How to Accumulate Knowledge

The workshop “Sense of Place, Sense of Taste, Sense of Skill: Hawkers and Cookshops in Public Spaces of Asian Cities” (October 10–12, 2013), organized by Prof. Dr. Mareile Flitsch (Ethnographic Museum) and Prof. Dr. Norman Backhaus (Department of Geography), brought together scholars doing research in food studies. One of the participating professors, Françoise Sabban, takes the workshop as a starting point for her reflection on the current state of the discipline.

Françoise Sabban

The participants prepared the workshop through the prior reading of three texts, two of whose authors, namely Benjamin Etzold and Mark Swislocki, also attended the workshop [1]. However, these texts were not treated in a formal discussion or analysis, but were allowed to contextualize all of the exchanges that took place during the workshop. In this regard, Benjamin Etzold’s intervention that focused in part on his article has aroused many reactions.

The other papers presented at the workshop [2] also gave rise to very open discussions, and many questions on food practices, the concept of cuisine, specific techniques related to food, the authenticity of food or food preparations, professional specialization, and the expression of taste sensation.

Among all the issues that have been discussed at the workshop, in the lines that follow I would like to mention the concept of “authenticity in the kitchen” and the ideas to which these discussions have pointed me. The issue of authenticity was immediately raised by Mark Swislocki during his presentation. Based at the University of New York Abu Dhabi, our colleague discovered to his great surprise the local existence of a Sino-Indian culinary tradition and that certain dishes of this fusion cuisine were commonly eaten in popular restaurants of this country, in particular a dish called Gobi Manchurian, which consists of cauliflower in sauce. Upon hearing this news, we were as surprised as he had been at the time of his discovery. By looking at a photograph of the dish, there was neither a visible sign of assimilation to a Chinese preparation nor evidence to the contrary. Additionally, its name indicating a “Manchurian” origin left us even more confused.

Gobi Manchurian: a vegetarian ‘interpretation’ of Gulao rou

The aesthetics of a Chinese dish

For Mark Swislocki, this dish raises the question of a specific Chinese-ness (“What makes Chinese food Chinese?”) or—in other words—the question of the definition of a ‘Chinese identity,’ particularly in food matters. Failing to respond conclusively to the question, he considered this dish very popular in Abu Dhabi as a simulacrum of something that had never existed before, but that had acquired a position by its very existence. Actually, after having retraced the meanders of the Cantonese emigration to Calcutta, then from Calcutta to Abu Dhabi, Swislocki came to the conclusion that this—in his eyes—“strange” dish showed the existence of a cuisine unknown to him, namely a “Sino-Indian” one.

Nevertheless, is the term ‘simulacrum’ really appropriate to describe one recipe in the directory of this syncretic kitchen? In fact, the dish does not feign or even imitate something, as the term ‘simulacrum’ may suggest. It is a method of food preparation really existing, though its designation, admittedly, does not refer to an object belonging to the usual Chinese culinary paradigm, thus forming part of a new one. And this despite some very tangible signs evoking the aesthetics of a Chinese dish: a color contrast between its various ingredients via the dominant red-brown that receives emphasis from the green of onion stalks. This is commonly done in Chinese cuisine.

The mystery of designation

Thus, as the dish is very popular and considered emblematic of Sino-Indian cuisine, it is difficult to doubt its authenticity. It simply has to be admitted that it belongs to a syncretic cuisine combining tastes and culinary techniques originating from two different backgrounds in a way of giving birth to a true tradition. And in fact, on closer examination, we can consider that this dish of cauliflower in sauce is a vegetarian ‘interpretation’ of Gulao rou (pork in sauce), a traditional Cantonese dish that is widely known and appreciated throughout China, particularly in the north. In sum the authentic Gulao rou developed into Gobi Manchurian and is no less authentic due to the reference to another practice, namely the one of Cantonese people who immigrated to Calcutta and then managed to create a “new” cuisine by adapting their cooking style to the prevalent food habits and taste preferences in their host country in order to please the new clientele. However, it is interesting to note that this cuisine has gained autonomy from its origins, so that it seems no longer specific to Cantonese restaurants. Indians have appropriated it, if one believes the various filmed versions of preparations posted on Youtube where the cooks are all Indian. But there still remains the mystery of its designation. What has Manchuria to do with the Chinese people of Canton, since this designation cannot be of Indian origin? After a superficial survey of the question, I noticed the existence of a number of restaurants called “Manchurian” or “Manchuria” in several English-speaking countries, establishments often run by Cantonese people and offering Cantonese or northeastern Chinese cuisine. Therefore one could hypothesize that in this sphere that arose from or close to the former British colonial empire, this term reflects some sort of blurred ‘Chinese-ness’ and thus evokes the high reputation of a great Chinese culinary tradition, guaranteeing the quality of these restaurants.

Hence, it follows that the kitchen forms the place par excellence for manifesting syncretism, hybridization, and—to use a trendy term—fusion, and that these rapidly intermingling phenomena produce a sense of authenticity and appropriation.

Advantages and disadvantages of theory

Be that as it may, our exchange of ideas has been fruitful, but has also confirmed an impression I had in recent years concerning food studies. Although this field of research is represented today by many “food studies departments” within American universities and receives multi-disciplinary attention in other countries—leading of course to specialized academic and semi-academic journals (Petits Propos Culinaires; Food & Foodways; Food Culture and Society; Gastronomica; Food & History; etc.)—the subject nevertheless remains insufficiently explored. And one can even say that the current research on food issues done by social scientists forms a significant example of the difficult question how to accumulate knowledge in social sciences. [3]

As noted by Peter Scholliers in the recent special issue of Food & History devoted to the bibliography of historical works on food published in the last decade: “I wish to point out two noteworthy omissions in F & H: the lack of debate, and the poor interest in theory.” [4] This “poor interest in theory” is one of the questions. Would the use of theories have saved us from this lack of knowledge accumulation when considering the plurality of disciplines involved in social science research? Could it be that theoretical assumptions based on the formulation of problem contexts and clear questions would allow us to mark uncertain paths for research? Yes, it is true sometimes, as the rich work by sociologists as Veblen, Halbwachs, Elias—or more recently—Bourdieu, Passeron, Grignon or Mennell demonstrate in the case of the social structure of food consumption. But in history and anthropology, for example, the theoretical and methodological connections between authors are often either blurred or non-existent, so that each researcher develops his own theoretical framework. Naturally, this behavior does not lead to the desired accumulation of knowledge.

The importance of personal meetings

But is this observation really negative? Probably not, because it keeps the doors wide open to methodological imagination. Everything is still possible in this field of research, which is very much in its youth. Let us go back to the first omission identified by Scholliers, namely, the lack of debate in social scientific research on food during the last ten years (at least regarding the above-mentioned publications reviewed in Food & History). I am not sure whether to follow this verdict, because debates come into being from meetings and often very informal exchange, which can be fruitful and instructive and even lead to joint projects. New ways of research still have to be established through colloquiums, daylong seminars, workshops, and conferences, otherwise academic efforts will not exceed the level of talks between open-minded amateurs that already existed before social scientific research on food entered the universities. This is the reason why, in order to be successful, these events require institutionalization within the field of research. The latter is underway in many countries, and although a lot has been done in the past ten years, there is still much to do in the future. We therefore welcome the initiative by the University of Zurich in the context of its University Research Priority Program Asia and Europe, which allowed this meeting in Switzerland between researchers from very different backgrounds—all of whom had to make an effort to understand and grasp the different ways of looking at problems.

[1] Didier Chabrol / José Muchnik, “Consumer skills contribute to maintaining and diffusing heritage food products”, in: Anthropology of food [online], N° 8, 2011, online since 13 May 2011, connection on February 11, 2014 (http://aof.revues.org/6847); Benjamin Etzold et al., “Informality as Agency: Negociating Food Security in Dhaka”, in: Die Erde, 2009, pp. 3–24; Mark Swislocki, “Serve the People: Socialist Transformations of Shanghai Food Culture”, in: Mark Swislocki, Culinary Nostalgia: Regional Food Culture and the Urban Experience in Shanghai, Stanford University Press, 2009, chap. 5, pp. 176–271.

[2] Mark Swislocki, Aël Théry, Lena Kaufmann, and Tabea Buri.

[3] “La cumulativité des savoirs en sciences sociales”, Revue européenne des sciences sociales, 2005, pp. XLIII–131.

[4] Peter Scholliers, “Ten Years of Food & History: ‘la sfida è partita’”, in: Special issue “Studia Alimentorum 2003–2013: A Decade of Research”, Food & History, vol. 10(2), 2012, p. 41.

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 3/2014, pp. 20–21)