I’m big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch (though I would never use that dreaded moniker “Cumberbitch”), so I was excited to see the new trailer for his upcoming film Dr. Strange, based on a popular Marvel comic. Unlike Rina, who lives and breathes comics, I’m not all too familiar with the origins of these Marvel characters. Consequently, I was surprised by the controversy and backlash generated by the film’s teaser. But as I read more about the casting controversy surrounding this film, as well as Ghost in the Shell, a live action adaptation of a popular Japanese manga starring Scarlett Johansson, I began to understand why critics, and in particular Asian Americans, are so incensed by the very obvious “whitewashing” of Asian characters in these films.
Whatever the arguments the studios and production companies involved in the making of these films offer up to explain their casting choices–like “oh we’re actually thinking outside the box by casting a (really white) woman (Tilda Swinton) to play the role of “The Ancient One” (in Dr Strange), who in the comic is a Tibetan-born man”–the bottom line is this is really about the bottom line. That is nothing new. It is, nevertheless, extremely disheartening and infuriating. Could Marvel have done something truly inspired and cast a non-white male for the lead (as much as I love Cumberbatch), especially since “there is nothing inherently gendered or racially specific in the lead character’s main concept,” as one critic has pointed out? Sure, but Benedict Cumberbatch is a safe choice because he’s a great classically-trained actor with a solid fan base who also lends gravitas to the project. Could they have cast an Asian actor to play “The Ancient One” instead of Tilda Swinton? I mean come on, there is no shortage of extremely talented Asian actors, skilled in martial arts even, who could’ve taken on the role. No offense to Swinton–she’s actually one of my favorite actresses–but her response to the backlash, explaining “it’s not actually an Asian character” and she “wasn’t asked to play an Asian character” just adds insult to injury. Essentially, Marvel has made a film with all the “Oriental” trappings to narratively play out what critic Graeme McMillan calls “the white man finds enlightenment in Asia trope.”
Similarly, casting Johansson to play the part of cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi is less about her skill as an actress and more about her bankability and name recognition. She’s a fine actress and has done very well in the action/sci-fi genre, in particular as Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers franchise. But, again, there are plenty of talented Asian actresses who could’ve been cast to play this part, such as Oscar-nominated Rinko Kikuchi who at least has one big budget action/sci-fi movie, Pacific Rim (2013), under her belt. Unfortunately, she not famous enough to play an Asian character. This leads us to the bigger question–how are non-white actors/actresses suppose to get famous enough to be able to play characters of their own ethnic origin when mainstream Hollywood continues to culturally appropriate and whitewash those roles that could potentially offer them the means to “get famous?” They don’t, unless they manage to produce their own projects and then, by some miracle, make a ton of money in the process–enough to get Hollywood’s attention.
Interestingly enough, manga fans in Japan are not so riled up about Johansson’s casting, mainly because they expected it to happen. If Hollywood buys the rights to a Japanese property then there is no reason for them to expect Japanese or Asian actors will be cast since it’s no longer “Japanese.” I think Asian Americans are far more sensitive about it precisely because we, along with other ethnic groups, face cultural appropriation and lack of authentic representation every day. This is our reality. We see in all forms of media, in politics, and in the culinary landscape.
Take the concept of “fusion” cuisine, for example–or as I like to call it “confusion” cuisine. The idea of America being a “melting pot” of cultures is one that is predicated on the notion that different cultures coexist in some kind of harmonious balance like a well-made stew. But what it also means is that those differences that make each culture unique are obliterated, melting into “one culture.” When fusion cuisine is done really well, it respects the origins from which it sprang–great care and attention is paid to the ingredients and the techniques of preparation. You can’t “fuse” what you don’t understand. Like I always tell my pastry cooks, you can’t break the rules unless you know them really well. Bad fusion cuisine is merely a half-assed interpretation with no clear understanding or respect for the cultures it’s trying to fuse–more a marketing ploy than anything thing else. It may sound cool and hip, but more often than not it’s a hot mess. Not all Asian ingredients are the same, just as not all Asians are the same, or all Hispanics the same, or all people of Middle Eastern descent the same. You can’t just substitute, for example, Chinese fermented tofu for Korean fermented soybean paste. Yeah, they are both made from soybeans but they ARE NOT THE SAME! And boy, do they taste totally different. Come on, do your due diligence people. Similarly, F. Murray Abraham and Alfred Molina can’t be the only go-to actors you cast for any part remotely Middle Eastern or Latino. That’s just plain lazy and uninspired thinking.
What I love about living in the Bay Area is that we don’t have to travel far to find authentic ethnic cuisines from a diversity of cultures, so there’s really no excuse for confusion cuisine. There’s ample opportunities to explore and to educate oneself about another culture’s cuisine. And even if you don’t live here, there’s this great tool called the internet–Google it or watch some instructional videos on YouTube.
YouTube is where my friend Karen and I found this video on how to make authentic Chinese crullers, roughly translated as “oil sticks,” which doesn’t sound particularly appetizing, but I guarantee they are divine. It’s something you’ll find in most dim sum places and restaurants specializing Northern Chinese or Taiwanese fare. Our first try was just so so–flavor was nice but the texture was a little too dense. I went back to the drawing board…or in this case my Chinese cookbooks and came up with a hybrid recipe that worked a lot better. When made properly the crullers have this distinctly crispy exterior and light, airy interior, with just the right about of chew. I grew up devouring many of these, dunking them in hot sweetened fresh soy milk or floating pieces of them in jook or rice porridge.
Once you’ve mastered the technique for making these delectable crullers, the possibilities are endless for what you can do with them…Chinese or otherwise.
Yield: approximately 8-10 (depending on the length)
- 1-1/2 cups Bread Flour (plus a little more for rolling)
- 1 Tbsp. Baking Powder
- 1/2 tsp. Baking Soda
- 3/4 tsp. Salt
- 1/2 tsp. Sugar
- 1/2 cup + 2 Tbsp. Warm Water
Place the flour in medium mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Dissolve the baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar in the warm water and pour it into the center of the well. Stir everything together until the dough begins to form. Knead the dough with your hands until the dough comes together into a ball, then transfer onto a floured surface and knead some more until the dough is smooth and elastic. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in a warm place for about an hour. Punch down the dough to release the gases then place it a large, lightly greased ziplock bag and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight (or up to 2 days).
Let the dough come up to room temperature before rolling out to 1/8″ thickness and about 4″ wide. Cut the dough into 3/4″ wide strips. Using a thin chopstick or the back of a chef’s knife make an indentation down the middle of one strip, then lay another strip on top it, pressing the two pieces together by making another indentation down the middle. Repeat the process with the other dough strips.
Heat the oil to 360°F. Fry up to 3 double strips at a time, gentle tugging the dough at the ends to extend the length before lowering it into the oil. Use a pair of long wooden chopsticks or a pair of tongs to turn the crullers so they fry evenly. Drain the fried crullers on paper towels.