I have been thinking about writing a piece about cultural appropriation in the context of food for a long time. The one thing stopping me was that I wasn't quite sure where I fell on on this topic or whether or not I actually believed it was a topic at all. I mean, it's a topic inasmuch that that it has been in the news (and here and here and a multitude of other articles) that people are definitely aware of it. I guess what I'm saying is that this post won't have any answers about this but I also think it's important to have the discussion.
I finally decided to write about this because I was invited to a social media event to commemorate PekoPeko Ramen's one year anniversary. PekoPeko is located in the heart of Charles Village, right beside Johns Hopkins University and is arguably Baltimore's hottest ramen spot (though Baltimore isn't overrun by ramen spots like some other cities). They specialize in Tokyo style chicken broth based ramen (though I wanted to ask what makes it Tokyo style). I would say a good comparison is Bantam King in DC. They also have a miso/mushroom based broth for vegetarians and offer some dumplings, rice bowls, some unique beverages and mochi for dessert. There's a lot of good things going on outside of the food too, like their cashless transaction system, late night hours and that gratuity is built into the price point.
I had the miso ramen with extra chashu and ajitama (it's a marinated soft boiled egg on the menu but heaven in your mouth). The noodles come from Sun Noodle and it's a bonus that one of the owners had worked there so has intimate knowledge about the art of making ramen noodles. Some of the highlights from my bowl were those noodles, that egg and I liked the nice char they put on the pork belly before dropping it into the broth. The broth (the most important part) hits you like a blanket of comfort. Umami wave after umami wave. I did find myself asking for a bit more complexity and depth but most of Baltimore loses their shit over this place so maybe it's just me.
It's also hard not to like the two proprietors and their stories. They're two buddies that went to college at Hopkins and wanted to bring some authentic ramen back to their city and to their school. When you talk to them, you hear the passion they have for their craft and I could probably talk for hours with David, who speaks Japanese and worked both in Japan and New York at some esteemed ramen joints. His buddy Andrew is the GM and while I didn't get to talk to him as much, his belief in the project clearly rang true when he spoke to the group.
The other thing you need to know is that they're both white. I mean this isn't anything new and Francis Lam wrote a smart piece about this years ago. While Andrew had never had ramen until 2014 or 2015, David has lived in Japan, trained with some of the best ramen chefs in the world and worked in NYC slinging ramen for places like Momofuku Noodle Bar. The dude can definitely cook and is totally invested in his craft. My question, however, is that in a city that is so fractured by race, that actually has discussions about white people appropriating everything from access to capital to appropriating southern food, should this matter?
Additionally, I noticed that out of the 12 or so people invited to this, I was one of two Asian invitee (apologies to Chyno for not counting him earlier, we've discussed it, but I apologize). Don't take this as a criticism of who went to this event because it was a pleasantly diverse group of people and the kind of cultural mix that I've campaigned for in this space when it comes to social media gatherings. It was definitely more reflective of what Baltimore looks like than what you usually see. But, my second question is that for a cuisine that has it's roots in Asia (and while PekoPeko is a Japanese ramen joint, the idea of a noodle soup is present in most Asian countries), should there not be more Asians represented in this type of group?
Like I said at the beginning, I don't have an answer to either of these and I don't think you can answer question 2 without answering question 1. However, I do think that it's a discussion that should be had and a discussion that should be had in Baltimore. So, with that, I welcome any comments you may have. You can DM me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter (all at @foodnomad) or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear any and all responses.
PekoPeko Ramen, 7 E 33rd Street, Baltimore, MD 21218