Final Portfolio: Border Crossings

Links to:
Geography & Mapping Project
Food Stuffs Project
Cooking Assignment
Creative Project

In this semester, we have talked about food from different perspectives by linking it with concepts like identity, class, and gender and used critical readings to shape our understandings. Looking through every project I have accomplished, I find that my Geography & Mapping Project, Food Stuffs Project, Cooking Assignment, and Creative Project in particular deal with the idea of “food and space: border crossings” and thus can be united in the form of a narrative under such theme. By using these projects as primary sources and applying related weekly articles in my narrative, I argue that when Chinese cuisine crosses border and becomes exotic, it adopts the local culture as a way to integrate into the society.

The first assignment I did for the class, Geography & Mapping Project, is a good point to start my retrospective. For this project, I compared the dim-sum shop Yummy Yummy at Chinatown with the American bakery store The Bakery House at Bryn Mawr. By mapping the interior section layouts of the two shops, I clearly saw the product differences. For The Bakery House, it has four main sections among which the two product show stands were selling Valentine’s Day cookies on the day I visited. And the other two sections had various types of cakes, bars, cupcakes, and muffins on display. For Yummy Yummy although it also has four main sections, what it was selling at each sector was mainly buns, dumplings, rice cakes, and even hot fried rice noodle. What make the comparison between two shops in my project valuable is not the diverse types they offer (it is obvious that Chinese food is different from American food) but the distinct functions of those pastries: products at The Bakery House can be all grouped into one category as dessert while those at Yummy Yummy are for the purpose of filling the empty stomach and none of them can be called as a dessert. Even though sugar waters, for instance tofu jelly and coconut taro tapioca, were sold by Yummy Yummy, they “act like snacks or small late-night meals” (180) instead of desserts according to Dan Jurafsky’s concept. It thus seems like there is no such a thing in Chinese cuisine that qualifies the notion of dessert.

Correlated to what I conclude from Geography & Mapping Project is Food Stuffs Project, for which our group took a trip to the Lucky Chinese Cookie Factory on the 9th street of Chinatown. Before visiting, we searched for fortune cookie’s history and found that its origin is ambiguous because it is not clear whether Chinese or Japanese was the inventor. And after we got to the factory, we interviewed the workers and observed the making procedures of fortune cookies. Now when I review the project, one quote we included in the blog post from the film The Killing of a Chinese Cookie that “the Japanese invented the fortune cookie, the Chinese advertised it, and the American tasted it” raises a new question for me. Why Chinese are willing to propagate fortune cookie and regard it as such an essential food that they allow the Philadelphia fortune cookie factory open in Chinatown? The chapter “Why the Chinese don’t have dessert” from The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky gives the answer. Jurafsky traces the history of dessert and demonstrates that just like languages have certain grammatical structures, a cuisine also “has an implicit structure, a set of rules about which foods go together, what constitutes a ‘grammatical’ dish or meal in that cuisine”(178). He further states that the “constraint of American and European cuisine is ‘dessert comes at the end’” and thus the standard grammar of an American meal has the following structure: (salad or appetizer) + main/ entrée+ (dessert) (178). The Chinese cuisine, in contrast, has a totally different grammatical formula from the American one. Its structure is simpler and is made up of two parts: starch and nonstartch or starch and sung by using the Cantonese word (Jurafsky, 180). Analyzing from the linguistic aspect, it is apparent that Chinese cuisine lacks the crucial dessert part and this phenomenon matches my conclusion from Geography & Mapping Project. Bridging these two projects together, I think the necessity of fortune cookie lays in the fact that by having fortune cookie as dessert at the end of meals, Chinese cuisine is able to adopt the grammatical formation of American cuisine. And Jurafsky’s claim that “Chinese cuisine traditionally had no dessert course, and fortune cookies filled a kind of evolutionary niche for the final sweet cravings of American diners” (180) provides support. In this way, Chinese cuisine becomes close to the local one and can merge into the American society when it crosses national border.

Besides adopting the local cuisine’s grammar, Chinese cuisine embraces local ingredients to integrate into the society as well. Our group’s Cooking Project reflects this observation. For the project, we did a research on the history of Asian immigration to Latin America and especially focused on the group of Chinese Peruvians. It then led us to consider about chifa (the term that Peruvians refer to Chinese cuisine) in Lima, Peru and the representative dish Lomo Saltado was chosen for recreation. What I notice about Lomo Saltado is that on one hand it is a really Chinese dish since it requires the traditional Chinese cooking techniques such as stir fry beef and vegetables and steam rice, while on the other hand it is more Peruvian and western because it adopts the local ingredients aji amarillo and has French fries. During our research, we found another chifa dish called Kam Lu Wantan, which is fried wonton covered in sweet and sour vegetable mix. Again, this dish combines the Chinese food wonton with westerners’ favored sweet and sour sauce. These chifa dishes including Lomo Saltado are much more of a hybrid of Peruvian-Chinese cuisine than a typical Chinese one. But it is by blending and adopting local ingredients and western culture that chifa, with most of its dishes rooted in Cantonese cuisine, has been accepted by Peruvians and successfully ingrained in Peruvian food culture. Before cooking, our group tried to find Lomo Saltado’s recipe in late 19th century cookbooks so that we could recreate the dish with maximum authenticity. However, it turned out that such recipe was not available online. Lisa Heldke in the article “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism” talks about her concerns on recipes’ ownership. She mentions that for Middle Eastern women, one of the reasons why they do not publish their recipes in cookbooks is because “the recipes from which they cook are often as common to them as the omelet is to a French cook” (403). Heldke’s words ascertain that the unavailability of the 19th century Lomo Saltado’s recipe can due to the fact that it has become a normal Peruvian dish and a part of Peruvian social culture.

For my Creative Project, I drew a comic based on Noelie Vialles’ Animal to Edible. The comic tells the story about an American girl Mary who used to love eating chicken and fish dishes but becomes a vegetarian after seeing how chicken and fish were killed in the market during her time in China. In my retrospective, I treat the elements of this project in a metaphorical way. In Claude Levi-Strauss’s “The Culinary Triangle,” he assigns the raw, the cooked, and the rotted to the three points of the culinary triangle. By using Strauss’s triangle, the chicken and fish Mary sees in China in my comic are in their original form and thus can be categorized as the raw, and the chicken and fish dishes that Mary had in America are modified and cooked. The two states of chicken and fish represent the states of a cuisine before and after it crosses border. From the previous analysis, it is known that the original Chinese cuisine has two components starch and nonstarch. When it crosses border to America, Chinese cuisine modifies its grammatical formation and adopts the concept of dessert. And for Lomo Saltado, the Chinese dish embraces the local ingredients when it comes to Peru. According to what Strauss illustrates in the article that “the cooked is a cultural transformation of the raw” (41), Chinese cuisine undergoes the change from “the raw” to “the cooked” by adopting new cultures when it crosses border and thus becomes an integrated part of the local society.

Works Cited

Heldke, Lisa. “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism.” In Food and Culture: A Reader Third Edition, 394-408. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Jurafsky, Dan. “Why the Chinese Don’t Have Dessert.” In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, 171-85. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Strauss, Claude Levi. “The Culinary Triangle.” In Food and Culture: A Reader Third Edition, 40-47. New York: Routledge, 2013.

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