Asian Americans and other fans of Tieghan Gerard and her massively popular Half Baked Harvest food blog are asking her to engage more thoughtfully with critics about her “Vietnamese inspired noodle soup” recipe, which she first called pho.
Gerard has since changed the name of the recipe, but some Vietnamese Americans feel it's not enough. They believe she, and so many other non-Asian food bloggers, still — despite years of critique — do not fully understand why this kind of cultural appropriation is hurtful, and they want that to change.
Earlier this month, Gerard shared the noodle soup recipe to her blog and to her Instagram audience of over 2.7 million people. The original recipe was titled “Weeknight ginger pho ga (Vietnamese chicken soup).” It has since been renamed “Easy sesame chicken and noodles in spicy broth.”
The food blogger described the dish as something that can be prepared in an hour. Some ingredients she listed included caramelized chicken and a “sweet, spicy, tangy sesame chile sauce.”
The post drew immediate criticism from Asian and Vietnamese fans because pho, perhaps Vietnam's most iconic dish, is known for being a labor of love and requires many hours of flavor development. Although there are some variations, traditional pho is usually made with beef and requires a specific kind of noodle, broth, and garnishes.
“I really LOVE so many of your recipes, and I appreciate what you're doing, but this is not pho. And to call it pho (even chicken pho) is not only appropriation, it's honestly hurtful,” wrote one commenter on her blog. “This recipe does not reflect the actual ingredients of Vietnam that go into pho, all of the time and work that goes into pho or the actual flavors OR presentation even of pho.”
Gerard at first ignored such comments, instead responding only to comments that did not bring up racial insensitivity.
She has since responded to critical comments with the same reply each time:
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I understand where you are coming from and have decided to change the recipe tittle [sic]. It was never my intention to offend or hurt anyone or the culture. I will make sure do be much more conscious when deciding on recipe tittles [sic] in the future and be sure to do more research. Thank you for kindly bringing this to my attention, I really appreciate you kindly letting voicing your concern. xTieghan
Gerard did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Some Vietnamese Americans are unsatisfied with her apology, saying the issue extends far beyond food.
Stephanie Vu, 28, of San Francisco, told BuzzFeed News she'd become a big fan of Half Baked Harvest's recipes during the pandemic, so she was especially “hurt and upset” to see the “pho” recipe, — and she felt compelled to reach out to Gerard via Instagram.
“I don't know why I'm freaking out about this — this is the food of my people, I should be able to say something about this. But I was terrified,” she said.
After Vu sent Gerard a long message, she received a response.
“I described actual pho and the entire recipe on the blog,” Gerard wrote, “and state that this is just my creation of what you can make at home.”
Vu said she wasn't satisfied with the response.
“The lack of acknowledgment can really hurt the Asian community,” said Vu. “This specific example, despite the fact that it's 'small,' can be extrapolated to casual appropriation situations that Asian Americans experience…the fact that she dismissed me really hurt me.”
A woman named Rachel Rock (@rachelkayrock), 25, said she was blocked by Gerard after amplifying Vu's posts calling her out.
“After reading Steph's post, I shared it on my stories in solidarity with her and because I know a lot of my friends also cook HBH's food and it was super disappointing to read how she was handling the situation,” Rock told BuzzFeed News. “Shortly after I shared Steph's post on my stories, I noticed that Tieghan had blocked me.”
Rock says she hopes Gerard is listening intently to the critiques from Vietnamese Americans.
The controversy also comes at a fraught time. Over the last few weeks, incidents of racist attacks on Asian Americans, especially elders, have been on an alarming rise. The collective fear and trauma has spurred an online movement for Asian Americans to bond and process together.
The issue over cultural appropriation of Asian food by white publications is also one that has come to the forefront, especially over the past year. Last year, South Asian former employees of Bon Appétit and other people of color accused the magazine of underpaying them compared to their white colleagues and rejecting their native food pitches, only to see white colleagues cook the same foods afterward. And popular chef Alison Roman received backlash for making personal digs against two Asian celebrities, with critics charging it was particularly ironic given that she had built a career off of rebranding East Asian food.
This moment of reckoning plus the alarming rise in violence has emboldened Asian Americans to speak out about these racial issues, however micro or macro, and to demand change. In 2021, a basic apology or PR response no longer feels like enough for many. Commenters are asking Gerard to offer more than cursory responses to criticism, given the size of her platform.
“If you appreciate our food and our cultures, why don't you also speak out on the attacks that have been happening to Asian elders these last few weeks?” one commenter wrote. “More than ever, our community needs protection of Asians and non-Asians alike.”
Vu hopes Gerard and other non-Asian personalities with large followings — especially in the food industry — can use this example as a teachable moment.
“I think what I want from her despite the fact that she changed the name [of her recipe] is any sense of acknowledgment that this was a learning opportunity for her,” Vu said. “So much happened in 2020, and the fact that she has close to a platform of 3 million people but failed to acknowledge this is extremely tone-deaf to me.”