Modern veganism can be a religious choice, an ethical conviction, a dietary preference, or a lifestyle trend. But what veganism should not be is mocking and judgmental of the cultures and foodways that originated many of its staples.
That’s the problem with a recent tweet from a self-described “straight-edge vegan,” Jona Weinhofen, which caused a firestorm of online criticism: Alongside a picture of Chinese hotpot, he posted a derisive caption that many found offensive.
Some Twitter users quickly pointed out that hotpots—a communal, simmering pot of seasoned broth served with a variety of raw vegetables, meats, and noodles that diners can add and cook to their liking—come in many delicious meat-free varieties, too. But what most took issue with was his targeting of what has long been a hearty dish for Chinese working-class people.
Indeed, long before a hotpot was a culinary “experience,” it was a dish intended to stretch a small amount of meat alongside vegetables, to feed many mouths. And since long before “plant-based diets” became an Instagrammable lifestyle choice, there have been plenty of food traditions that included little to no meat due to necessity or lack of access, not preference or ethics.
Jeff Yang, a journalist, author, and podcaster, launched a well-informed critique of the vegan’s throwaway insult, pointing out that it ignored the context of privilege and abundance that many modern, Western vegans benefit from, and echoed race-based and neocolonial tropes.
Yang (who has written for Quartz) notes that many of the foodstuffs that are central to today’s meat-free lifestyles actually came from the non-Western food cultures that vegans like Weinhofen now critique. As is often the case with appropriation, the originators of such foods have not benefited from the explosion of popularity in the wealthy world (see: quinoa farmers in Bolivia).
In a later reply, Yang clarifies that he’s not saying the act of being a vegan is in itself neocolonialist. But rather, a Western vegan insulting the food traditions of a place where many of the stapes of their chosen diet originate from does not put them on a moral high ground—it ignores important history.
It also adds to a painful history of dismissing food cooked by Asians, and the Chinese in particular, as nothing more than greasy takeout, an idea explored in David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious. The chef and TV host Andrew Zimmern also recently got in trouble for suggesting that his new chain of Chinese restaurants could save Americans from the “horseshit restaurants” run by Chinese-Americans in the Midwest. Zimmern apologized for the comments, but his shows have lost their prime spots on the Travel Channel amid the fallout.