Eating Asian America Investigates the Connections Between Race and taste

Christopher Patterson November 20, 2013 0
An extreme close-up of mouth-watering chicken adobo on white rice. • Photo by CapitalCRUZ

Left: An extreme close-up of mouth-watering chicken adobo on white rice. • Photo by CapitalCRUZ

“You’re not Korean if you can’t eat kimchi.” “If your mom didn’t make adobo, you’re not Filipino.”

Since Asian migrants first arrived in the United States, their identities were tethered to the food they ate. Whether as laborers who were stereotyped for only eating rice, or as farmers, cooks, and servers who helped produce “authentic” and “exotic” cuisines for white customers, Asian Americans have been perceived by the tastes and smells associated with their communities.

The popularity of Asian foods has also provided Asian migrants with ways of incorporating themselves within America’s Main Street. Restaurants sell foods like chop suey and fortune cookies as authentically Chinese, though such foods likely originated in the U.S. Indeed, the “authenticity” of such cuisines has often been their most marketable feature. Even the taste of a perfectly sliced piece of sashimi may lose its luster if the chef is not really “Asian.”

The collection of essays, Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader, is a reminder that our perception of Asian food has come from a complex overlapping of historical and political forces, which have defined Asian American identity and made Asian food a marketable means of consuming (and ingesting) an “exotic” commodity. As the editors Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan, and Anita Mannur state in the introduction, the pleasures of eating Asian food has encouraged a naïve and superficial celebration of difference, thus permitting consumers to ignore political issues that pertain to Asian American people. The twenty essays in the collection thus consider how Asian American identity has been characterized by foods perceived as exotic (“spicy”), disgusting (“oily”), or dangerous (“dogmeat”).

The anthology represents the multidisciplinary reach of Asian American Studies, beginning with stories of agricultural and food-service labor. The essays then consider how imperialism and war have contributed to popular tastes and production, and then reflect upon how food has both solidified and unsettled Asian American identity. The anthology ends with essays on Asian American personhood and examinations of food in literature, art, and film.

The essays themselves are readable and concise. Each scholar, whose works may appear opaque in scholarly journals, are here successful in reaching a very large audience, from Asian American scholars to those simply interested in food histories and identity. Yet this ambitious project can come with its weaknesses, as some chapters feel far less critical than others. While the main goal of the anthology is to disrupt a “superficial multiculturalism” that celebrates difference through ingestion, some essays seem to join this celebration in applauding the recent acceptance of Asian food by American culture, while other essays are more critical of the vexed contemporary perceptions of Asian foods.

The anthology’s weaknesses however are redeemed in its impressive consistency and logical arrangement, which uses the less critical chapters to set up a firm basis for later chapters to critique and dismantle. Dawn Mabalon, René Orquiza, and Martin Manalansan’s chapters are all heavily informed by each other, and give multiple dimensions to the history, production, and consumption of Filipino foods. Mabalon’s chapter argues that the food Filipino immigrants cooked and ate were elements of survival, and were very different from foods in the Philippines. Yet these foods also helped form a collective Filipina/o American identity, so that later generations attached these Americanized Filipina/o foods to “memory, cultural pride, and family” (171).

Orquiza’s chapter deepens Mabalon’s ideas by considering the Philippines in the colonial period, when Americans used education, advertising and cookbooks to “Americanize the Filipino palate,” (177). Depicting Western food as a mark of refinement, American colonials shaped Philippine identity as lacking in the perfection of the West, thus encouraging more Filipinas/os to migrate. Manalansan’s chapter builds off Mabalon’s and Orquiza’s to ask why some immigrant food has been categorized as “authentic” and “ethnic,” while others like pizza, tacos, chips and hamburgers, are seen as all-American (291). In response, Manalansan conjures ways of depicting foods to create “an uncomfortable encounter with inauthenticity” (297).

Other chapters expand our perceptions of Asian foods by examining how taste and pleasure have also impacted notions of whiteness and queer desire. Mark Padoongpatt’s chapter considers the popularity of Asian dishes during the Cold War in white households, where ingesting Asian foods made look-alike housewives appear more unique and adventurous. Anita Mannur’s chapter examines how the kitchen can yield same-sex intimacy in South Asian literature and film (393).

The authors featured in Eating Asian America represent a shift in how perceptions of Asianness are understood. They push readers to go beyond visual perceptions of race such as skin, face, and body, and to consider how identities continue to be formed through taste and smell.

Edited By Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan, and Anita Mannur—New York University Press.

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