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).


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