Author Archives: Greg de St. Maurice

About Greg de St. Maurice

Greg de St. Maurice is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Ryukoku University where he is conducting research on changes in domestic Japanese foodways over the past four decades. He earned his PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2015. He also holds Master’s degrees in Social Anthropology (Oxford University) and International Relations (American University, Ritsumeikan University). His key research interests include globalization, taste, place and place brands, chefs and cuisine, and Japan. He was on a Fulbright in Japan in 2011-2012 and his work has appeared in Etnofoor, Digest, and edited volumes about food culture and food activism.

Conference Report: Scales of Alimentation between Europe and Asia: Connections, Syncretism, Fusions

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Pierre Raffard explaining the doner kebab phenomenon’s relation to labor, ethnicity, religion, and culinary politics.

Looking at both instances of culinary incorporation and fusion and the rejection of influences from foreign food cultures, can reveal a great deal about topics as disparate as migration processes, the exercise of human agency, the reach of the nation-state, population power dynamics, and the various impacts of economic growth. Food trends and changes to food production and consumption also have obvious impact on human health, the environment, quality of life, and other conditions. Scholars gathered from France, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK, and the US to discuss such themes at a conference in Paris, France on February 23rd and 24th titled Scales of Alimentation between Europe and Asia: Connections, Syncretism, Fusions. Specific foods and foodstuffs “served” for discussion included kimchee, doner kebab, Bulgarian yogurt made in Japan, Mongolian-style dumplings, chop suey, and the mobile sweet “bibingka.” Overarching questions and debates included: How can globalization be productively used to understand processes of change and influence at a scale larger than countries and regions? What determines which elements people will incorporate, keep, change, and reject? What common patterns stand out when we look at culinary creolization, hybridization, and the like across time and space? What allows for differences in the dietary transition and (how) can later developing countries minimize the negative impacts currently underway?

 

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Shiamin Kwa presenting about offal (those parts not labeled on poor Pikachu!), chop suey, American menus, and social ideals and insecurities.

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Conference Report: 6th annual Asian Food Study Conference, Kusatsu, Japan

While there are many conferences of potential interest to food anthropologists, last weekend (December 3-4, 2016), I attended a conference that I found particularly useful and inspiring: the 6th annual Asian Food Studies Conference.

This is a conference that attracts historians, nutritionists, anthropologists, and researchers from fields like hospitality and tourism. The diverse presentation topics included these titles: “Chinese Ancient Food Culture Implied in Oracle-bone inscriptions” (Cheng Xuerong), “The Comprehensive Discourse on Edible Flowers in Pre-modern China” (Liu Jun Li), “Plagiarism and Originality: Focused on the Study of Modern Printed Cookbooks in Early 20th Century Korea” (Ra Yeon-jae), “Nutrition Education Affects the Use of an Escalator and Elevator to Reach a Women’s College on a Hilltop” (Ishihara Kengo and Takaishi Tetsuo), and “Beyond the ‘Super Shark’ Myth: Promoting Sustainable Shark Foodways in Japan and Asia” (Akamine Jun).

What really impressed me, however, was the true sense of internationalism evident at the conference. The conference’s venue changes every year. Last year the conference was held in Shangdong, China, this year in Kusatsu, Japan (hosted by Ritsumeikan University), and next year the conference venue will be in Korea. There are presentations in multiple languages (this year: Chinese, Japanese, and English). The first day’s keynote speeches, one in each language, were translated into the other two. But beyond this, the conference theme—Exchange and Dynamism of Food Culture in Asia—encouraged presentations of research that was itself transdisciplinary and transnational, with a mission toward forging connections and sharing knowledge.

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Takagi Hitoshi explaining how the Miskito categorize and use different parts of the sea turtles they hunt.

Let me give some examples. One of the panels on the first day included presenters from Malaysia, the Philippines, the US, Bulgaria, and Korea. All of the research on this panel had an obvious transnational component. A key example of such a project would be Korean scholar Ja Young Choe’s (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) research on the relative popularity of various Asian cuisines (Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian—in that order) in Hong Kong. On the second day Francoise Sabban’s research on the culinary perceptions of French and Chinese diplomats and envoys in the 19th century, Takagi Hitoshi’s observations from fieldwork conducted among the sea turtle hunting Miskito of the Caribbean, and Osawa Yoshimi’s probing of the simultaneous global appeal of umami and distrust of MSG are other examples.

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SAFN member Shingo Hamada describing traditional foodways–fishy and fermented–in Fukui prefecture, Japan.

Representing SAFN at the conference, Shingo Hamada presented new research on obstacles to commoditizing traditional fermented foods in Japan’s contemporary Fukui prefecture and I explained how Kyoto cuisine has benefited from international support (collaborators, promoters, funders) and resources (ingredients, ideas, technology) from far outside of Japan.

Next year, the conference will be hosted in South Korea. I heartily recommend attending to anyone interested in the topics of transnationalism, food, and Asia.

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Roundtable Report: “Globalization of Asian Cuisines”

To celebrate the publication of “Globalization of Asian Cuisines: Transnational Networks and Culinary Contact Zones,” three of the edited volume’s authors—Stephanie Assmann, James Farrer, and David Wank—gathered for a roundtable discussion on June 2 at Sophia University, Tokyo. While the book contains chapters that examine different Asian cuisines in different contexts—Sidney Cheung writes about crayfish in China, Krishnendu Ray about “Indian ocean cuisine,” and Keiichi Kawaguchi about Japanese food in Italy, for example—for this roundtable Wank, Farrer, and Assmann chose to talk about globalization and Japanese cuisine, offering insights based on their research in China, the US, and Japan. They observed that the globalization of Japanese cuisine is being led primarily by non-Japanese actors, with the Japanese state trying to shape the process of diffusion.

IMG_5312.jpgChuanfei Wang, who conducts research on Chinese and Japanese wine cultures, introduces the roundtable participants. From left to right: discussant Christian Hess, chair Chuanfei Wang, James Farrer, David Wank, Stephanie Assmann.

James Farrer discussed the globalization of the Japanese culinary field via a case study of Japanese food in Shanghai, where the number of Japanese restaurants surpasses the number of French and Italian restaurants. Interestingly, in Shanghai, the authenticity of Japanese cuisine is important and it is bloggers and Chinese individuals who have tremendous influence in determining what is deemed authentic Japanese cuisine. Shanghai’s chefs and entrepreneurs show great creativity in localizing Japanese cuisine. Farrer gave the memorable example of Anthologia (地球美食劇場 chikyu bishoku gekijo in Japanese), a restaurant-theater in which the entire menu is in Chinese and the dramatically costumed and made-up chef performs not just cuisine but also ikebana (flower arrangement), music, dance, and swordplay in front of eaters. This restaurant has been such a success that a second such restaurant is planned to open in Nagasaki to accommodate demand from Chinese tourists there! In response to a question from discussant Christian Hess about periodization and change in contact zones, Farrer explained that in the late 19th century quite a few Japanese restaurants existed in California and in China but they didn’t last and didn’t create a Japanese food boom. While it might seem odd that Japanese food would enjoy such popularity in China given the political enmity between the two countries, the Chinese divorce politics from cuisine to a great extent. Even though Japanese restaurants were destroyed in protests, for example, the Japanese food scene in China recovered very quickly afterward.

IMG_5316An example of Shanghai’s booming Japanese restaurant culture from Farrer’s presentation.

David Wank’s presentation focused on the role Fujianese chefs and restaurateurs have played in popularizing Japanese cuisine along the East coast of the United States, a phenomenon he refers to as an “ethnic entrepreneurial niche.” He noted the presence of elements of deterritorialization and localization, with sushi now a regular feature of people’s foodscapes even in rural areas without a sizable Japanese or Asian population, and the development of the California roll, inside-outside roll, New York roll (with pastrami), Philly roll (cream cheese), and in Indonesia the gado gado roll. When asked to elaborate upon Fujian innovation in Japanese cuisine as related to localization, Wank gave the example of sauces; there are 5 basic sauces chefs use in Fujian-run Japanese restaurants, but he talked to one chef whose culinary arsenal includes 50 different sauces. This process of innovation within the current Japanese food boom continues—with ramen and izakaya (Japanese gastropubs) among the latest trends.

In her talk, Stephanie Assmann switched the focus to government actors in Japan, analyzing efforts to promote a specific concept of Japanese cuisine domestically and abroad. Through the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad, a revived shokuiku (food education) campaign in schools, and projects encouraging Japanese consumers to purchase Japanese agricultural and food products for health reasons as well as to boost the national self-sufficiency rate for food. She noted a rhetoric of crisis operating in this discourse and perceives it to be a feature of the contemporary neoliberal state confronting globalization in line with national interests.

The roundtable touched upon key themes from the book—the role states play in determining what counts as national cuisines, debates around authenticity, processes of diffusion and change—and concepts such as “culinary fields,” “culinary contact zones,” “culinary infrastructure,” and “culinary capital.” The presentations and the enthused question and answer session that followed makes the edited volume seem well worth checking out.

 

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Curry’s Great Transnational Journey from India to Japan and North Korea

Guest contributor: Markus Bell, Australian National University

I hadn’t been in Japan more than a few weeks before I was hooked on Japanese karē raisu (curryrice/カレーライス). It was the rich, unmistakable smell that seeped under doorways and filled the undercover shopping markets of Osaka that first caught my attention.

I followed the scent down an alley and into a tiny eatery not large enough for more than half a dozen customers. Behind the wooden counter perched two large vats – the source of the seductive aromas. In one, the potbellied chef told me, is spicy curry. In the other is sweet curry. Perhaps noticing my indecisiveness he picked up two small, wooden bowls and dished out a ladle of spicy into one bowl and a ladle of sweet into the other. “Try,” he commanded.

Curry in a pot, Kyoto

Curry in a pot, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

Marking the beginnings of a ritual that I would repeat many times over the years, my tastebuds burst into life. Obediently, I took a scoop of the sweet sauce. The velvety texture of the piping hot substance wrapped itself around my tongue and left me wanting more. But I hadn’t finished. Unapologetically licking my spoon clean, I plunged it into the spicy sauce and into my mouth. This time my tongue burnt.

“Is it too much for you?” The smirking chef asked, almost gleefully. “No, no.” I replied, sucking air into my mouth and reaching for a glass of water. “It just took me by surprise.” Without asking, the chef took a larger bowl and filled it with sweet curry, beef, and potatoes. So began my love affair with Japanese karē raisu.

At that time I was carrying out research in Japan on Osaka’s incipient North Korean community. That evening, when I met my North Korean friends for our customary pork barbeque and beer in Korea town, I recounted my midday culinary adventure. “Oh yes,” they agreed. “Japanese curry is good. But until you’ve eaten it on a snowy Pyongyang day, you haven’t lived.”

And there it was. My curiosity was piqued and I had to know: How did curry, ostensibly a product of the Indian Subcontinent, make its way onto tables in the most isolated nation on the planet?

Curryrice with side of miso soup, Kyoto

Curry with a side of miso soup, Kyoto. Photo courtesy of Dr. Jamie Coates, Waseda University.

The story of curry is emblematic of the early days of colonialism, and the beginnings of what we now simply refer to as globalization. Academics claim that people may have been eating curries as far back as 2,500BCE, and that it has addictive properties.

The roots of the word “Curry” are undecided, with some arguing that it comes from the Old English word “Cury,” ostensibly first used in an English cookbook published in 1390. Others contending it is a derivative of the Tamil word, ‘Kari’ (கறி), referring to a dish cooked with vegetables, meat and spices.

The “curry-flavoured” powder that members of the British colonial administration took home from India became popular in 18th century England. Hannah Glasse published the first curry recipe in English in 1747 in The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. Her interpretation was more of a “gentle, aromatic stew” than a fiery vindaloo, but it featured curry powder as a key ingredient. In 1810, Sake Dean Mahomet opened Britain’s first curry house, the “Hindustan Coffee House”: it was a massive failure, but in the years that followed curry as an English dish re-emerged in restaurants across the United Kingdom. Curry gradually became an accepted part of every British pub menu, perhaps offering balance to an otherwise lackluster English diet.

Anglicized interpretations of Indian cuisines were subsequently taken to Imperial Japan via the Anglo-Indian officers of the Royal Navy and other stalwarts of the British Empire. They were among the first British subjects the Japanese came into contact with, after Commodore Matthew Perry landed his “Black Ships” at Kurihama in 1853. By the late 19th century, the Japanese navy had adapted the British version of curry, just as the English had earlier Anglicized Indian curry.

In 1872, the first karē raisu recipe was published in a Japanese cookbook, and in 1877 a Tokyo restaurant first offered karē raisu on the menu. Just as it had done in England, curry rapidly became a staple of the Japanese diet. Today, Friday nights on-board the vessels of the Japanese navy are still curry nights. A website of the Japanese Self-Defence Force’s “Family Page” lists its most popular curry dishes with recipes for the public to try. These mouth-watering recipes come with step-by-step cooking instructions and pictures of over fifty different curries popular on Japanese military bases.

In 1968, inspired by the Swedish army’s “pouched sausages,” Otsuka Foods Co. launched vacuum-sealed boil-in-a-bag curry. The convenience of these ready-to-eat treats appealed to thrifty students and overworked salarymen. Within a few years Otsuka Foods’ annual sales topped 100 million packets.

In the 1960s, when the Japanese government pressured Koreans, Taiwanese, and Chinese – former subjects of the Japanese Empire to self-deport, curry also followed tens of thousands of repatriating Koreans to North Korea. Family who stayed behind in Japan sent tightly packed parcels crammed full of ready-made karē raisu to loved ones in North Korea.

The North Korean government prohibited repatriates from ever returning to Japan. Immigrants from Japan struggled to survive the often-harsh conditions of North Korea. Access to imported karē raisu and other imported food products became a matter of life and death. They used karē raisu as a currency, trading it for local products – kimchee, rice, and meat – and strategically gifting it to cadre of the Korean Workers’ Party. The more industrious, daring individuals opened black market curry and noodle stalls operating out of their apartments.

Over dinner, my friend Hye-rim Ko, recently escaped from North Korea, explained that during this time, “We native North Koreans tried to mimic immigrants from Japan. We wanted to dress like them and eat the food they had. We were curious. What they ate was better than our food.” “Native” North Koreans, like Hye-rim, had to rely on immigrants from Japan for a regular fix of curry.

In between mouthfuls of fried pork wrapped in perilla leaves, another friend, Sazuka Tanaka, who migrated to North Korea in 1960 told me, “I managed a small restaurant in a northern city of North Korea. We served karē raisu and other dishes from Japan. It was a hugely popular place to eat for North Koreans and I became quite famous for my curry.”

The tastes and smells of curry reminded immigrants from Japan of the home they’d left behind. More importantly, such dishes were a lifeline during the famine that gripped North Korea in the 1990s.

In 2002 Kim Jong-Il admitted that North Korea had kidnapped Japanese citizens. The Japanese government reacted by imposing trade sanctions on the DPRK. These sanctions choked off the supply of curry to North Korea. Consequently, North Koreans living near the Sino-Korean border were forced to import a Chinese version of karē raisu. North Korean defectors I worked with assured me that “fake” karē raisu wasn’t a patch on the real thing. They claimed that it “lacked flavor” and was “made with inferior ingredients.”

Curry is a chameleon of a dish and a well traveled one at that. From India to Pyongyang, to Tokyo, and the NASA space program; in each place it’s traveled to people have adapted and blended it to local tastes, making it one of the world’s most loved cuisines. Perhaps this is why many of my friends and I feel such affection for it: curry, like us, shifts and evolves through its travels, the cultures it passes through, and the people who love and adopt it.

Markus Bell is a Ph.D. candidate at the Australian National University’s anthropology department, researching on North Korean society and North Korean migration. From September 2016 he will take up a lectureship in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell 

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Chefs as activists–Daniel Giusti takes on America’s school lunches

Greg de St. Maurice
Ryukoku University

Chefs today wield a great deal of influence. They are (or are expected to be) simultaneously artisans, entrepreneurs, activists, and celebrities. In December the Washington Post published an article titled “A top chef from a world-famous restaurant wants to fix America’s school lunches.” The phrasing of the headline itself begs numerous questions: are Daniel Giusti’s actions worth following because of his celebrity? Is a chef better equipped to improve school lunches than someone in another profession, say an administrator, an economist, or an anthropologist? Such questions need to be asked. But it is, as the Washington Post article notes, worth observing that Giusti left his job at Noma, one of the world’s most influential restaurants and one with a very elite clientele, for another position meant to catalyze change in the food system. Giusti says, in an interview for Lucky Peach: “Well, if I’m going to feed people, I want to feed a lot of people and I want to wake up every day thinking that what I’m doing is affecting a lot of people’s lives in a positive way.”

Chefs today understand that their actions have consequences, whether sourcing or kitchen atmosphere or neighborhood economic impact, and they seek to influence society and guide change. Noma, incidentally, is closing so that it can be reconfigured as a restaurant organized around an urban farm. Sustainability, seasonality, and “local” are keywords. But chefs’ activism is evident not only through the choices they make in fulfilling their responsibilities as chefs, or in their “private” lives as individuals, but interestingly also in the networks they form with colleagues to pursue common goals. Chef Giusti, for instance, belongs to the Chef Action Network, which is engaged at the local level around school lunches and at the national level when it comes to legislation regarding food and nutrition. And, as he explains in his interview with Lucky Peach, he has received emails from people from a wide variety of backgrounds interested in participating in his project—some of them pro bono. Celebrity’s power to mobilize may very well help Giusti be successful where others have not.

We can be both critical and supportive of chefs’ activism. Chefs can be charismatic leaders who effect change. They should not be seen as heroes whose actions negate the need for other kinds of activism. Chefs do not operate in frictionless environments—they must engage with consumer trends, media narratives, government regulations, investors eager for profits, and so forth. Even when a restaurant such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns or Noma seems to epitomize some of the kinds of changes grassroots activists seek, there is always the question of reach: who benefits from such restaurants? Who is left out? Chefs, expected to be productive along many different dimensions simultaneously, may only accomplish so much. Their power is limited and we should not neglect to also support less charismatic actors working to improve our food systems.

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