Food, Feeding, and Eating In and Out of Asia

7th Annual International ADI Conference
Asian Dynamics Initiative, University of Copenhagen
24-26 June 2015

Michael Herzfeld

Professor Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University

Michael Herzfeld is Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. He earned a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Oxford University in 1976 and a D.Litt. in Modern Greek from the University of Birmingham in 1989. His research interests include social theory, history of Anthropology, social poetics, politics of history; Europe and Thailand. He taught at Vassar College, Indiana University and was Lord Simon Visiting Professor at the University of Manchester in 1994 and has authored several books.

Abstract: When is Food Ethnic and What does that Imply? Reproducing Inequalities in the Framing of Asian Cuisines

“Ethnic” food tends to exlude high-end dining, reproducing the more general implication of status disadvantage in the “ethno” prefix. In this paper, I address the post- and crypto-colonial “entextualization” of ethnic food in the global hierarchy of value. The design of menus, in particular, rearranges Asian foods to suit the particular social formation of the host countries, while retaining linguistic and other forms of labeling that serve to sustain the image of exotic oddity. I suggest that the taste for the “familiar exotic” that motivates the emergence of what many Asians regard as generally low-quality Asian food in Europe and North America is reproduced internally, as witness the apparent popularity of Isan food in Thailand and of Sichuan food in China; in both cases, people from those area claim one cannot get local quality so far from the point of origin. At the same time, the deep hostility that so often (especially in Italy) greets the purveyors of exotic food, especially the Chinese, resembles elite reactions to internal minorities and rural groups. Thus, modern Bangkokians’ willingness to get their fingers messy must be read against the backdrop of Rama V’s determination to make Thai citizens siwilai by forcing them to adopt ambiguously coded but unmistakably Western eating utensils; those same Bangkokians have little sympathy for the passionate consumerist desires or the deep social resentment of those they regard as uncouth, hillbilly (ban nawk) intruders from Isan. The emergence today of a robotically regulated gastronomic orthodoxy in Thailand, moreover, is part of a continuing battle over the definition of Thai culture; this last, audit-culture piece of reductionism—indeed, a reduction ad absurdum—nicely illustrates the political character of gastronomic authenticity at a moment when military rule clearly participates in an attempt to arrest the realignment of social classes in Thailand, and suggests possible interpretations of similar tensions between gastronomic exoticism and cultural intolerance both elsewhere in Asia and between Asian diasporic communities and their Western hosts. As a coda, I will suggest some analogies and potential points of origin for these hierarchies as they emerge along the frontier of stereotypical East-West confrontation on the boundary between the former Ottoman Empire and its now-independent but formerly subjugated Balkan regions.