the food of my Sinhalese culture criticised and sneered at, only to later see it become a trend.
I also explored this issue in a magazine of my own that I started last year, called Colournary Magazine. Colournary aims to celebrate and amplify the voices of First Nations, Black and People of Colour through the lens of food and culture, and I’m bringing that experience to my work at Time Out.
The importance of culturally sensitive food coverage
Australia is home to myriad cultures and cuisines, and we pride ourselves on being a multicultural nation. As a colonised nation, it’s important to recognise the racial inequality that’s entrenched in our society to this day. This affects our multicultural society in more ways than one. Cultural appropriation, cultural insensitivity and cultural discrimination are all forms of racism, and when observing it through the lens of food and culture, these can commonly take place in the form of racial ‘microaggressions’.
Racial microaggressions and unconscious bias can go hand in hand and lead to stereotyping certain cultures, or people who look a certain way. An example: when a restaurant mocks Chinese pronunciation in their restaurant’s name or on the menu. Another example: when you have bars owned by non-Vietnamese people themed around the Vietnam War. And so on and so forth.
When things like this happen, it’s often People of Colour who are the first to notice as they have a lived experience with these things. This is why it’s important for venues to promote diversity in their teams, which helps them avoid making such mistakes, even if they were made with the right intentions.
In an article titled ‘Australians love Asian food, so why doesn't it win as many awards as Italian?’ published by the ABC in 2018, two journalists (Colin Ho and Nick Jordan) explore how among the Asian restaurants that received accolades in a major national food awards released in October 2018, 48 per cent had white head chefs and 60 per cent had white owners. We’re living in a world where People of Colour are still fighting to have their voices heard and to take charge of their own cuisines and cultures.
But that’s not to say you can’t be non-PoC and run a great Thai restaurant, for example. And this is where appropriation versus appreciation steps in.
Cue: Fuschia Dunlop. She's someone who has dedicated her life to mastering the art of Sichuan cooking, was the first westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, and is very observant of regionality in Chinese cuisine and observing these along with history in her cookbooks. She is the prime example of someone who appreciates a culture as opposed to appropriating one.
There needs to be respect and recognition for where these things came from, and if you’re going to run a Chinese restaurant for example, unless you’re Fuschia Dunlop, you should probably have someone Chinese on board with your concept or venue. As long as non-First Nations, non-Black and non-PoC people continue to profit off the backs of those who were colonised without giving appropriate credit and an education into their origins, and there isn’t equality, this will be an issue.
Here at Time Out we pride ourselves on having a diverse team – not just culturally, but in gender and sexuality as well. As a result, our editorial team is brimming with ideas and can always have a constructive conversation on what we do and say. We’re always championing diversity, and this is why I love my role so much.
How we want to cover cuisine
We want to cover cuisine in an appreciative way. A way that ensures reviews are well researched and respectful – and we want to review restaurants in turn that are respectful, too. We try to ensure that we give airtime to smaller businesses alongside the bigger hospitality groups.
If an event or a venue that a client wants us to write about either trivialises or disrespects another culture or cuisine, we will provide honest feedback to the client. Sometimes honest mistakes can happen, but it’s important we work together to ensure they don’t happen again and that there’s a wider education piece.
We won't cover tiki parties (which have been called out as an appropriation of Pacific Islander culture), but we will cover events on Italian venues celebrating their Korean staff. Our guide to Melbourne’s best restaurants is diverse (based on merit) and champions the diversity of our city, and we’re doing our best to spell out and write accents in titles belonging to other languages properly. We want to appreciate and promote all of the wonderful people, cultures and cuisines that surround us so that our audience can do the same.
Here at Time Out, we are here to uplift you as you uplift us. We offer mutual respect so that we can all enjoy this wonderful world around us together.
How you can help drive positive change
Aside from pitching ideas to us that you think might align with our values and diversity, these are other things you can do.
Listen to diverse voices and start following more diverse people on your social media networks – chef Jenny Dorsey is a really great one to follow. And hire more diverse people. More diverse voices means an education and insight into cultures and things you might otherwise not know.
Share more things from diverse people via your networks. Engage in conversations with family, friends and colleagues on diversity-related topics and be a good ally. Educate each other.
Don't assume things. Do your research and if you're ever in doubt, ask Google before you ask a PoC.
Support First Nations, Black and PoC-owned venues and businesses. Supply Nation has a great guide on First Nations owned businesses.
Positive change can be as little as dining out at your local family-owned Vietnamese restaurant instead of the Vietnamese-fusion restaurant owned by a giant restaurant group, or providing a platform to and amplifying the voice of someone whose voice is otherwise unheard. It’s about checking one’s privilege, and using it to support others.