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).






Interviews: Sarah Becan and Shing Khor


Sarah Becan Interview

  1. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Well, I have been in Chicago for a majority of my adult life, but I was born in Orange, Texas which is right outside of the border of Louisiana. However, I also lived in Wilmington, Delaware until 3rd grade when I moved to Dallas, Texas, St. Louis and also Wisconsin.

  1. How did your childhood or family life influence your career?

Interestingly, I was a picky child growing up and my mom was not a very adventurous cook, so I am not really sure how I became such a “foodie.” But, at the same time, due to my upbringing and not growing up in one city with one culinary tradition, has allowed me to discover new things in different areas and value them, I believe, more than people who grew up in the area.

  1. What do you mean by “new things” that people who grew up in the area did not value as much as you did?

Well, for example, when I lived in Wisconsin I would go to the common cafeteria and there would be stalls of food. But, one stall of food would always have a giant block of cheese. You can come by anytime and shave a little of the cheese off for your meal. The Wisconsin-grown cheese was replaced about 2-3 times per month. Also, when I lived in St. Louis, other than the pronunciation of St. Louis which I say very differently than most people, many people did not take the city’s deep fried raviolis as seriously as I did.

  1. What do you believe is an authentic food?

Food is very different in every different place. That is one important thing I learned from moving around so much. Another is that there is no such thing as authentic. Food is every-changing and ever evolving. For example, Chinese-American food can be deemed authentic, but it is authentically American and it is adapted and illustrated differently in different regions in America. For example, spam, which we do not even think of as a food anymore, has become an authentic part of Hawaiian dishes.

  1. I really enjoyed your comic-novel, Shut Eye. I was very interested on how you interplayed between the literal and figurative because I am aiming to do the same in my cookbook that I am creating.

Let’s see. There are a few cookbooks that you should look at, such as the Philosopher’s Cookbook or Jean Paul Star Trek Cookbook. I remember one scene asked what a philosopher eats for breakfast and had a picture of a philosopher with a cigarette and a cup of black coffee. I really had a great time creating Shut Eye. The best way to interweave the story is by loosely connecting the literal and figurative with a narrative. The narrative can either be illustrated or verbally articulated. This connection allows for more room to explore the nuances in each story and keep the reader engaged.

  1. What are your tips for students, artists or writers?

 My first tip is do not cook while you’re angry. I wrote a Saucesome article about cooking a Christmas goose and the entire story was about locating the rack to cook the Christmas goose on. Also, when you are writing or reading or creating something, be sure to just go with it. Just accept the rules that are placed in front of you and just roll with what you have. Your intuition is always correct.


Shing Khor Interview


  1. Where were you born?

Malacca, Malaysia.


  1. Where did you grow up?

Malacca, Malaysia, and Cebu, Philippines, and a couple years in Milpitas, California.


  1. Did your family or a mentor influence your decision to pursue your passion in art and comics?

Not while I was growing up – but I certainly wasn’t discouraged from it. I was a pretty early adopter of the internet, and I spent a lot of time in internet fan communities when I was 13-18…being surrounded by lots of artist peers, even though I lived in a completely different country was really quite wonderful and inspiring.

My parents both became artists after I’d entered college, and now they are pretty excited and encouraging about my work.

  1. How did your career develop?

Slowly. Basically I kept on working, and progress felt slow, and if felt like I was getting nowhere, until suddenly all the little pieces I’d begun putting in place years ago started to all work together with all the pieces I was playing with now, and formed something vaguely resembling a career.

  1. What does your schedule look like on a day-to-day basis?

More or less this –

The work itself varies between comics and sculpting.

  1. How do you become inspired to create your artwork? Do you ever collaborate with others?

I collaborate frequently with others – especially as editor of Sawdust Press. Most of my job that does not involve publishing my own comics, is all about curating and finding cartoonists I love and who do work that I want to promote. We work together on producing a book that is well edited, and that makes their work shine as much as possible. As a sculptor, my primary collaborator is Leslie Levings – we’ve mounted several pretty successful art shows together.

  1. How did you become interested in creating zines? What do you think is special or unique about zines that separates it from other types of artwork? 

I’ve always been a fan of producing work quickly and easily on paper, and at some point I realized there was a whole community around it. I love zones because they are such an efficient way of distributing a viewpoint(specifically more viewpoints from marginalized groups that are rarely represented in more mainstream media). Right now, I’m a bit obsessed over the idea of creating really beautiful small edition art zines…doing lots of handmade stuff that you could never reproduce in mass.

  1. What ethnicity are you? How does your heritage influence your artwork?

I’m Chinese by ethnicity, Malaysian by nationality, and also a naturalized citizen of the United States. When I write autobiography, it influences all of my artwork, but the identity I associate with is probably more “immigrant” than either Chinese or Malaysian.

  1. Your comics circulate around the themes of corrupt institutions and women of color. How did you become interested in these themes? And, do you think it is important for artwork, both yours and in general, to promote a social message? 

Well, my dayjob was working for large corporations for a long time. And I am a woman of colour. I don’t think that it’s necessary for art to promote a social message, but if you feel passionately about anything at all, it’s gonna leak out into your work, and you should let it.

  1. What is a critical piece of advice you would give to aspiring artists?

Finishing your work is always better than perfecting your work. You’ll get better.

Two more interviews (professional ones) with Shing:



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.

Long Life Chinese Herbs

Long Life Chinese Herbs



According to the Webster dictionary, the word “herbs” is defined as “any such plant that can be used as medicine, seasonings, etc” (Webster Dictionary). However, “herbs” associated with Chinese medicine should not be narrowly understood: it is a more comprehensive term including various ingredients such as animals, seashells, minerals and anything found in nature can be used medicinally. Moreover, traditional Chinese herbs sometimes play crucial roles in cuisine as well. To explore the usage of herbs in Chinese culture both as food and as medicine, our group traced the historical origin of herbal medicine and conducted fieldwork in Philadelphia Chinatown.


In primitive times, humans found out that some of the herbs could be used for curing diseases during hunting and gathering society. In Chinese history, the earliest recognized herbalist was Shennong (divine father), a mythic god-like figure who lived around 2800 BC (Wikipedia). Shennong tested hundreds of herbs and imparted his knowledge of medicinal and poisonous plants to the farmers. He also wrote Materia Madica (Shen Nong Bai Cao Jing), the oldest book on Chinese herbal medicine, to classify more than three hundred flora and fauna. A large number of herbalists augmented his works. Among them the most distinguished was Li Shizhen, an herbalist lived in Ming dynasty. The Compendium of Materia Medica (Ben Cao Gang Mu) complied by Li Shizhen is still used today for consultation and reference.
There are two major methods of applying the Chinese herbs: making a decoction, a tea that must be simmered for hours, or making large honey-bounded pills.

Unlike the western medicine, these two ways of applying Chinese herbs are regarded as unpleasant and sometimes unacceptable. The teas are time-consuming, smelly and awful tasting while the pills are sticky and difficult to chew. Thus, modern forms of applications that are more acceptable have developed. There are two popular forms to replace the traditional applications. The first one is extract powder that we have found in Chinatown, Philadelphia (which would be further discussed in the Fieldwork section); and the second form is small tablets or capsules. Both of the modern ways of applications are easier for people to accept.

Furthermore, Chinese natural herbs are usually used for three major functions. To begin with, herbs can treat acute diseases and kill bacteria or virus. In general, these acute ailments are treated for 1-30 days. Second, herbs can heal chronic illness such as respiratory disorder, allergies, and immune system deficiency. These illnesses need more than 6 months to be effective. Moreover, herbs can help to maintain daily life health by keeping the balance (yin and yang) of human body. In some cases, herbs are taken daily and for an indefinite period. This is typically the situation when there are genetic disorders or permanent damage that cannot be entirely reversed, problems of aging, and ailments that have been left for too long without effective treatment ( For instance, Lin Daiyu in the novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber, has taken ginseng tea or other medicines daily since her birth due to permanent illnesses.

It is a common mistake to believe that everything natural that comes from the earth is safe and beneficial. This certainly is not true ( Centuries ago, traditional Chinese herbalists such as Shennong would test the herbs on themselves and have poisoned themselves with herbs in order to document the true natures of herbs. Additionally, the usage of herbs alone is discouraged even though the herbs used in formulas are safe. It is better to visit herbalists or doctors before taking any herbal medicines and they will adjust recipes and treatment after physical assessment. We visited two doctors in Chinatown and Chutong accepted health examinations by the doctors, which will be reported later.

Although Chinese herbs are usually taken as medicines, they also can be used either as seasonings or main ingredients in cuisine. Cantonese dishes, especially the soups, often contain Chinese herbs to provide more nutrition. There is no exact line between how herbs are used as medicines and as food in Chinese culture.


On Saturday afternoon, we have visited four herbal places in Chinatown. In chronological sequence each represents herbal food shop, herbal pharmacy, and two Chinese medical clinics.
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The food shop Heung Fa Chuen (杏花邨) locates close to the grand gate of Philadelphia Chinatown (費城華阜). On the menu of Heung Fa Chuen we found various items with herbal ingredients. They offer herbal drinks like chrysanthemum tea (菊花茶) and selfheal tea (夏枯草茶). Other herbs such as black sesame, red bean, green bean and peanut are available ingredients to top in sweet soup and tofu pudding. When asked why customers would pay extra to add these herbs to their food, the owner of the shop answered, “Some people like these (the herbal ingredients listed above) because they make the soup more flavorful. Some others add herbs to make their food more nutritious.” Indeed according to Chinese herbalists, black sesame, red bean, green bean and peanut all have medical functions when ingest properly. But as indicated by the shop owner, some people may have chosen herbs topping simply for their fragrance and taste. In addition, it has happened in history that people ate herbs (defined broadly as above) to alleviate hunger or even fill the stomach. For example, in Respond to Yan Chen[1], the Qing Dynasty minister Fucheng Xue stated,


In summary, he said the Manchurian army were not used to eating rice. So they depended on Za Liang-a mixture of cereal, corn, buckwheat, soybean, sweet potato, peanut, green bean, and sesame for food consumption. Of course it is not likely that people go to Heung Fa Chuen and order extra herb toppings to expel hunger. But the example does add a third motivation to consuming herbs. From visiting this food shop, we conclude that the line between food and medicine could be drawn in terms of motivation of consumption. When herbs are consumed to complement nutrition, it could be considered as medicine; when herbs are served against hunger or out of gastronomical preferences, it belongs to the category of food.

After we left Heung Fa Chun, we turned left onto Arch Street and visited the herbal pharmacy at the corner. If not for all the Chinese characters on the pill cases, we would have mistaken the store with CVS or Rite Aid. This store features a lot of herbal medicine one could easily find in a regular pharmacy in China. Unlike fresh/dried/crushed herbs found in Heung Fa Chuen, here herbs appear in a more modernized form. In most cases they are highly condensed and candy-coated. It was not busy on a Saturday afternoon, so we chatted with the pharmacist. He told us that 90% of the customers are Chinatown residents or Chinese students from neighboring universities. To further explore our topic, we asked him whether they sell any food ingredients in the store. He looked at us with a strange smile and said, “Well, most people won’t be here unless they are sick.” According to him, herbs are consumed as medicine when an illness has occurred. In other words, herbs are medicine when herbs they as cure. Otherwise it cannot be labeled as medicine because it does not remedy any sickness. We are skeptical about his argument. If the function of herb decides which category it belongs to, then the judgment largely depends on the definition of “illness”, not herb itself anymore. Turtle jello (龜苓膏Guiling Gao)for instance, is served as a Cantonese snack dish, not a medicine. Yet it claims to cleanse, nourish “yin”(陰), and improves circulation. If the imbalance of “yin” and “yang” can be counted as illness, then technically turtle jello is a medicine as well, which is against our empirical experiences.

Our final stop was the two medical clinics. To look less suspicious, we decided that Chutong would pretend to be a real patient-and was there to treat acnes. Doctor A felt Chutong’s pulse and prescribed packets of condensed fluid. Some of the ingredients include: honeysuckle, chrysanthemum and radix bupleur. Interestingly, we later noticed that on the pockets printed a tiny line-The Chinese Herbal teas. Doctor Lin, on the other hand, did more careful check-up for Chutong’s acne. He practiced the traditional four methods of Chinese medicine-Observe, Smell, Ask, and Feel the pulse (望闻问切). His prescription came in pockets of mixed herbal powder a convenient substitute for fresh/dried herbs. When we were waiting for Doctor Lin’s assistance to mix the herbal powder, we chatted randomly with people in the clinic. We asked why they chose Chinese medicine over western one, and the answers can be summed up in four categories. Almost everyone mentioned that Doctor Lin is trustworthy and well respected in the area. A lot of people said they were used to Chinese medicine and believe it has fewer side effects on their body. Some claimed that they found it really convenient that Chinese medical clinics do not require appointments. And a few explained that they were here solely for balance of health. It is amusing to associate the last answer with the Pharmacist’s theory. If the fourth group of people came merely for balance of health, i.e. not sick, should we define the herbs they get as food rather than medicine? Now we think that there should be more divisions than “food” and “medicine” when categorizing herbs according to function. At least there should be “health care” to cater the needs of those who enthusiastically pursue the balance of “yin” and “yang”.
Although we failed to obtain a solid conclusion on what determines the line between herbs as food and herb as medicine. We did acquire two potential factors: motivation and function. The nuance between the factors is that “motivation” is a subjective perspective, i.e. why people take the herbs. Meanwhile, “function” is more objective in describing the actual effects of herbs. However, the two criteria are not always in accordance. The turtle jello for example, is often taken as food motivation wise, but benefits balance of health as a function.

[1] Xue, F. (n.d.). Respond to Yan Chen.


Egg Tart 蛋挞

These wobbly yellow jewel delights have pleased Portuguese, English, Macaunese, and Hong Kongnese sweet cravings for as many as centuries and as little as decades.  Since introduced, egg tarts have become everyone’s favorites.  These egg tarts today are now an integral part of Hong Kong’s dim sum.  With so many different versions of the egg tart, we started to wonder, what exactly is an egg tart?  

Egg Tart: A Possible History

Before we went on our Philadelphia egg tart journey (courtesy of Yelp’s “top egg tart” list), we searched up the history of egg tarts.  We learned that egg tarts’ history is as complicated as its’ recipe.  One of the theories is that egg tarts originated from the English tart with custard filling, a British classic.  People believe that the British colonization in the Guangdong province influenced the Cantonese cuisine.  The second and popular theory is that the egg tart is a Cantonese take of Pastel de Nata.  This Portuguese favorite is found all over Portugal and even Europe.

From 1557 to 1999, Macau had Portuguese influence.  Pastel de Nata is a traditional Portuguese custard pastry.  The custard is caramelized to form a creme brulee topping.  It was created over 200 years ago by Catholic Sisters at Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon.  The first shop outside of the convent to make this pastry is Casa Pasteis de Belem.  Today, this pastry shop continues to specialize in Pastel de Nata and has spread all over Europe creating an international and well-recognized chain there.

Evolving from Pastel de Nata and the English tart with custard filling, the traditional Cantonese egg tart was formed.  Hand held and able to be finished with three or four bites, these pastries are a cha chaan teng and dim sum favorite.  In 1940’s, egg tarts arrived in Hong Kong from Macau and became popular because of cha chaan teng.  Cha chaan teng are
Hong Kong fast food teashops that serve Western style Hong Kong food classics.  Some of these favorites are the spam instant noodles, scrambled eggs with Hokkaido milk on thick slices of toasts, and egg tarts!

There may not be any written and proven history of egg tarts, but there are certainly stories.  These stories are all important and part of the egg tart identity.  Egg tarts are a reflection of the fusion of cultures in Hong Kong today. These egg tarts tell a story of how society progresses and changes as they adopt other cultures into their own.

Our Philadelphia Egg Tart Journey


We set out our egg tart taste journey by searching for “egg tart” on Yelp (where people mark, comment and rate on local restaurants) and it provided us with a list of bakeries and restaurants that provide Philadelphia’s best egg tarts. We confined our search within bakery stores in Philadelphia Chinatown area, with the hope in making them more comparable. After composing a list of potential stores, we ended up visiting four of them – St Honore Pastries, Hong Kong Bakery, Mong Kok Station Bakery, and Mayflower Cafe & Bakery. They are all clustered around the intersection of Race Street and 10th Street.


The first thing that surprised us was the high concentration of Chinese bakeries in such a small area.  The second thing followed after our egg tart journey, when we realized how distinct the different egg tart flavors are when comparing them with each other.

We visited Chinatown on January 29th, 2015, on a Thursday morning. Our first stop was St Honore Pastries because the egg tarts there received so much praise as the “best egg tarts” in Chinatown, in Philadelphia, or ever existed. When we arrived there at around 10 am, although there were only two customers in store, the plate of egg tarts on display had already been sold out; we assume as breakfast. While we were told that they would be ready in 10 minutes, we decided to try the so-called “almond tarts” next to the egg tart plate, which looked much like egg tarts, only with white filling. The almond tarts were preserved cold, and had a pleasant flowery taste (although they did not taste like almond).  Shortly after, we got to enjoy the steaming hot egg tarts. One thing we really appreciated was the soft and jiggly texture of both of the tarts, which to some degree made up for the missing of egg and almond tastes. Overall, we rated the egg tarts and almond tarts two stars and three stars (out of five) respectively.


before………  10 minutes later!

Only a few doors away stands Hong Kong Bakery, our second stop. The egg tarts there are sold at a price of $0.85, comparing with the $0.80 price for egg tarts and almond tarts in St Honore Pastries – we thought because they are larger in size. They were also sold as cold snacks; the texture was harder and more concrete, and the taste was quite sweet.  But we mostly enjoyed it because of the hint of egg we tasted with every bite. We rated it as 3.5 stars because Tina realized with excitement that “this tastes like something I would get in Hong Kong.”


The third store we went to was Mong Kok Station Bakery, which was bigger and had more customers during our time of visit (most of whom are middle-age males).  This was also getting later in the day, hitting an early lunchtime which could probably explain the increase in customers as we ticked off our bakery list.  Mong Kok Station Bakery sells egg tarts and Portuguese tarts side by side at prices of $0.8 and $1.0.  They also sold coconut tarts, which look completely different from the other two kinds so we decided not to try them. Out of curiosity we asked the salesperson what the difference was between the egg tarts and Portuguese tarts, and she told us the former were made of eggs and water while the latter were made of eggs and milk.  What surprised us most was that we did taste out the ingredients and the difference from them! Besides, both of them were sold as cold; the texture of the egg tarts, while not jiggly, was very smooth, and the Portuguese tarts were perfectly caramelized, not a burn on our tart. We decided that they both worth 5 stars, because of the well refined tastes and texture.


Our last visit was to Mayflower Cafe & Bakery, where surprisingly we saw many people came as families (with the elders and kids) at a time around 11 am. This bakery sells egg tarts at the common price of $0.8; it also sells coconut tarts for $0.6, and they look like neither the egg tarts nor the coconut tarts from the previous shop. This is the only bakery out of the four that keeps their egg tarts warm (they keep the plate heated before moving it to the counter). The egg tarts themselves were also quite impressive: they looked very shiny and attractive, jiggly in texture but did not fall apart, and had a very natural taste of egg without being too sweet. No doubt, we rated it five stars – the fact that it was heated bumped it up a star!



Our Interviews and Critique

Before the trip, we designed some questions for the salespeople (who in some case are also the shop owners):

1. Are the egg tarts made in store?
2. How long does it take to make egg tarts?
3. How many can you sell each day?
4. Who are the customers? Americans? Asians? Other people?
5. Where did you come from?
6. What type of egg tarts are sold in your store?

With these questions, we hope to lead them to identify the origins of three factors involved in the selling process – the start (the salespeople themselves), the medium (egg tarts), and the target (the customers) – based on their daily experience and vision.

Out of the four bakeries, the salespeople in the first three answered either a part or all of our questions; those from Mayflower Cafe & Bakery refused because they were too busy. All of them proudly claimed that the egg tarts were made in store. The people from St Honore Pastries and Hong Kong Bakery said it took around half an hour to make egg tarts, while the people from Mong Kok Station Bakery said they would spend 2-3 hours just to make the base! Interestingly, none of them were sure about how many egg tarts they could sell each day, but Mong Kok Station Bakery people made a guess of 80-90 per day.

When it comes to identity, the salespeople from all three bakeries told us that they were from China (国内, or “domestic,” in their words), and when being asked specifically, they said either Hong Kong or Canton. All of them regarded their egg tarts had “Hong Kong flavor,” and the Portuguese tarts in Mong Kok Station Bakery adopted its flavor from Macao. When we asked them who their customers were, they said “both foreigners (老外 or 外国人) and Chinese would come…around half and half.”

We found their answers regarding identity questions particularly fascinating. First of all, even though they gave identical answers for the origins of their egg tarts, from our own experience, their products were actually very different from each other’s in size, flavor, and texture. Despite these differences they could still be classified as “Hong Kong egg tarts” popularized from cha chaan teng as we explained above, but the variations suggest certain level of transformation in recipe, techniques, or ingredients, which could be a reflection of the transformation in social experience, or exchange of cooking ideas that worths further investigation.

The identity story here is not only about egg tarts; it is also about people involved. Between us, Tina speaks English and Cantonese, Xue speaks English and Mandarin, and our conversations with the salespeople were carried in a strange mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin.  We thought, this was probably one of  the reasons  for them to identify us as “insiders,” and naturally use terms like “domestic” and “foreigners” when referring to China and people who are not Chinese. Still it is interesting to notice where they draw the lines between “us” and “them,” and how they identified themselves as Chinese people who were distinctive from “foreigners” in the environment of a Chinatown in an American city.


After our research and egg tart journey, we reflected back to our original questions – What is an egg tart and where is it from?  Although we still do not have a concrete answer, we do have a better understanding of the egg tart.  Our interviewing and presenting experiences when asking our peers what they thought of egg tarts, just further made us understand that everyone has their own answers.  With every different response we got, we had to just accept that there is no right answer.

We realized, the egg tart is a representation of an integration of cultures that have formed over the past few centuries.  There will never be the “right” egg tart, since it has evolved over past few years as other cultures adopt and influence the taste, texture, and ingredients of this tart.

The egg tart has become a part of many different cities’, cultures’, and people’s identities.  To the Portuguese, it is their creme brulee.  To the English, is their sweet tart.  To the Macaunese and Hong Kongers, it is their hand held comfort food.  To others, it is a sweet and loveable tart.  Who doesn’t love egg tarts?!  The egg tart has become a staple of Hong Kong dimsum and cha chaan teng diets, but it also has become a part of the city’s national identity.

Today, there are already unique versions of the egg tart and it just further says that food and culture is always changing.  It may be a bold statement to make and we are frustrated that we never found the “perfect egg tart”, but we know that there never was and never will be the accurate egg tart.  So, we are excited to see what versions of the egg tart we will taste in our futures!