Food for Thought

Posted: March 14, 2012 by innocentk in Mar 14

This week’s readings looked at the interaction between food and cultural identity formation. In Culinary Nostalgia, Anita Mannur explores the association between our food preferences and cultural identity. Mannur reflects on the movement of food and its relation to the movement of Indian people themselves. She recalls times when the longing for a “taste of home” (Mannur, 2010) often times required the use of substitute ingredients because you simply had to make “do with what was available, creating new recipes along the way” (Mannur, 2010). Therefore, the emergence of ethnic grocery stores and shopping outlets has created stronger transnational connections for diasporic communities in a number of different ways. For one, the ability to purchase ingredients like mustard oil, has given those in the diaspora an ability to reproduce cultural dishes that maintain their ties to a perceived homeland. In Mannur’s case, the preparation of meals also contributed to her feelings of nostalgia, because this sometimes involved lengthy trips to ethnic grocery stores where one could “feel an uncanny sense of belonging because of the ways in which ones senses were activated to experience the smells, tastes and sounds of crowded streets in India” (Mannur, 2010). India is very much a perception of her own imagination as she speaks to the fact that she was raised in the diaspora (having spent a large portion of her childhood and adolescent years in Malaysia and PNG), therefore, the yearning she speaks of is rooted in a cultural identity that is shaped around the collective production and consumption of food which helps to reproduce national identities. Space, thus becomes crucial in the way in which culture is transmitted.

Mannur also spoke of the ways in which “traditional” India dishes were being reimagined throughout the United States. This draws from Mintz understanding that “when food objects, processes – even ideas – spread from one society to another, the receiving society is likely to modify, often to misunderstand, and usually redefine what it has received” (Mintz, 2008). This undoubtedly leads to questions of authenticity in regards to the ways in which foods are received by ethnic communities. Dafna Hirsch looks at this question in the article aptly titled “Hummus is best when it is fresh and made by Arabs”: The gourmetization of hummus in Israel and the return of the repressed Arab. The article illustrates the way in which food can be incorporated into the national identity for commercial and political purposes. Hirsch demonstrates how the commercialization of hummus resulted in the suppression of its Arab identity. This however, was only temporary, as the re-emergence of the Arab identity of hummus was reflected in the need to authenticate hummus. Hirsch lists different ways in which the Israeli appropriation of hummus could be spun in different political spheres, but an important point that was brought up was the idea that “‘ethnic food’ became a resource for the construction of nostalgic identities and authentic selves for members of marginalized ethnic groups” (Hirsch, 2011). Food thus becomes a representation of an identity that is forged through oppression and marginalization, as is the case for Palestinian citizens. This notion of a construction of a nostalgic identity is reflected in the readings this week, which leads me to the following questions:

1)    Can the reimagining of “ethnic foods” as in the case of the fusion-style dosas in L.A. Dosatrucks be considered authentically Indian?

2)    If different cultures are constantly interacting with one another, is there such a thing as “authenticity” when it comes to food?


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