The “Chinese-ness” of Chinese food

chinese foodways

From cheung fan to spring rolls, chow mien to Hokkien mee, Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond explores the myriad paths and trajectories that Chinese food has taken in diaspora, and in doing so, shaped the indigenous cuisines that it has come into contact with. Through ten chapters written by anthropologists from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim, the collection provides socio-historical and anthropological readings of how the Chinese diaspora and its food practices have irrevocably shaped the culinary landscape in Asia, the Pacific and North America. What is cooked and eaten in these countries is the product of centuries of transculturation, acculturation and transnationality – reflecting the long history and complex movements of the Chinese diaspora. Food becomes the focal lens through which the hybridized and creolized cultures of the Pacific Islands, Indonesia, the Philippines, Mandalay, Vietnam, Las Vegas, Australia, Hong Kong and other Chinese communities abroad can be understood.

The book is structured in three parts, beginning with a more general overview and chapters on Chinese food in diaspora, before moving to look at Chinese food and foodways in Southeast Asia specifically, and then to beyond Southeast Asia in Las Vegas, Adelaide and Hong Kong. Scholars of Chinese foodways will find the detailed historical and contemporary work on Indonesia (Myra Sidharta), the Philippines (Carmelea Ang See), and Mandalay (Duan Ying) useful, while non-specialist readers will find particular pleasure in the authors’ anecdotal descriptions of various meals and dishes. Most of the chapters are descriptive in nature, and document in detail Chinese diasporic foodways and their reterritorialisation in various parts of Asia, the Pacific and North America. As editor Tan Chee Beng’s introduction makes clear, these foodways are still very much works-in-progress as migration has produced localisation and innovation in both new and indigenous cuisines. The book also makes it clear that the agency of both the migrants and the locals shapes food and cooking methods in unexpected ways, ones that challenge stereotypical ideas of “authenticity” and occasionally blur the lines between social classes.

One question that ultimately arises though, and is not completely dealt with in the book, is whether we can so easily define the term “Chinese.” The book seeks to “examine the diversity and contribution of the Chinese culinary heritage in Southeast Asia as a result of migration from China and localization in Southeast Asia” – however an awareness of the already heterogeneous and multi-faceted definition of Chinese culture may trouble the usefulness of the by now obviously generic terms “Chinese” and “Chinese foods.” Thus, while Nancy J. Pollock’s chapter “Gastronomic Influences on the Pacific from China and Southeast Asia” performs interesting work by linking ancient Chinese food philosophies with the food choices of early settlers in the Pacific – it is not entirely persuasive to argue that the use of taro and other root and tree starches in the Pacific is directly a result of ancient Chinese food practices. Pollock also asserts that “cooking has remained an aesthetic principle of Chinese gastronomy as transferred into the Pacific,”(53) yet she also admits that “the earliest cooking fires in the Pacific […] may have been similar to those in rural Southeast Asia”(53). Considering their historical heterogeneity, the categories “Chinese” and “Chinese food,” seem less useful here.  Similarly, David Y.H. Wu’s personal journeys to Chinese restaurants around the globe, to “present personal judgment of global variations and tastes of diasporic Chinese cuisines”(75), result in the chronicling of a hugely diverse range of dishes, cooking styles and standards. While it is certainly true that these dishes and cuisines “can be placed within a larger global process of transnational flows of people, ethnicity, capital and imagination” – it seems almost impossible to come up with a unifying theory of just what “Chinese cuisine” is, since it is made up of so “many intra-Chinese culinary divisions and ethnic identities” (75).

Some of the authors in the collection seem to be more aware of this problematic than others. One of the best explorations of the instability of these terms is Chan Yuk Wah’s chapter “The Identity of the ‘Steamed Rice-flour Roll’ in China and Vietnam.” Chan’s conclusion is that it is impossible and indeed pointless to speculate on the origins of banh cuon in Vietnam and cheung fan in South China. Even though the dishes have obvious connections, there is in fact a suggestion that Chinese traders may have brought back Vietnamese cooking styles to China – a kind of reverse diasporic foodway. More importantly, Chan emphasises that borders are always in flux, and that the populations of Guangdong and Vietnam were in fact both seen by earlier Chinese as “Southern Barbarians”. Chan’s chapter provides an important counterargument to many of the other authors’ unconscious assumptions that there is a kind of ur-Chinese food when in fact there are many regionally-based cuisines in China which are fairly different from each other. In fact, as Tan points out, “standard Chinese food” is a working category that is applied to food “cooked in the style assumed to be originally brought from China or […] perceived as standard Chinese food that is reproduced by Chinese in and outside China and in Chinese restaurants” (25). While the term might refer to a standard repertoire of dishes, it is clear that it is a somewhat arbitrary categorisation especially given the fact that one man’s yangzhou chaofan or mapo doufu may be something quite different depending on whether you are in Hong Kong, Singapore, New York or Honolulu.

Jean Duruz’s chapter on “Cooking ‘Asian’ As Embedded Australian Cosmopolitan” also reflects this more nuanced sensibility as she focalises ideas of evolving culture and cuisine through the personal life of Malaysia-born, Australia-based chef Cheong Liew. Duruz’s exploration of Cheong’s invention of an Asian-influenced Australian cuisine pays careful attention to the fact that Cheong’s Southeast Asian background and personal history already transcend easy cultural and racial categories. Duruz’s use of personal history to explicate the complicated processes of “fusion” and cosmopolitanism help to ground her analysis. In her interpretation, Cheong’s signature dish of “tiny fillets of soused snook (pike) on avocado slices with a wasabi mayonnaise, thin slices of raw cuttlefish with squid-ink noodles, slices of poached octopus tentacles with a garlic mayonnise and spiced prawn sushi with glutinous rice”(192) becomes not a hot mess of fusion cuisine, but a carefully balanced retelling and recreation of a personal tale of vernacular cosmopolitanisms. From Cheong’s upbringing in the cultural crossroads of Malaysia, to his training in European restaurants and his exploration of the bounty of produce from the Australian garden, Duruz explores an identity that has gone beyond the category “Chinese” and instead is interrogating the meaning of “cooking Asian.” She acknowledges that Cheong’s specific narrative might be “unusual”(214) yet it allows her to explore the reality of the transformation of food that comes through an engagement with a multiplicity of places and cultures, and works its way through the “poignancy of memory”(214).

Perhaps memory then, and especially the memory of food is one intensely subjective yet evocative way of understanding how foodways from Asia function. As many of the authors in this collection attest, their scholarly interests are borne out of intense food memories, situated and embedded in particular cultural contexts. Their lived experiences then, like Chef Cheong’s, become ways in which we can all go beyond more rigid race-based food categories and instead investigate the multitudinous ways in which transformation, transculturation and translocation occur daily in the everyday acts of cooking and eating.

Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond. ed. Tan Chee-Beng. Singapore: NUS Press, 2011.

Joanne Leow
University of Toronto

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