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The Power of Food: Uncovering Cultural Identities and Histories Through Dietary Anthropology

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said that we probably find the strongest and most indelible memory of infant learning in the taste of food. In the ever-changing and integrated human culture, perhaps “food” is a stable part of it, and therefore contains a person’s deep cultural imprint and identity. For people of various ethnic groups scattered around the world, “being able to eat together” is their deepest identity.

New directions in dietary anthropology
Food anthropology originated in the early 20th century. Anthropologists often conduct field surveys in primitive tribes to explore how pre-modern groups obtained food and how they enjoyed food. As one of the founders of modern anthropology, the British anthropologist Malinowski, in his book “Coral Gardens and Their Magic” (1935), described how the indigenous people of the Trobriand Islands in northeastern New Guinea The cultivation of sweet potatoes and their diet for festive celebrations are discussed in detail. Since the mid-20th century, anthropologists have gradually shifted their focus to modern people’s food culture, focusing on the relationship between food and power. In the book “Sweet and Power” (1986), American anthropologist Sidney W. Mints discusses how sugar in Europe started as a luxury product, gradually moved to the common people’s dining table, and finally became a A necessity for all classes in Europe. Westminster believes that behind the changing role of “sugar” lies power, hierarchy and oppression. As a representative of American food anthropology, Westminster has provided many insights into the relationship between food and power, such as people’s food choices, eating situations and the influence of power operations behind them.

The Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum in Penang, Malaysia, collects handicrafts and customary cultural relics such as clothing, house decorations, daily necessities, etc. of this ethnic group, recreating their daily life scenes.

Nyonya cuisine uses ingredients commonly used in the Malay region, such as belacan, asam, serai, kunyit, lengkuas, etc., and has a rich and fragrant taste. , with pungent flavors such as sour, sweet and spicy.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay Archipelago and the local Malays were called Babas for men and Nyonya for women. They formed a unique blend of Chinese and Malay cultures.

In recent years, the combination of food anthropology research and Asian cultural context has given rise to new directions. Among the complex and unique food phenomena in Asia, anthropologists carefully peel back the cocoons, starting from the process of food production, and exploring the interaction of social, political and cultural factors involved. “Eating Asia” compiled in 2007 by Sidney C.H. Cheung and Tan Chee-Beng of the Chinese University of Hong Kong brings together many studies on Asian dietary anthropology. This book focuses on the interaction between food and identity, cultural boundaries, global food sales and local food culture in the context of globalization. Different from the focus of European and American food anthropology on political factors, Asian food anthropology research pays more attention to the identity in food, that is, in Asia where multi-cultural integration, intersection and collision, the cultural identity and cultural history carried in food.

Cultural fusion in Baba and Nyonya food
Chen Zhiming’s research uses diet as an entry point to reveal a complex case of human cultural integration. He chose the Baba, a mixed-culture ethnic group, as his research object. The Babas are descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the Malay Archipelago between the 15th and 17th centuries. Baba lived in Malaysia and Singapore, and mixed the local culture. A long time ago, Baba’s mother tongue was no longer Chinese, but Malay, and the mother tongue of the new generation of Baba changed from Malay to English. . Historically, the women of the Baba ethnic group were also called Nyonya, and the food they made was called Nyonya food—a food that is different from both Chinese food culture and local Malay food traditions. Shuttling between Chinese culture and Malay culture, Nyonya culture has gradually formed its own unique characteristics.

Taking Nyonya food culture as the starting point, Chen Zhiming analyzed the ingredient preparation and cooking process of six Nyonya dishes, presenting the essential characteristics of Nyonya culture and Baba’s efforts to construct a new cultural identity.

Through Chen Zhiming’s description of the dish making process, we can see that although the Baba language and culture are far away from China in terms of time and space, they still retain the traditional Chinese cooking method. When it comes to the selection of ingredients, Baba seems to have deliberately avoided the ingredients usually favored by people of Chinese descent, and instead chose ingredients commonly used in the Malay region, such as belacan, asam, and lemongrass. (serai), turmeric (kunyit), Indonesian vegetable ginger (lengkuas). Babas improved and prepared these local foods and incorporated them into their own recipes, which reflected their cultural innovation and desire to establish a new cultural identity. In the end, Baba successfully formed its own unique identity and cultural characteristics, forming a unique Baba Nyonya culture (Peranakan Style). Although they have been very successful in localization as immigrants, Chen Zhiming discovered that Baba food still contains the connotation and symbolic meaning of Chinese traditional culture. For example, eating rice dumplings on the Dragon Boat Festival; using cabbage in food to worship ancestors has the meaning in Chinese “Reunion”, etc. Therefore, the author believes that Baba’s seemingly complicated and intertwined cultural identity is actually not complicated. From the cooking process of the food, it can be concluded that the cultural identity of Baba is the result of the fusion of Chinese culture and local Malay culture.

A man wearing traditional Ainu tribal clothing at the Ainu Ethnic Museum in Shiraoi-cho, Hokkaido, Japan. The Ainu are an indigenous group living in Sakhalin and Hokkaido, Japan. They have their own language and writing.

The inner belonging of the urban Ainu people
Another example of finding identity in food culture is the Ainu people in Tokyo.

Nakano Ward in Tokyo, Japan, is a dense residential area only 15 minutes away from Tokyo Train Station. During the evening rush hour after get off work, the place is crowded and bustling. However, in a restaurant called “Rera Cise”, the noise of the street is isolated to a faint hum. The Ainu people living in Tokyo gathered in the restaurant, around the fireplace, and were performing the final part of a traditional religious ceremony, and a sacred atmosphere permeated the space. The Ainu are an indigenous group living in Sakhalin and Hokkaido, Japan. They have their own language and writing. “Rera Cise” specializes in traditional Ainu dishes and opened in 1994 in a basement opposite Waseda University. However, due to the strict rental regulations at the time, the restaurant could not install a fixed fireplace, which became a long-term shortcoming in the hearts of these Ainu people wandering in Tokyo. In December 2000, the restaurant moved to its current location in Nakano Ward, and the Ainu’s shortcomings were filled. The new restaurant is a three-story building, and the Ainu finally installed a fireplace on the second floor of the restaurant, which has the best ventilation and lighting, and installed a window facing east on the second floor. Why is the fireplace so important to the Ainu people? Perhaps we can find the answer from the study of “food anthropology”.

In his research, Mark K. Watson, professor of anthropology at Concordia University, explores how the Ainu people in Tokyo maintain their native lifestyle and consolidate their nation through a restaurant Identity. In the past, the Ainu were considered a disappearing people, but Watson has a different view. He believes that attention should also be paid to the Ainu people in cities. Because in the 1950s, due to Japan’s rapid economic development, a large number of Ainu people chose to migrate from the island of Hokkaido to live in cities. These Ainu are new immigrants to the city. At the same time, Watson believes that Ainu culture and identity have been successfully preserved in Tokyo urban life. In modern urban life, the cultural identity of the Ainu people has not been weakened, but has been strengthened and preserved.

Why do the Ainu people have to install a fireplace on the most important floor and location of their restaurant? The Ainu believe in the god of fire (ape-fuchi-kamuy), and the hearth is where the god of fire lives. In the hearts of the Ainu, the god of fire is the transmitter and mediator between them and the spiritual world. Therefore, the god of fire is the god to whom the Ainu first offer wine and food in every ceremony. As the residence of the God of Fire, the fireplace carries extremely important religious connotations. With the fireplace, the Ainu people can establish contact with the god of fire and gods.

Watson recorded in detail the blessing ceremony of the Ainu people around the fireplace: Mr. S-San began to address the fireplace and the God of Fire in Ainu language. At this time, a gust of autumn wind blew from the sacred window facing everyone, stirring the fireplace. of smoke. In the dim light, the outline of the fireplace was still clearly outlined. The Ainu people believe that this is a sign of the arrival or departure of the gods. Around the hearth, the Ainu began to make the first round of tributes to the god of fire. Traditional rice wine and a piece of fresh salmon from Hokkaido are placed respectfully to the east of the fireplace. Between prayers, all eyes are on the crackling flames and all ears are on the blessings conveyed in the ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, S-San thanked the salmon for its sacrifice for this blessing ceremony. The salmon will be grilled by the Ainu chef downstairs and served to those in attendance along with “ohau (a traditional clear soup with vegetables, meat and fish)”, pumpkin dumplings and Hokkaido beer or “hascappu jyusu (blueberry juice)” people.

After the ceremony, guests who attended the ceremony enjoyed freshly cooked food while listening to S-San tell the story of growing up in a small fishing village in Hokkaido and how he, like other Ainu people, lived far away from the Growing up and living in a city of their own ethnic origin. In S-San’s story, other Ainu people also find themselves and review their own history and culture. Similar to S-San’s experience, many Ainu people present grew up in Ainu as children and moved to Tokyo as teenagers. In the 1950s and 1960s, their parents traveled many times between Hokkaido and Tokyo as seasonal workers, and finally collectively chose to settle in Tokyo.

The above-mentioned blessing ceremony and “shared conversation” are just one of several gatherings held regularly in the “Rera Cise” restaurant, which also hosts performances and food culture discussions. As a gathering place for the Ainu people, “Rera Cise” strives to spread local culture and deepen people’s understanding of Ainu culture in the city. In addition, “Rera Cise” has also become a symbol of the familiar “home” for the Ainu people from afar, where they gather, hold banquets, and find a sense of security and cultural belonging. All food in the restaurant comes from Hokkaido, including hunted wild animals and fish, locally grown vegetables such as potatoes and pumpkins, and some wild plants from the Ainu region, such as “kitopiro (a wild garlic grass)” . These traditional ingredients and traditional cooking methods from the Hokkaido region reflect the Ainu people’s persistence in their traditional culture and identity, and also highlight that food has become an important symbol and symbol of the identity construction of the urban Ainu people.

In a multicultural region like Asia, the identities and cultural characteristics of different ethnic groups are particularly complex. In this ever-changing era, it seems that only “taste” remains steadfast. Anthropologists start with daily food and trace the cultural genes and historical context of different ethnic groups. Using food as a model may be one of the ideal angles to study the culture of today’s culturally mixed areas or mixed ethnic groups.

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