Can a Non-Asian Out-Asian an Asian? Questioning the Idea of Ethnic Authenticity

Can a non-Asian out-Asian an Asian?
There are a number of issues intertwined in that mouthful of a question. One issue that interests me especially is whether racial or ethnic identity can be assumed by anyone. After watching the “New York” episode of A Mind of a Chef (2012), again (!), I was, this time around, struck by the phenomenon of Ivan Ramen. (Above, David Chang of Momofuku fame discusses ramen with the famous Ivan of Ivan Ramen of Japan and now in Manhattan).
In the food world it seems fairly acceptable for white chefs to cook so-called non white food (aka ethnic food) and vice versa. And, being able to cook a food “outside” one’s own ethnic or racial background seems to be a kind of desired challenge and personal and professional achievement among ambitious chefs. I have no qualms with this; in fact, it reminds me that ethnic and racial culture is malleable and that there are significant limitations to the way most people approach the concept of cultural authenticity.
But if the world of food helps us to see how ethnic culture does not (or need not) solely “belong” to a certain group of persons, can this also be possible for ethnic identity? Is ethnic identity just as malleable as ethnic culture? A white person may be adept at Japanese cooking, but can a white person choose to identify as Japanese? I guess it would depend on what we mean by ethnic identity. If it is defined primarily in cultural terms, then shouldn’t a non white person who embodies a number of Japanese cultural practices be entitled to identify as Japanese if she wishes? Unless being Japanese (or some other ethnic and racial identity) is more then a set of cultural practices. But what would constitute “more then?”

Originally posted on, February 2015