Saturday, 2 March 2013

FCC: Food and Eastern Asia

Ever since we picked up our Food and Culture Colloquium this semester, I've begun to notice that when taking a step back each of our modules has rather unexpectedly built on top of the other. I suppose I can credit this to some planning, but there's something to be said of the reality that programming fate plus a bit of shuffling and rescheduling have begun to iron out what I am certain will continue to be a rewarding rest of the semester. Having said this, our intersection with food continued regionally this week with a focus on eastern Asia (specifically, China and Japan), with next week coincidentally heading southward toward Malaysia and the Philippines.

Professor Xinda Lian of Denison's Modern Languages department kicked things off on Wednesday with a quotation by Father of Taoism Lao-tzu (aka, Laozi) who once said that "governing a big country is like cooking a small fish," to be approached with delicate and skilled hands. Now, the words of an ancient Chinese philosopher would perhaps not been known to the rest of us were it not for American President Ronald Reagan drawing from his sayings during his address to a joint session of Congress in 1988. Moving forward, the impact of Lao-tzu's words inevitably drew the world's attention to Chinese cooking.

Going back even further in time, Xinda introduced to us Confucius's words of wisdom and teaching which set the stage for seeking to understand China's gastronomy beyond General Tso's Chicken. According to Confucian Analects, it is said that Confucius was easily satisfied; he did not enjoy good food nor the good things in life. And yet for someone who didn't seem to care about what he ate, his teachings on food and eating surely attest to the fact that he cared more so about how he ate than anything else. Confucius in this case cared about propriety, having food properly prepared and orderly.

via http://www.clker.com/cliparts/7/0/x/W/U/X/equilibrio-yin-yang.svg
As one of Xinda's former flatmates once said, "Chinese cuisine is not about eating but about balance and equilibrium." Sharing personal examples with those in attendance, he continued to explain three levels of harmony and balance that are important to understanding his flatmate's point. The first is that between different elements inside and outside of the individual, the yin and yang as it were where each food falls somewhere along this spectrum. To balance out a dish that has too much yin, there must be an inclusion of an ingredient/s that contain a certain level of yang. As Linda Prout puts it, "According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), health is a state of balance in which food choice is key." However one may choose to look at it, a more general conceptualisation of this level is that it is important to recognise that elements are needed and taken from nature and goes into (and thus affects) the inside of the individual outward.

With this in mind, the second level is the balance between man and nature. Generally speaking, Xinda suggested that Chinese people eat anything that's edible (like the French). Indeed, if it's edible by other beings, we can eat it, no? We're part of the change, and need to play our role in this food system; we have the obligation to make the system work. While talking about this level in particular, Xinda made mention of a recent, seven-part documentary series called A Bite of China: Reaching Beyond the Tip of Tongue (related article: "China on the Tongue") that explores the nuances of Chinese culinary culture. In this series, it's relevant to note that they didn't begin by discussing cooking or style, but rather the importance of the ingredients that are found in nature. Check out this first part of the series ("Give of the Nature") via the video embedded above (in Chinese but captioned with English subtitles). The location within nature of Chinese ingredients is very much akin to the European conception of terroir (an important facet of my own research interests), whereby geography defines the identity of an ingredient which in turn affects and defines the dish/es in which it is used. To illustrate this point, Xinda shared with us the difficulty in creating one of his favourite dishes which consisted of three simple ingredients: egg, bamboo shoots and mushrooms. One would be hard pressed to expect to ever taste such a dish without hiking up the same trail for four hours up a mountain and into an expanse in which a small village in the countryside of China is situated. Each household in this village grows a very specific mushroom (known as a "fragrant mushroom") that is impacted by the climate of which it is a part. To this day, that very specific taste is still in Xinda's mind and is what makes that custard dish special. This intimate relation is best summed up when Xinda suggested that "if you do not examine nature in this close range, one cannot get balance."

Assuming you've got your inner balance by this point, the final (and arguably most difficult) level of balance to achieve is that between human beings. Food in many ways is an experience of sensual enjoyment, and is more often than not an excuse for people to meet, talk and/or exchange ideas. On the subject of diet, Chinese writer and inventor Lin Yutang (1895-1976) once wrote:
Before we ever lay our hands on food, we have yearned for it for a long while, thinking about it to ourselves and longing to enjoy this new food with close friends. We write our invitations like this: "My nephew has brought some aromatic vinegar from Zhenjiang and an original Nanjing Duck from the You Familty." Or like this: "It's already the end of June, if you do not join us, then you must wait until next May for another chance at herring."
Admittedly, when I first heard this I thought that this is certainly some form of guilt tripping if I ever heard it, but what's important to take away from this is the fact that there appears to be some need to rationalise an otherwise obvious, communal experience, one which is held in high regard and which should take very little energy to motivate. Alas, the importance of eating to Chinese people isn't limited only to what can be found in essays, but in early Chinese poetry and contemporary literature, as well.

In conclusion to this portion of Wednesday's module, Xinda spoke of his difficulties with being able to express his own food identity in America, leaving us with the following words not by a Chinese author but rather by Hugo of St. Victor (a 12th century Saxon monk) who wrote: "The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." At the end of the day, he is able to enjoy food but must try even harder to do so, to which he may very well continue to ask: What is China? and What is America?

For the second half of this module, Professor John Davis of Sociology/Anthropology moved us further east and into Japan, began by suggesting that the statistical significance given by the other to a marker of cultural identity (e.g.,sushi in defining Japanese cuisine) is not proportional to the statistical significance of that same marker within the reality of that community. Indeed, this is not a new phenomena per se, and the same could be said for geishas and kimonos. Cognisant of this preface, John's aim was to present us with a different vantage point of what it means to eat in Japan, focusing principally on side dishes and bearing in mind that rice is perhaps one of few (if not the only) common denominators within Japanese gastronomy.

As is a similar case elsewhere, Japan has recently experienced (and is continuing to experience) a growing interest in regional food. One clear example of this is presented in the form of kaiseki ryori, the ultimate experience of Japanese cuisine and more generally recognised as the Japanese version of haute cuisine. With an emphasis on small portions, this style of Japanese preparation emphasises local, in-season items that look aesthetically pleasing, and was developed (in the form of ichi-go ichi-e) by Sen no Rikyū in the 16th century in particular response to space issues. Tea ceremonies were held inside the home in a small room with very limited space; thus, one dish was present at a time--the eating of that dish timed to the drinking of the tea--which allowed for better control and planning of the dishes that were dependent on temperature/heat. In the above examples, we can visually see the importance of the seasons in this Japanese style, with the bamboo shoot dish representing spring (new life), summer via the sashimi (when you look at it, it makes you feel cooler), and the hallowed out radishes as igloos for the winter season. In this cycle, there is an evocation of the passing of time and lends to not only artistry but tremendous variety, as well, further allowing for fluctuations in availability and emphases on local/regional identity. Just as is the case for Confucius and his focus on propriety, Japanese cuisine similar focuses on austerity and simplicity, with tastes being very subtle and the dishes designed in such a way to accentuate and bring out natural flavours.

The second style of Japanese cuisine was packaged in the form of ekiben, "eki" meaning station and "ben" referring to bento boxes. Created especially for travellers on the go, ekibens come in 2,000-3,000 varieties, which as a whole especially exemplify and reflect the peculiarities of different regions of Japan.

While ekibens are very popular on trains and within train stations, they (and regional specialties more specifically) have more recently been making their way onto the local fast food scene, most notably since 2006 with the annual B1 Grand Prix taking place in a different Japanese city each year (2010 in Atsugi as shown in the above embedded video; 2011 in Himeiji) (last year, they had 63 entries and attracted about half a million people). Economically, variety and the growing emphasis on regional identity have been working very well together to benefit Japanese gastronomy and its culinary cultures.

As "Japanese gourmet" continues to pick up, regional dishes and stories (such as that of Hachniohe's comfort food Senbei Jiru and Akashiyaki of the region of Kansai) will continue to flourish and serve as catalysts for drawing in tourism and aiding in the economic resurgence of local regions. From shopping malls/centers to food courts, it is clear that Japan, too, is beginning to embrace and promote its diversity in a world that sees it for little else.

Suggested readings for this session:
"Perceptions of Chinese Restaurants in the U.S.: What Affects Customer Satisfaction and Behavioral Intentions?" (Yinghua Liu and SooCheong Jang, 2009)
"Ryu Gin: Next Wave Japanese Gastronomy" (Harris Salat, 2007)

For more information regarding the 2012-2013 Food and Culture Colloquium at Denison University, click here. To check out the growing album of photos from our colloquium sessions, click here.

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