When It Comes to a Recipe, What’s in a Name?

Amanda M. Rye

Back in May, the response was swift when Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi uploaded a video of what she called her “flaky bread.” Instagram commenters quickly pointed out that the unleavened rounds were essentially South Asia’s paratha by another name, while Tosi’s recommendation to add scallions might also call to mind a riff on Chinese scallion pancakes. With neither mentioned in Tosi’s description, critics on social media saw the dish as another food industry whitewashing gaffe. But this wasn’t the first time “flaky bread” caused problems online.

In 2014, Bon Appétit posted a similar dish. Developed by Alison Roman, that “flaky bread” recipe was simple, accompanied by no context besides a quick prep tip in the headnote. As with Tosi’s recipe, keen observers homed in on its similarity to paratha, and by May 2020, readers had begun weighing in with comments like: “Not a single mention of where this food comes from or the people that have been making it forever? This is literally just paratha.” By June 2020, BA had changed the recipe’s name to “Flaky Bread (Malawah)” and expanded its headnote to state that it was based on a Yemeni dish.

All over the world, different cultures have developed flaky rounds of dough—from paratha, to malawah, to cong you bing, and certainly more. That’s something you’d never know from a name like “flaky bread,” as accurate as it may be. Flaky bread can come from many cultures rich in culinary history; “flaky bread,” meanwhile, suggests no culture in particular.

As the online recipe space grows more competitive, the names of a world’s worth of dishes morph. Avgolemono becomes the New York Times‘ “egg lemon soup,” “lemony egg soup with escarole,” or “slow cooker creamy chicken soup with lemon, rice, and dill.” Roti gains new life as “whole wheat balloon bread” or “Asian flat croissant,” and “Korean rice bowls” are a longer, more Westernized way of saying bibimbap. “Spicy chocolate milk simmered chickenbecomes a new phrase for mole, and chana masala is revised as Alison Roman’s “spiced chickpea stew with coconut and turmeric,” which internet colloquialism transforms into just “The Stew.” What’s to be gained by changing a dish’s name? But also, what’s lost?

What we call a dish can either ground it in a particular culinary history, or it can remove a dish from that culture entirely. With translation comes a level of separation, as the idea of a dish’s audience is shifted; calling roti a “balloon bread” or bibimbap a “rice bowl” is a choice to appeal to a specific sensibility. As platforms diversify their selection of recipes, each one is trying to sell you on dishes it assumes you don’t already know how to make, and every online recipe aims to make an argument for why you should rely on it above all others. To make that case, food is packaged for “mainstream” consumption: Ideally, anyone should want to click on it.

As Eric Kim—the recipe developer and writer behind the “Table for One” column at Food52—works on his debut cookbook about Korean American food, he’s been thinking about recipe names. Kim’s book, currently scheduled for release in spring 2022, will be informed by his Korean background, Georgia upbringing, and his approach to pantry cooking. Writing through its recipes, some of which lean conventional and others that are entirely new, Kim finds himself repeatedly changing their names.

“It’s such an interesting question because a lot of these dishes are traditional—traditional bulgogi, for instance, or traditional kalbi—and I almost don’t want to call them that, but calling them ‘soy-marinated short ribs’ feels flattening or disregarding their inspiration. I feel like this is something I’ve grappled with as recipe author, but also as a food editor, for years,” Kim told VICE. He’s found welcome inspiration in Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish, which uses names like “spinach and feta, cooked like saag paneer” to find the middle ground between innovation and tradition.

Writing recipes for the internet poses a particular challenge: Like every piece of content in the digital world, recipes must pull in readers through the quickest glance. Terms or names that are assumed to be unfamiliar might be replaced with something more widely recognizable and immediately comprehensible, and trending phrases get thrown in for the sake of appealing to what people are searching (think “bread without yeast” during the baking-crazed days of the pandemic). More and more, algorithms shape how content is presented online, and search engine optimization (SEO) dictates the best practices for giving a website a chance at ranking high in a Google search for a specific keyword. As UCLA professor Safiya Noble has explored in the book Algorithms of Oppression, even search engines can be subject to cultural bias in ways that privilege whiteness.

Casey Markee is the founder of Media Wyse and an SEO consultant who works exclusively in the food, DIY, and lifestyle space. Acknowledging that unconscious bias can play out in everything, he thinks that the renaming of recipes might be done to gain an advantage in the crowded food space. Anglicized names might have more visibility online due to less competition and more search interest for that particular term, he suggested. People creating recipes online may think: “My audience might not understand what this original name is, but maybe they understand the more English or Anglicized version here, and that’s what I’m gonna focus on,” he said. The idea of accessibility, however, should also prompt the question: accessible to whom?

On The Sofrito Project, blogger Reina Gascon-Lopez takes a different approach to food media’s usual centering as she presents recipes for Puerto Rican dishes as well as what she grew up eating in Charleston. Puerto Rican dishes are named in Spanish, with English left in parentheses: “berenjena guisada (stewed eggplant)” or “asopao de gandules (pigeon pea rice stew),” for example. “I honestly try to stick with the traditional name for the recipes, particularly the Puerto Rican dishes,” she told VICE, “because honestly… naming them something that would be more palatable for white mainstream media, I feel like that kind of takes away from the dish, at least in my opinion.”

Anglicizing a recipe’s name can be done out of a sense of making it “neutral” and therefore “mainstream,” but as we know from the recent conversations around race in media and other industries, that version of objective neutrality is actually a stance centered on whiteness. The idea that a dish can be rendered culturally neutral still relies on the construction of a culture: one for whom “flaky bread” is assumed as more appealing and recognizable than its alternatives.

White, vaguely European-influenced food is positioned as such a default in modern American culture that it exists without being explicitly stated, as Navneet Alang deconstructed for Eater. “Only whiteness can deracinate and subsume the world of culinary influences into itself and yet remain unnamed,” he wrote. With this guiding food media, figures like Alison Roman—who at the peak of Stew fame once described herself as coming from “no culture“—can then pick and profit from global culinary traditions without ever tying herself to one.

While white food culture can weave in and out of global inspirations and not lose anything, the reverse isn’t true. Dishes from cultures outside the white American norm and the people who make them are made less visible, told they don’t draw as many views, relegated to trend pieces, and subjected to quotas.

The appeasement of translation can seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy: If people aren’t given the word “bibimbap,” if it’s called a “Korean rice bowl” instead, will the original term ever enter “mainstream” parlance? Food publications have the power to steer the conversation for readers and home cooks; suggesting that a dish’s traditional name is too complicated or unfamiliar to include is a cop-out for platforms that dictate these trends.

“It all goes back to the othering of food, and readers are only as smart as the information they’re given,” said Rebecca Firkser, a freelance food writer and recipe developer. Since her official start in food media five years ago as an intern at PopSugar, which led to becoming culinary editor of the now-defunct Extra Crispy, Firkser thinks people have overall become more knowledgeable about food and cooking. “I do feel like readers are smarter; they’re interested in the real dishes, and so, why do we bother dumbing it down for them?”

In their staff roles at large food publications, Firkser and Kim—who have worked together on recipes at Food52—told VICE that SEO has been a consideration in the recipe process. But according to Kim, Google is “a lot smarter than people realize,” and its algorithm changes all the time. “You don’t have to have to bludgeon the title with some straightforward whitewashed title just to get it to show up on Google,” he said. Whether it’s putting keyword phrases in different parts of the page or in the URL, “there are ways to do it without disintegrating the integrity of the actual title.”

But naming a dish the way it’s historically known and loved isn’t a panacea, either, as tradition creates a tight box of expectations. As Gascon-Lopez pointed out, her Puerto Rican dishes have at times garnered responses that her recipe isn’t how a commenter’s family made it, or how they make the dish. She clarifies that even traditional recipes are her version, as dictated by the ingredients available to her in South Carolina. “I do find that there is a little bit of a line to walk when I call something by the traditional name, and I don’t have something that’s been in that dish for years,” she said.

Thankfully, Gascon-Lopez’s blog gives her flexibility. While she said it sounds “crazy” as a food blogger, she doesn’t consider SEO very much. “I try to stay aware of how I need the recipe [to be] from the aspect of accessibility on the blog, and I try to keep it short and keep the title tight. But other than that, if it’s in Spanish, it’s going to be in Spanish,” Gascon-Lopez said. “That’s something that I’m willing to sacrifice to stay true to my style of cooking.”

So what’s the answer to fixing all of this? Multiple recipe developers told VICE that presenting a recipe online comes with a responsibility to do ample research. With constant cooking comes the ability to riff in the kitchen, but even still, said Firkser, a recipe developer should go the extra step, even if it seems like a dish just popped up in your head. The act of putting a recipe on a public platform implies authority, and while there’s leeway for modification in individual cooking, the recipe itself is perceived as objective—the standard from which one can then diverge.

“Even if I independently was thinking like, What would be yummy to eat? A white bean and tomato soup with tiny pasta,” Firkser said, “I would search the internet, search cookbooks, and see: Have other people have done this—white bean and tomato soup with tiny pasta? Oh, wow, looks like there is a dish, and it’s called pasta fagioli and I’m going to acknowledge that.”

At Food52, Kim takes a generalist approach, creating dishes like “beef short rib bourguignon with garlicky panko gremolata” and “chicken-fried steak katsu with milk gravy.” When he cooks from cuisines outside his culture, Kim tries to be “as responsible as possible,” he said, by citing inspirations and adding context in the headnote as to how he learned the techniques. “Coming from an academic perspective is a way to make sure you close the loops and honor every possible inspiration for a dish,” he said, “and that’s one way to make sure that you’re avoiding any semblance of tokenization or appropriation.”

With the racial inequity in food media, we frequently return to the question of who gets to profit from other cultures’ foods; it is still often the case that globally inspired dishes are presented by white recipe developers. Following Bon Appétit‘s organizational reckoning over these exact issues, the publication has announced plans to not only address its pay disparities and lack of staffers of color, but also to re-envision its content to better address cultural biases. As part of this push into the future, the magazine’s research director Joseph Hernandez announced in a newsletter last month that he would be working with Test Kitchen editors to “address many of these problems of authorship, appropriation, the white gaze, and erasure.”

Referencing its past controversies regarding flaky bread, “white guy” kimchi, pho, and Filipino halo-halo, Hernandez wrote that 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.” In response, “our team will be auditing previously published recipes and articles that may not have been thoroughly fact-checked or read for cultural sensitivity when originally authored,” he announced. Addressing the most popular recipes first, the publication will add context and address past problems in editors’ notes: “Do we give credit where it’s due? Did we properly credit our inspirations, or did we shoehorn in a trendy ingredient with no explanation?”

There’s no clear-cut answer on how to handle recipe names, as each recipe developer has their own perspective. As tidy as it may seem for recipes to exclusively come from authors of that specific cultural background, no one person can stand-in for an entire culture’s culinary history, and that approach is unrealistic in a media landscape in which there are many, many more writers than there are jobs. Further, that set of rules also ignores the ways culinary traditions meld both naturally and by force. Despite those constraints, we can at least push for more thoughtful and contextual approaches to recipe development—ones that respect the interplay between cultures, instead of stripping foods from their histories.

As recipe developers broaden the context they provide with dishes, home cooks can in turn become more conscious consumers if they choose to engage with that added knowledge. “I absolutely think it’s the responsibility of the recipe developer to do that extra research, because it’s only gonna help someone,” Firkser said. “I don’t think anyone’s ever been bitten in the ass for doing the homework, right?”

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.

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