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20-22 February 1998
Leiden, the Netherlands

Asian Food Culture in the Twentieth Century

By Boudewijn C.A. Walraven and Katarzyna J. Cwiertka


The goal of this workshop was an examination of the Asian-European encounter as seen in the context of food culture. The participants chose a variety of foci from their diverse disciplines and fieldwork experiences. The Asian-European encounter given shape, and meaning (and taste) in several settings included food-related practices and historical changes in consumption through contact and influence throughout the twentieth century. In the first half of the twentieth century the influence of the West on Asia was stronger. Since the mid-twentieth century, Asian ways of food have gradually gained recognition and popularity elsewhere and not only due to the feedback from colonial experiences.

Robert Pemberton (US Department of Agriculture) for instance, looked at the gathering of wild foods in contemporary South Korea as a window, which reveals social transformations in the country. On the one hand, keeping pace with the urbanization of the population, and the development of market economy, the gathering of wild foods has been transformed from a nutritional necessity to a business opportunity, and to a hobby on the other.
After lunch, three papers addressed the issue of national and cultural identity expressed and 'constructed' through food. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney (University of Wisconsin) discussed the changing identities of the Japanese by examining the position of rice and meat in the Japanese diet. Boudewijn Walraven (Leiden University) discussed the controversial topic of eating dog-meat in Korea, concentrating on how it is perceived by the non-Korean activists fighting for animal rights, and how this in turn affects the Korean attitude. James Watson (Harvard University, US) dealt with another example of 'constructing' one's cultural identity with the help of food, by discussing the spread of the habit of 'basin dining' (puhn-choi) - part of the New Territories rural tradition - among the urban residents of Hong Kong after its repatriation in 1997.
The paper by Isao Kumakura (National Museum of Ethnology, Japan), initiated a new theme, - Asian food in the domestic setting. Kumakura showed how the modernization of the Japanese society - urbanization, the growing middle-class membership, and the emphasis on domesticity - has manifested itself at the table, or rather at the three different forms of table which were used in Japan throughout the twentieth century. Merry White (Boston University) explained how young women in contemporary Japan demonstrate both the power of marketing and their own agency as they consume food trends and engage in behaviour increasingly antithetical to the culturally approved model of nurturance, service, self-abnegation, and domesticity. Pat Caplan (University of London) elaborated on the issue of new patterns of shopping emerging among the affluent middle classes in Madras, as a result of economic liberalization and the expansion of manufactured food imports after 1994.
Theodore Bestor's (Cornell University) paper dealt explicitly with the spread of Asian food beyond Asia in the era of globalization. Bestor focused the attributions of cultural categories in the global trade on the example of seafood trade at the Tsukiji wholesale market in Tokyo. Anneke van Otterloo (University of Amsterdam) taking the example of the Netherlands, explained how globalization affects Western food habits, by concentrating on the expansion of interest in Chinese and Indonesian food in this country as a result of the migration of the peoples from the former colonies to Holland. Helen Bush (University of Glasgow) examined the issue of cultural identity expressed through food, from a different perspective. On the basis of a survey conducted among South Asian women residing in Scotland, she demonstrated that the traditional family hospitality meals play an important part in the life of migrant South Asians, and are still preserved as the symbol of their cultural identity. The paper by Katarzyna Cwiertka (Leiden University), examining the post-World War II expansion of Asian food in Europe from the historical perspective of colonialism, concluded the workshop.
The workshop was supported financially by the Japan Foundation, the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), and the School of Asian, African and Amerindian Studies (CNWS) of Leiden University.

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