Balut is a dish that Kim Saira grew up eating with her grandmother and her cousins.
So when she first saw the Filipino street food snack featured a few years ago among a slate of purportedly unappetizing dishes on “Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” — a recurring segment on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” she was a little thrown off.
“I wasn’t mad about it, but I was more so confused,” Saira, a 24-year-old Filipina and Chinese American activist, said. “I was just wondering why they used a food that was so sentimental to my culture.”
It wasn’t just balut. Other episodes featured chicken feet, used in cuisines around the world; thousand-year-old eggs, a Chinese delicacy; and bird saliva, an ingredient Saira herself has eaten in soup.
The recent rise in hate and racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, though, got Saira thinking about “The Late Late Show” segment in a different light. She started questioning why it was still socially acceptable for Corden to present dishes routinely eaten by Asian people as “disgusting.”
“If you don’t like it, there’s a way to be respectful about it,” she added. “When a person who isn’t involved in the culture whatsoever is adamantly profiting from it and showing it in a negative way, it’s not right.”
Earlier this month, Saira started a petition calling on Corden and “The Late Late Show” to make a change. As of Thursday, it has 41,000 signatures and counting.
‘Spill Your Guts’ removes foods from their context
“Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts” is essentially a more extreme version of truth or dare.
In the segment, James Corden and his celebrity guests take turns choosing between answering an uncomfortable, personal question or eating one of several “disgusting” foods.
The foods in question range from dishes specific to various cuisines (chicken feet, cow tongue and bull penis) to concoctions with no obvious cultural significance (salmon smoothies, bug trifle and hot dog juice). Several of the foods have been featured in the segment more than once.
The game is premised on shock value, with Corden and his guests (who are rarely ever Asian Americans) wrinkling their noses and referring to the dishes as “disgusting,” “horrifying” or simply, “ew.” The dishes are usually prepared in ways that seem intentionally unappetizing, divorced of context, flavor and seasoning.
For the purposes of the game, that’s likely the point. But for Saira and other critics, the problem is that ingredients eaten by millions around the world are even included in the lineup of “gross foods.”
“It perpetuates this myth that Asian people are ‘disgusting’ or ‘horrifying,’ because he’s taking foods that are so unfamiliar and telling other people that they’re disgusting,” she said. “It does perpetuate the cycle of anti-Asian racism.”
Saira’s petition calls on “The Late Late Show” to either modify the segment to remove foods that are rooted in other people’s cultures or to get rid of it entirely. It also demands that Corden apologize publicly and donate to Asian American organizations.
A spokesperson for CBS, which airs the talk show, referred CNN to comments Corden made on “The Howard Stern Show” last week.
“The next time we do that bit, we absolutely won’t involve or use any of those foods,” Corden said in the June 16 interview, when asked about the recent criticism. “As you said at the start, our show is a show about joy and light and love. We don’t want to make a show to upset anybody.”
Corden also noted that he didn’t know when the segment would run again.
To Saira, though, the comedian’s response fell short.
“In my petition, I have specifically asked for James Corden to publicly apologize on his show, and the reason why I was really specific about that was because I think that it is imperative for his hundreds of thousands of viewers to understand the harm that mocking these foods, rooted in Asian cultures, has on Asian people who still eat them,” she said.
The criticism isn’t new
Though Saira’s petition is recent, “Spill Your Guts” has been criticized as culturally insensitive for a few years now.
Andrew Sun, a food columnist for the South China Morning Post, referred to the segment in a 2018 article as “cultural chauvinism of the highest order.”
“I want to know which white, European epicurean arbiter decided that fattened duck or goose liver, which sounds better using its French name, foie gras, is gourmet and luxurious, but chicken gizzard and duck tongues are uncivilised and gruesome?” he wrote.
Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University, notes that despite their popularity, East Asian cuisines have long been mocked and considered inferior in the West to northern European cuisines from France, England and Germany — a phenomenon he describes as “a history of domination and hierarchy of taste by race, class and ethnicity.”
But in today’s era, those same attitudes — including those on “Spill Your Guts” — seem out of touch, he added.
“It sounds idiotic and out of date at a time when the balance of power is changing in the world and demographic transition is on its way in the US,” Ray wrote in an email to CNN.
Writer Shirley Cahyadi raised questions about who determines what is considered inedible and who “The Late Late Show” caters to in a 2018 piece for Embodied, New York University’s arts and culture magazine.
“The show commands an international audience as it’s aired in countries such as India, Southeast Asia, France, Ireland, New Zealand and Finland, yet it fails to effectively take non-western perspectives into account,” Cayhadi wrote. “Even if this segment was not born out of racist motives, the lack of initiative to branch out of the bubble of ignorance is just not good enough.”
The issue goes beyond James Corden and “The Late Late Show.”
Media has often presented Asian cuisines and foods as unsavory, unappetizing or unhealthy. Take, for example, the Travel Channel show “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” which featured its host roaming the world sampling food considered gross, exotic or bizarre. A few years ago, Zimmern acknowledged that the show’s early seasons had a cultural sensitivity problem.
Though complaints about exoticism have been bubbling up for a while, this moment of heightened awareness around anti-Asian racism seems to have brought it to a boiling point, Saira said.
“Now people are paying way more attention,” she said.
Asian Americans are fighting for change
On Thursday, Saira and others who take issue with “Spill Your Guts” are holding an event in Los Angeles around the corner from where “The Late Late Show” films.
It’s intended to bring together Asian Americans and allies who want to change how Asian cultures are portrayed in mainstream media and raise awareness of the “Spill Your Guts” issue, Saira said. And, fittingly, it will feature a Korean food truck.
To those who may not have grown up eating foods like balut or to those who find them unappealing, “Spill Your Guts” might seem like harmless fun.
But for Saira and others who are standing with her, food is personal — and political.