Final Portfolio: Myth of Food Consumption and Nostalgia

Interpreting the Myth of Food Consumption and Nostalgia

     Ever since human being has ceased living off wild berries, food consumption has obtained more than nutritive significance. As we have explored throughout the semester, food symbolizes identity, class, gender, memory and border crossing. Among all the class readings, Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption by Roland Barthes has provided me with an overarching approach in understanding the information constituted by food. In this article, Barthes employs semiotics to help contextualize the role and function of food. For what is food? “Food is…a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior.” (Food and Culture, pp. 24) For instance, when a middle-class American housewife picks up a can of tuna fish in the Whole Foods Market, she is not only consuming the “minimally processed” fish but the idea of organic living, the notion of environmental-friendly production and the image of a good wife and mom who cares about her family’s health.
Fundamentally, food consumption is about physiological satisfaction. However, as Barthes precisely argues, what is de facto consumed is a highly constructed end product that reflects collective institution. Abstracting from the projects I have accomplished this semester, food as a signifier has decoded the myth of authenticity. In short, food signifies nostalgia. Thus, in this final portfolio, I argue that the pursuit of authenticity arises from nostalgia-a sentiment embodied as one’s desire to partake in history, or trace individual experiences from the past.

Foodstuff Project: Long life Chinese Herbs (←Click on the title to view full context)
If food is a coherent system of information, as established by Barthes, then preparation constitutes a crucial semantic unit. (Food and Culture, pp.25) In this case, the relationship between authenticity and nostalgia is signified through the presentation and preparation of herbs. During the fieldwork, the two Chinese health clinics Mamie and I visited contrasted each other immensely. Health clinic A is arranged more identical to a modernized doctor’s office. The stainless floor, smell of sanitizer and crushed herbs prescribed in pre-sealed pockets forcefully emphasize hygiene. Clinic B, on the other hand, is filled with cabinets of dried herbs and offers herb-decoction service. The doctor practices the four traditional Chinese methods (望聞問切) and the prescription of herbs involves more manual work such as cutting, weighing etc. Immediately, Clinic B has claimed authenticity over Clinic A. As argued by David Sutton, practical knowledge of food preparation is an embodiment of memories in a jar. Cooking skills passed down from female authorities in the family line share similarities with medical practice herbalists garnered through apprenticeship. In both scenarios food preparation evokes the image of “traditional”, some heritage from the past. In Clinic B, the display of natural herbs on the counter and decocting tools resembles with Huatuo’s treatment from the Eastern Han Dynasty, Li Shizhen’s recommendation in the Compendium of Materia Medica while Clinic A addresses hygiene and standardization associated with modernity.
In conclusion, during the exploration of herbs as medicine, two levels of nostalgia are involved when determining authenticity. On micro level, nostalgia for individual experience has shaped the image associated with “Chinese medicine”. Moreover, the praxis of history has bridged the word “traditional” with authenticity. As Tulasi Srinivas quotes in her article As Mother Made It, “culinary authenticity…is framed in the terms espoused by the viewer, or eater…(and they) tend to say it’s authentic if it is artisanal, pre-industrial, uses indigenous ingredients…” (Food and Culture, pp. 368) In other words, authenticity derives from nostalgia for the sunny days of yore.

Cooking Project: Lomo Saltado& Mapping Project: A Taste of Szechuan
Also yearning for the good old days were the Chinese- Peruvian immigrants. The prosperity of Chifa restaurants in Peru, on the one hand has resulted from socio-economic predicament the Chinese Peruvian ancestors came across upon first arrival, is also an attempt to retrieve the past self through consuming cuisine of their ethnic group, region and locale. Tracing back to the 16th century, hundred thousands of Chinese have rafted across the Pacific Ocean to reach the American continent and swallowed sweat and blood in the clashes of cultures, languages and loss of identity. Often engaged through pursuit of gastro authenticity, this sentiment evokes memories for “home cooking”, or cuisine from the cultural origin. As Srinivas states in As Mother Made It, when people are away from their “home culture”, the idea of “homeland” becomes an important nucleus for nostalgic sentiment. (Food and Culture, pp.365) Thus, the establishment of Chifa restaurants has originated as a physical embodiment of nostalgia- an idealized image of cultural heritage, a social space of solidarity for people sharing the same mother tongue and customs, a utopia on the exotic land. The most renowned Chifa restaurant in Lima, Chifa TiTi for example, preserves its Hakka identity by embodying Hakka style architecture and introducing a touch of Hakkaness in food presentation. Our exploration of Chifa suggests that authenticity resonates with perseverance of cultural identity along with retrieve of past self from the other end of the globe. For Chinese Peruvians, classic Chifa dishes such as Lomo Saltado and Kam Lu Wonton are authentic because these dishes signify the history of multicultural emergence as well as early generations’ endeavor for assimilation.

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If the research and recreation of Chifa contextualize authenticity in early migration, my mapping project in search for Szechuanese restaurants near Chinatown expands the dimension to globalization. Located in a multicultural cosmopolitan like Philadelphia, these Szechuanese restaurants conceptually inserted “local” into the “global” space. (Food and Culture, pp.357) Upon arriving at the gate of a Szechuanese restaurant, consumers seek for an authentic Szechuanese experience through steaming hotpot with bubbling sauces, burning sensations of spices on the taste buds, and more importantly- the cultural atmosphere that immediately teleports them to Szechuan to dine with the pandas. In this case, Szechuanese food signifies nostalgic sentiment for localization.
Retrospectively, both Lomo Saltado and Szechuanese cuisine around Chinatown have posed the question of authenticity in relation to nostalgia for cultural identity conceptually and spatially. In other words, consumption of these two cuisines exemplify desire to reclaim ethnic identity, recreate cultural solidarity and re-experience locality.

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Creative Project: Eat and Drink in Song Dynasty
Considering that so far my research has been circumscribed to a modern context, I started off this exercise as an experiment to place my argument on a historical dimension. In this project, Song cuisine not only signifies history but is itself part of history. Thus, recreation of the Song dietary culture is a pursuit of authenticity. In retrospect, this project reminds me of the “Little Song City” (小宋城)- a state-owned restaurant established on the reminiscence of the prosperous Bianliang City (汴梁城). Located among ruins from Song Dynasty, Little Song City aims at a complete restoration of Song’s food and culture. Primarily, both the architect and the interior design strictly imitate Song style. The restaurant staff wears Song costumes and speaks quasi-Song dialect. Even the management of the restaurant follows the landlord-individual food shop mode developed during that dynasty. The restaurant promotes itself as a place for authentic Song dining experience. Indeed it is a smart slogan. After an exhausting day of visiting Song remains around the area, tourists dine in Little Song City to strengthen their connection to the past. In this restaurant, consumers are no longer visitors, observers, outsiders of history but partakers of a simulacrum of the past. The restaurant, through equalizing its physical space with an opportunity to participate in history, constructs food with a cultural identity and a symbol of antiquity. The popularity of Little Song City best proves that this image is well sold. Food indeed, reflects a prevalent desire to partake in history.

Before taking this class I have always regarded food consumption as physiological necessity, as nutritive intake, and as sensual pleasure. Nonetheless, Barthes mythology empowered me to decode food as a system of communication. The saying has it that “There are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes.” So does authenticity. Essentially, defining authenticity cannot, shall not and will not be an objective experience. When one claims a particular food to be authentic, one turns to history for legitimacy. Through contextualization with secondary readings, each of the projects above presents food as nostalgia in a different perspective. In a brief summary, foodstuff project associates authenticity of herbal medicine with the concept of “traditional”. Cooking project and mapping project both emphasize authenticity in relation to retrieving identity culturally and spatially. Finally, the creative project adds a historical dimension and strengthens that food is a highly constructed product that signifies nostalgia.

Work Cited
1. Barthes, Roland. “Chapter 2 Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” 1961. Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 23-29. Print.
2. Sutton, David. “Chapter 21 Cooking Skills, the Senses and Memory: The Fate of Practical Knowledge.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 299-319. Print.
3. Srinivas, Tulasi. “Chapter 25 “As Mother Made It”” Food and Culture: A Reader. By Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 2013. 355-371. Print.

The Consumption of Women: An Over-Sexualized Representation of Women as Food

After my semester in EALC 345 “Everything but the Table,” Food and Culture East Asian Literature and Film, I have come to view food as not just an object, but as a symbol of class, ethnicity, identity, gender, memory, space, and transnational connections. In particular, the various projects I have worked on this semester have revolved around the relationship between food and gender. This relationship has been nurtured since the dawn of man, when men were ascribed the job of hunting and women were relegated to gathering vegetation, fruit and other essentials. These gender expectations have developed and become ingrained in modern society. It affects our perception of not just how food is prepared and served, but also the commensality of food and the manner in which we consume it.

Throughout my semester’s work, as well as the influence of our secondary readings, the relationship between food and gender has emerged. With respect to women, this relationship, while many times positive, can also be viewed in a negative light. While preparing food and feeding one’s family is a naturally positive and fulfilling endeavor, my projects, as well as the secondary sources, have also shown that women are not only depicted in an over-sexualized way, but they are also presented as a consumable commodity. This can be observed through their inferior status in the production of food, as well as their “consumable” role of homemaker, which is designated by society. This theme of the consumption of women is most readily identified in my primary source analysis of The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. This novel delves into the allegorical cannibalism of a woman by society as she rejects food, metaphorically displaying her rejection of the patriarchal society in which she is stuck. This patriarchal society, that the protagonist in The Edible Woman confronts and overcomes, is presented in many of the projects that I have completed this semester.

The first project in which I noticed a gender distinction was the Foodstuffs Project. For this project, we visited a green grocer in Chinatown and researched the unusual and unique fruits that we discovered in the store. In addition to analyzing the fruits origin, history and usage, we also interviewed the store’s employees and customers. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, we noticed that a majority of the people in the grocer were women, sometimes accompanied by young children. This observation, while of course anecdotal, served to confirm that gender divisions in fact exist in the preparation and creation of food for the household. My creative project, which is titled A Cookbook of Life, also served to reinforce the existence of these gender divisions. In my cookbook, the protagonist’s life experiences and growth are explored through cooking. It demonstrates that female characters dominate cooking and the preparation of food in the household. These women pass on their traditional recipes from generation to generation, resulting in an interesting food lineage. The last project that will be included in this final portfolio is a refocus of my Cooking Assignment on Moo Goo Gai Pan. This project addresses the gender issue from a different perspective. It delves into the diffusion of Chinese food as a result of Chinese men taking on so-called feminized work, such as laundering and restaurant work, and, thus, causing American men to stereotype the Chinese as feminine. This discrimination illustrates the strictness with which people observe gender boundaries and further demonstrates the inferior, and the figurative consumable, status of women in society. Without this testing of gender role boundaries, and despite the risk of ridicule, the Chinese immigrant’s entrepreneurial efforts would not have created such an interesting and unusual cultural fusion.

In sum, this portfolio will opines that the consumption of women is not beneficial to society. In order for society to fully thrive and embrace its fullest potential, it must break down these segmented gender roles and allow for masculinity and femininity to mutually co-exist in all spheres of life.

Consumption of Women in Society

Throughout the semester, several secondary sources that we discussed and analyzed in class affirm the themes of cannibalism in society, as well as gender roles prevailing in food production. The themes of cannibalism have mainly been discussed in the novel Republic of Wine by Mo Yan and the short story “Diary of a Madman” by Lu Xun. Cannibalism, which is portrayed through both literal and figurative means, creates confusion between what one considers food and what is ascertained to be inedible. In these texts in particular, the confusion is interwoven in order to address consumption. The act of consumption of one entity by another, or by an individual in a society, is criticized by both Mo Yan and Lu Xun. In the Republic of Wine, Mo Yan didactically uses the cannibalism of young boys in order to critique the ills of the Chinese communist world, in particular the Cultural Revolution. In addition, Lu Xun, in “Diary of a Madman,” uses cannibalism as a means to criticize China’s traditional culture of Confucianism and feudalism. Cannibalism can also be seen as a critique and criticism of the patriarchal society. In particular, The Edible Woman’s usage of cannibalism is to critique the disparity of female power in society. In Marian’s journey in particular we observe her rediscovery, if not discovery, of herself as she battles to overcome a debased, male-dominated society.


Consumption of Women in the Household

Women are not just identified as consumable by society, but they are also viewed as consumable by their household as reflected in their less than celebrated role as the producer of food. For example in “Japanese Mother and Obentos” by Anne Alison, Japanese mothers’ lives are spent preparing food and other necessities for the benefit of their children. Although this is not necessarily looked down upon, questions should be raised about the societally ingrained nature of the motherhood role. The food the Japanese mother prepares for her children is not only palatable for children, but it also an aesthetic and artistic endeavor. The author states that the overarching message of obento boxes is “that it is women, not men, who are not only sustaining a child through food but carrying the ideological support of the culture that this food embeds.” (168) As a result, women have become the embodiment of the household and are continually producing for the consumption of their children and husband. This can most easily be seen in my Foodstuffs project, where the women were not just in the majority, but were almost the exclusive gender in the Asian supermarkets that we visited in the Philadelphia area. Although our Food Stuffs Project focused on investigating the authenticity of fruit that was labeled as Chinese and sold in Chinatown markets, the endeavor also exposed the societal enforced gender roles. Gender roles can be analyzed through the interviews that we had with customers. Many of the women we interviewed would take the time to travel from different areas to shop at the specialty grocers in Chinatown. It seemed that many of the customers at the green grocers we visited were either mothers shopping for their families, with children tagging along, groups of girlfriends or retired women. Irrespective of their age, they were all women. The disproportionate number of women dominating the production of foodstuffs demonstrates the consumption of women, regarding both their time and effort, in society.

Interview Supermarket

Consumption of Women due to Gender Roles

 In addition, gender inequalities, in terms of the production of food for sustenance versus leisure, is discussed in “The Overcooked and Underdone” by T. J. M. Holden. Holden analyzes Japanese cooking to show that the masculine identity thrives in a normally feminine-domain. This is due to the changed role of the televised production of food becoming a form of entertainment and expertise. Holden states that men have been identified as the gender that provides, or the family “breadwinner.” The author has dubbed this alpha-male role in the household as “over-cooked.” This mentality has formed the basis for male food television shows that have morphed into competitive sport, in terms of context and visuals. As a result of this competitive nature, Japanese cooking presents overwhelmingly male contestants, chefs, or a male host. In this way, men exhibit expert knowledge in order to show their dominance in production and society. “The recognition of a chef as an ‘expert’ occurs in numerous ways in food shows.” (125) In the field of cooking production and television shows, men are seen as executives and reign over women with their leadership. “All activity flows through them, or else their commanding gaze. In food shows, masculine guidance can take the form of two guises: host and chef.” (124) Even if women are competing in the show, it must be under the watchful, and more expert, eye of a male judge or host. These gender inequalities ultimately show that cooking, when it performed by men, is considered not just entertainment, but an area of great expertise. On the other hand, when a woman cooks, it is not considered an art form and instead deemed a mundane task not warranting much thought and certainly no accolades. Holden, through his analysis of Japanese cooking shows, illustrates the critical part that gender plays in how food is perceived and consumed.


The examination of food as an artistic endeavor versus a form of sustenance is further elaborated by the gender roles described in A Cookbook of Life. In this story, the widespread culture of cooking for the family’s wellbeing is sustained and maintained by the women of the household. The story starts with a young woman graduating from college and, finally, being accepted into the family culture by learning how to cook a traditional family recipe. This recipe was safeguarded by the women of the family and passed down from generation to generation. As the young girl explains in her inner monologue throughout the story, “every Christmas the women of our family prepare a wonderful feast that consists of our family’s traditional foods.” (3) Cooking, in the protagonist’s household, is dominated by women and considered a sacred bonding experience. On the other hand, the men were far removed from the culture of the kitchen and instead spent their time watching sporting events on television. This clearly shows the divide in gender roles; women are classified as the homemakers and creators of the food, while the men occupy the role as a consumer. However, in the story, this division is not denoted negatively. The women of the household, particularly the protagonist, revel in their role as the homemaker and identify food as not just a source of nourishment, but also representative of growth and life. The fact that the recipes begin to include figurative ingredients such as “2 fully brimming cups of love” (6) and “1 cup of a broken heart” (8) illustrates that the creation of food, for women, is integral to their own identities, feelings and even being. The fact that the men in the story blindly consume the food, despite realizing the true representation of the food, demonstrates the accepted, if not encouraged, consumption of women in society.

1900_lrg_fullsize Consumption of Feminine Work versus Masculine Work

The consumption of women in society, along with food placing a specific connotation on gender roles, was also investigated in both “Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity and Food” by Rebecca Swenson and my Moo Goo Gai Pan project. In “Domestic Divo,” Rebecca Swenson investigates, as she puts it, “the easy mix of masculine ‘battles’ and feminine ‘spa days’ on the Food Network.” She states that this “reflects important assumptions about audiences and beliefs about gender, food and the rewards of labor.” Specifically, this notion relates to the development of “Chinatowns” and the fact that many Chinese men took up work in the kitchen, such as establishing restaurants. Although the Moo Goo Gai Pan project was primarily focused on the adaptation of Americanized Chinese cuisine, and concludes that the authentic heritage of most cuisine is difficult to define or even trace, gender roles, as well as discrimination due to gender roles, prevails in the history of the Americanization of Chinese food. Due to the large number of men residing in California as a result of the Gold Rush, there was an open market for laundry and restaurant services. The Chinese targeted these undeveloped markets, which had been historically and culturally considered feminine. This willingness to take on “lady’s work” allowed for the Chinese immigrants to be ethnically discriminated against. In effect, women’s work, or household work, has been and is currently perceived by society as inferior and of less societal importance than a “man’s work.”

Despite the historical hierarchy of society that deems men’s work as superior to women’s work, the media is changing the way we view these gender roles and assumptions. Swenson describes the catalyst for men shifting to the kitchen and the concomitant shift in our cultural ideas about “women’s work,” as instigated by television’s new role in the public sphere. Similarly, from an historical perspective, the rapid affinity for Chinese food became the catalyst for the acceptance of Chinese people. Chinese entrepreneurs found that Americans took a liking to Chinese food. These entrepreneurs adapted and modified their homeland dishes to suit American tastes. As a result, Chinese food became widely popular in America. Chinese immigrants, despite risking ridicule, tested the boundaries of gender roles and, in their entrepreneurial activities, created such an interesting and unusual cultural fusion.


 As discussed in this final portfolio, my projects represent the over-arching gender roles that have prevailed in our society. These gender roles, demonstrated in my projects and in the secondary sources analyzed, have portrayed women as over-sexualized and have represented them as consumable entities. Through the production of food, women have been isolated in the kitchen and subjected to being “consumed” by the family, due to their societal role as the homemakers. On the other hand, the production of food for entertainment purposes has been propagated by male chefs, hosts and experts. The kitchen, which was formerly a female domain, has been penetrated by men and tailored to masculine tastes. This can be observed in the increasing sport-like competitiveness that has become popular in food oriented television shows. Yet, as shown through the development of “Chinatowns” and the uptake of restaurant business by Chinese immigrant men, breaking down society’s gender barriers can cause positive outcomes. In order for society to fully thrive and embrace its fullest potential, it must break down these gender roles. Not just in food production, but also in the world, society would benefit from men and women being socially allowed to engage in any activity that they choose to do. With these changes in historical roles and the societal view of those roles, the consumption of women, by the family and society, might be avoided and ultimately eradicated.


Works Cited

Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus” (1991). In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Eds), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 editions, pp 154-172). (New York: Routledge).

Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. (New York: Anchor Books, 1998).

Holden, T.J.M. “The Overcooked and Underdone: Masculinities in Japanese Food Programing” (2005). In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Eds), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 editions, pp 119-136). (New York: Routledge).

Lu, Xun, and William A. Lyell. “Diary of a Madman.” (University of Hawaii Press: 1990).

Mo, Yan, and Howard Goldblatt. The Republic of Wine: A Novel. (New York: Arcade Pub.: 2000).

Swenson, Rebecca. “Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity, and Food” (2009). In C. Counihan & P.V. Esterik (Eds), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 editions, pp 138-151). (New York: Routledge).






Food and Ethnic Identity – You are What You Eat


Based on various topics we explored this semester through literature and projects, I chose food and identity, specifically ethnic identity, as the overarching theme to summarize my engagement in food and culture. It is because food not only is the physical constitution of our body, but also conceptually forms our perspectives. As we are cautious about what we and others are eating, food becomes part of our identity. It is such identity that elucidates the connections or boundaries we have in regard to other people, and food functions as markers for us to passively accept our identity as well as actively articulating our connections and differences with others.

In this essay, I will use four projects from this course – cooking project, foodstuff project, primary source analysis, and creative project – as examples of how food represents ethnic identity, and how people have been intentionally making associations between food-related manners and their identities. The projects will make solid statement for my argument with their distinctive perspectives. Further, the discussion will be based on evidences from literature, which throughout the essay gradually set up the theoretical parameter of my theme of interest.

Food as Collective Identity

Before digging into the association between food and identity, first I want to explain why food can represent something other than itself. The notion of food as a form of representation has been widely discussed in literature. In the article Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption, Roland Barthes considers food as “a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior;” he specifically examines into the idea of food being the “functional unit of a system of communication” and argues that the accumulation of information carried along with food leads to the expression of a situation, or, in his words, “[food] signifies” (Barthes, 2012, p. 24). Thus, each system of signification has its own grammar for food in dividing between significant and insignificant, which is mainly based on the preparation and use of food (Barthes, 2012, p. 25). He summarizes this point by saying that:

…a coherent set of food traits and habits can constitute a complex but homogeneous dominant feature useful for defining a general system of tastes and habits. This “spirit” brings together different units (such as flavor or substance), forming a composite unit with a single signification, somewhat analogous to the suprasegmental prosodic units of language. (Barthes, 2012, p. 25)


His opinion makes a general statement of the role of food in representing a situation or a group. In this sense, how food signifies a collective ethnic identity can almost be seen as a concrete example for his argument. In the case of identity, the dichotomous division of “significance” and “insignificance” transforms into a division between ingroup and outgroup, and different tastes, preparation processes, methods of cooking, eating habits, etc. convert into the measurement of qualification. An extreme example of how clear and absolute such division could be is discussed by Mary Douglas in her essay The Abominations of Leviticus. The elaborate definition for holy food is to establish a system of signification – a daily ritual habit and a gesture of worship, while defining what food is not pure draws the line between ingroup and outgroup. There is an arguable parallel between food and language, and a collective identity shaped by either food or language has a wide yet in most case explicit definition and boundary determined by social and cultural conventions.

Our Cooking Project among all demonstrates the idea of food as collective ethnic identity the best. The project was based on Lin Yutang’s novel Chinatown Family taking place in 1930s and 1940s, and our task was to find a dish from New York Public Library’s menu archive that the Fongs in the novel most likely had eaten and to reproduce the dish. When reading the novel, I noticed that food choice is discussed as a shared value among the family members or even in the ethnic group: there are certain restaurants people would go to and certain dishes they would order for celebrating memorable events; there are particular types of food a female should eat during her pregnancy and nursing period. In the novel, very specific dishes constitute an icon for the Fongs and every Chinese family in the US during that time while individual tastes were not articulatd. Such generalization and iconic presentation correspond with the novel’s attempt to use one family as example and portray the culture shock and adaptation for these families from a macro view. The generalization also applies to our research into the menu archive: Moo Goo Gai Pan, among several dishes, appears in almost every menu as representative Chinese cuisine. These dishes together formed the system of significance to represent a specific ethnic group. Interestingly, though, according to our research, Moo Goo Gai Pan does not really have a Chinese origin.


This paradox leads to the argument over authenticity – a difficult yet almost unavoidable topic for the discussion of food as ethnic identity. I think that authenticity, instead of in the ideal status referring to something true, real or pure, in our imperfect world, is actually a particular set of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter. For example, I have my own opinion on what authentic Chinese food is; it is based on experience and interpretation and might be different from what other Chinese people think. On the other hand, as a foreigner I can also have my understanding of authentic Italian food based on empirical evidence. It shows that authenticity is an abstract and personal standard, and can evolve over time; when we discuss the authenticity of a cuisine, we are actually talking about how well it matches our perception using food as the measurement. That is why a dish called Moo Goo Gai Pan could be regarded as authentic Chinese dish by restaurants in the US, and could appear in a novel written in English by a Chinese writer.

Another group project, Foodstuff Project, led me to really think about the concept of authenticity. Our task was to visit bakery shops in Chinatown for egg tarts. Beforehand Tina and I studied the history and realized egg tarts, while having a controversial origin from Britain or Portugal, have actually adapted and integrated into the family dishes in Hong Kong, Macao and Guangdong. When we interviewed the shop owners, they said they came from the above three areas and claimed their egg tarts to be authentic. “They are all very good but are SO different” was our reaction. When Tina and I tried to evaluate them, we noticed that between us two the understanding of “authentic egg tarts” was already very different – she grew up eating the Hong Kong ones which were bigger in size and more concrete in texture, while I thought egg tarts should actually be the Portuguese tarts with milk as ingredient. Yet it is not fully correct to say either of our perception is not authentic; authenticity is such an arbitrary and developing concept that is hardly helpful in evaluating a cuisine, but very precisely reflects how food represents our understanding in our own or other’s identities at both collective and personal levels.

Food as Individual Identity

However this is not the complete story for the relationship of food and identity. I argue that when it comes to individual recognition of identity, the definition becomes narrower and relative. Further, an individual’s view of ethnic identity does not necessarily match the collectively recognized definition (or sometimes stereotype). Here identity is a relative term, and individuals, while having a general idea of the ethnic group s/he belongs to, often seeks for a more elaborate position by comparing with people from both ingroup and outgroup. It is the case when we the Chinese people who are always proud of our “Chinese cuisine” sometimes feel astonishing when realizing a certain dish or food kind is named or cooked in different ways across provinces, and occasionally people argue or vote online for the “right way” to deal with the food.

Our experience from the Foodstuff Project also demonstrates similar phenomenon. Because we could speak Mandarin or Cantonese and have Asian faces, the bakery shop owners used terms like 国内 “domestic” to refer to China, and 老外 or 外国人 “foreigners” for non-Chinese people. In a broader scale, we were included in their group because we share the same ethnicity, language and food preference; still as the conversation went deeper, we noticed that the shop owners were from prefectures with distinctive cultural and political background (Hong Kong, Macao and Guangdong), just like how different each of their “homemade” and “authentic” egg tarts were.

Thus, different from the definition of food for collective identity which is relatively more general and clearer, food as individual identity (i.e. how individuals subjectively identify themselves) involves more personal variation and needs reference from the others, and this is exactly when the discussion of authenticity takes place. Under the umbrella of collective identity – a shared broad set of dietary habits –the distinctive individual habits validate the point that for individuals, identity a relative term with food as a marker of the boundary.

Therefore, I think Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney explains such relationship the best in her book Rice as Self, when she presents food as a “metaphor of self” and argues that a people’s cuisine marks the boundary between the collective self and the other, and that people often have a strong attachment to their own cuisine and table manners and an aversion to those of the others (Ohnuki-Tierney, 1995, p. 3). That is to say when we comment on a cuisine, often we are elaborating on positioning ourselves in regard to the others, and such division happens in various scales from individuals to cultural groups.

Food as Ethnic Identity

Bearing the relationship among collective identity, individual identity and authenticity in mind, my Primary Source Analysis was about an adapted film, The Joy Luck Club, which concerns all three topics with scenes showing how food represents the characters’ preserved memories and changing identities. The film focuses on various levels of conflicts – those between Chinese and American cultures (and maybe also Chinese American culture), between the conventional perspective of what obedient Chinese females should be and their rebel against it, and between generations with same collective ethnic identity (Chinese origin) but different individual identities due to their immigrant experiences. The food subjects in the film have clear imprint of Chinese customs or the characters’ personal experience to support the variation in their identities.

One example from the film is the use of cannibalism, to have a female character sliced her flesh for her mother’s medicine to show how females were expected to be obedient. For me it is an extreme demonstration of collective ethnic identity. In Chinese traditions, children slicing their flesh for parents is the ultimate form of filial piety. While widely accepted as a shared value in conventional Chinese culture, it is such an exceptional case that what is normally not considered food becomes edible, and a bold line is drawn between the ingroup and outgroup for whether this cannibalistic behavior is recognizable or sympathetic. Correspondingly, an example that shows individual ethnic identity might be when an American Chinese girl brought her American boyfriend to the family’s feast, and his inappropriate table manners mark the difference between him and the family. Before this scene the girl identifies herself as sharing more common values with her American boyfriend and has huge barriers with her immigrant mother, but this is a moment for her to reconstruct her individual knowledge of her ethnic identity. There are many more carefully designed moments elaborating such ethnic connection and struggle in self-identification in the film, and I would love to invite you to my analysis for a more in-depth discussion.

How Food Becomes Ethnic Identity?

As mentioned above, when Barthes establishes his theory of food being a system of signification, he particularly mentions that it is the preparation and use of food (rather than the cost) that mark the boundary of significance for each system (Barthes, 2012, p. 25). This is how I see my Creative Project about kitchen design fit well into the theme – not only food itself but also its creation source and preparation process together represent the varieties in ethnic identity. Inspired by Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Kitchen, I regard kitchen as having two layers of representation for the theme of identity.

Firstly, a kitchen is where raw materials and ingredients become food, and as a functional unit everything designed for the kitchen serves the purpose of food making and dining. A way to see such correspondence is that, assuming Claude Lévi-Strauss is correct about the culinary structure and their cultural implication in his essay The Culinary Triangle, then every pillar of the triangle and each side of the pair within it – row versus roasted, smoked versus cooked, boiled versus rotted – can find its corresponding origin and the cooks it needs from the kitchen. The general layout of a kitchen for a collective ethnic identity thus reflect its specific characteristics by possessing all the necessary tools to materialize such characteristics in food creation process. This is the point I tried to convey with the first two kitchens, Frankford Kitchen in 1920-Germany and Communal Kitchen in 1960-China.

A second layer of representation is that, kitchen is sometimes a place of particular meanings to individuals. With the last two examples in the project, the kitchen of Mikage Sakurai from Yoshimoto’s novel and the one of my own (especially the former one), kitchen records the way people create and share memories and interact with other people through food and cooking process. While it might not be particularly about individual’s ethnic identity, the variations in design are still based on the general layout of kitchen for the culture group, and the way people use kitchen and food to convey feelings still depends on their ethnic and cultural background.


All of the four projects discussed above concern with ethnic identity, and three of them (the cooking project, the food stuff project, and the primary source analysis) involves immigrants’ experience. It is why I choose to demonstrate this particular aspect of food’s representing function. Yet based the literature, it is arguable that similar statement also holds true for other types of identity – religion, class, gender, etc., and the discussions on some of them are presented by my fellow classmates in this class. The general concept is that on one hand, while a relatively definite collective image (system) can be constituted by a set of dietary and culinary habits, within the inclusive boundary of ingroup, there is still a variety of self-identification based on variation in such habits; on the other hand, people actively employ food as a measurement of relationship with others, and the evaluation, sometimes referred to as “authenticity,” is in fact an arbitrary judgement depending on knowledge, experience, and time.

Works Cited:

Barthes, R. (2012). Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption. In C. Counihan & P. V. Esterik (Eds.), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 edition, pp. 23–30). New York: Routledge.
Douglas, M. (2012). The Abominations of Leviticus. In C. Counihan & P. V. Esterik (Eds.), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 edition, pp. 48–58). New York: Routledge.
Lévi-Strauss, C. (2012). The Culinary Triangle. In C. Counihan & P. V. Esterik (Eds.), Food and Culture: A Reader (3 edition, pp. 40–47). New York: Routledge.
Lin, Y. (2007). Chinatown family. Rutgers University Press,.
Ohnuki-Tierney, E. (1995). Rice as self: Japanese identities through time (3. print., 1. paperback print). Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
Wayne, W. (2002). The Joy Luck Club. Buena Vista Home Video.
Yoshimoto, B. (1993). Kitchen. Washington Square Press,.

Click here to view my mapping project (not used in the final portfolio).


Final Portfolio and Final Thoughts: Chasing Authenticity

Throughout this semester, I explored and tried to find the answer to what is real Chinese food. In the beginning, I was hopeful we would collectively find an answer. However, as the semester continued, I realized we were actually getting farther and farther away from the answer. And by the end of the semester, I realized that there is no answer.

A sad but true realization, these past couple of months of learning, reading, and watching movies have helped me understand that authenticity does not exist with food. But before we jump into the conclusion, let us go through my past projects so you can come along the ride with me to understanding that authenticity is a blurred term.

The first of my seeking authenticity adventure is my egg tart project. With my partner, Xue, we picked four bakeries that apparently serve some of the best egg tarts (according to Yelp reviewers). Xue and I are huge fans of egg tarts so being able to eat many egg tarts, was a dream come true. We both have eaten egg tarts from China and I have eaten egg tarts from Macau and Hong Kong, which are considered the originals of Chinese egg tarts.

Every time I took a bite of a new egg tart, Xue would eagerly ask, “What do you think? Does it taste like a real egg tart?” Almost with every egg tart, I excitedly said “yes!”. But, I was soon realizing that I was not sure why I keep nodding my head. Every egg tart was clearly a bit different, some were with more of an egg taste and others were sweeter. However, there were no specific categories or tastes I was searching for in order for the “authentic” egg tart.

To be honest, as Xue and I tried to find the most perfect egg tart, we were a bit confused ourselves. We tried looking online for recipes and did not realize that every single recipe was a little different. We could not even find an original story of how egg tarts came to be in Hong Kong. At the time, I did not realize that this egg tart project was the beginning of my realization that authenticity in cuisine does not exist.

My next project was the geography project in which I mapped the most popular Chinese eateries in the Bi-Co area. Travelling through restaurants on Lancaster and even through our own college dining halls (Bryn Mawr’s Haffner and Haverford’s Dining Center), I continued my search for authentic Chinese food. What I learned, though, is that Chinese American food has become a cuisine itself that is barely related to “real” Chinese food. Almost all but one (Sang Kee) of the eateries in the Bi-Co area serve Chinese food that Chinese people would consider somewhat like what they would eat in China.

This project proved to me that Chinese American cuisine is more popular than Chinese food and that it is a cuisine itself. There is not one authentic Chinese dish in the Chinese American foods and in fact, there is not one authentic Chinese American food. Every dish was cooked different. With a menu that overlaps with many different dishes – sesame chicken, general tso’s, beef with broccoli, lo mein, hot and sour soup, etc – each tasted and looked differently. Diners in the area are loyal to a specific Chinese American restaurant or delivery place claiming one is better than another. However, which Chinese American place was the most authentic Chinese American place? I guess, we will leave the Mainline and Bi-Co students to continue to fight each other for that answer.

My third project was the group cooking project. For that, we decided to cook a dish from New York Public Library’s archive of Chinese restaurants menus. We read Yutang’s Chinatown Family and chose a dish that we thought the family in the novel would eat during the Chinese Exclusion act period (1882 – 1943). We ended up choosing Moo Goo Gai Fan as a group after noticing that it is repeated on many Chinese menus in New York’s Chinatown. It was also at a reasonable price that we thought the Fong family could afford.

By the end of this cooking project, we returned to the question – what makes something authentic? We were having trouble on finding the original Moo Goo Gai Fan recipe and figuring out the history of it. All we knew is that it was from the Canton region and it means mushroom chicken rice in Chinese. Other than that, this popular dish seemed to have pop out of nowhere and become family’s favorites. There were and also still are different interpretations with different meats, different vegetables, and soup versions of it. However, it all somewhat shares the same taste.

We accepted with the answer that the history of Moo Goo Gai Fan is too complicated and we will never be able to find the authentic version. This adaptable and easy to cook yet rich and thick Chinese dish has landed its way into Chinese American menus and earned its way into a classic Chinese American favorite. It seems as if though the flexibility and variations of this dish is what makes it a classic on every Chinese American menu.

My very last project was the creative project. My inspiration came from the popular journal among artists, “Wreck This Journal”. It is an illustrated book with a collection of different prompts. It asks readers to draw various things, write whatever they think of, and essentially, experiment with their creativity. It takes years to finish usually and the only goal of the book is to finish it. The book is carried along with the artists at all times until done. It is a way for people who do not usually have a creative outlet to let them experiment with their thoughts. With fun prompts like, put your book on a leash and walk it around and dribble your morning caffeine on this page, it is the perfect way for non-creative people to let loose and fully engage in a thoughtful yet easy and creative process. That being said, this is why I decided to follow a similar concept for my creative project.

“Feed This Journal” is my version of it. I had the intention of carrying it around with me for two weeks and fill it in with prompts about East Asian food that I made up. Then, I also wanted to ask my friends so I can continue to explore if there is a possibility of an authentic dish.

I started with making the journal itself. I bound some pages together and made a mini journal. I decorated the exterior of it before touching the inside. Then, I quickly gave myself 30 minutes to write down prompts and questions for my journal. When I had a list of about twenty, I chose my favorites and started jotting them down leaving the first few pages blank for mini biographies and explanations and the last few pages blanks for finishing thoughts.

Like “Wreck This Journal”, I put in instructions in the book to make it clear for my friends on what to do. I never told my friends what to do; I just told them to read the instructions and to have fun. The next page, I gave a little blurb on who I am and my food identity (naming some of my favorite food categories). Then, it was my friends’ turns to write mini biographies and their favorite food categories. I had thought my friends would choose different categories, but I guess I did not make it explicitly clear and after one person wrote “favorite flavor” as his favorite food category, others did as well.

I kind of failed with my first creative prompt. Using the page as a napkin with Chinese food or Chinese American food only turned out to be disgusting. So, I immediately stopped and filled in the other pages with my answers before asking my friends to fill it in with theirs. It took me over a course of a week to fill it in and so; I started handing out my journal to my friends over the course of the second week. Some friends had it overnight while some had it for just 20 minutes. The average time spent on it with my friends was about 40 minutes as they diligently colored each one.

I learned that I have such creative and good friends for helping me out with this creative experiment, but I also learned more about authenticity! This final project was the last project I needed to help me finally understand and accept that there is no authentic dish or food cuisine. Every friend had something different. The only answers that were the same were my sister’s and mine! We had many of the same answers that were related to our mom’s cooking.

I concluded and learned that food identity is not based on your race or ethnicity; it is based on your upbringing. This also further helped me understand that just like every identity is different, every food and dish is different.

In readings like Rice as Self and The Rice Economies, we learn about food and identity. How food becomes the core of our identity and also is used as a bond to glue our communities. Nationality exists in Japan because of their rice and rice-based foods, like ramen. In Let’s Cook Thai, Of Hamburger and Social Space, and Who’s Irish, we learn about the fusion of different cultures and cuisines to make up and create a new identity. With Kamome Diner and Chungking Express, we continue to see how food plays into our identities and the concept of a foreign identity and cuisine entering a familiar one. In both movies, we see how these foreign identities play out and become part of a new identity.

And last but not least, The Search for General Tso’s was the final source I needed to confidently conclude that there is no such thing as an authentic dish or cuisine. Like in the documentary stated, I believe that we have a desire to find the original whether it be a product or a dish. Some adopted children want to find out who their birth parents are to see where they “really” come from.   Many people want to figure out their families’ pasts and find out their ancestors’ stories because they think it will give them a better understanding of their identity.

I believe that we make authenticity a bigger deal than it is. We like the idea of authenticity because it is mysterious and suspenseful. However, authenticity will never exist because of the constant change that exists in societies. Every generation is different leading to a different person every generation. Not only people change, but also foods will change too as people’s taste buds and interests change as the time changes.

Originality may be definitive, however, authenticity is not since it is constantly changing.   And as time continues to tick, we become farther and farther away from the supposedly “original and authentic” dish. Like a simple math equation, as times and people change, so do our identities. And because food is an integral part of our identities, our foods will change as well, which explains why there will never be and never was an authentic dish.