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In this article, Nir Avieli from the National University of Singapore discusses how traditional and ethnic food are tied to ethnic identity. The author provides deep insight on Chinese and Vietnamese festivals and the ethnic context of dishes served at the feasts. He also points out the greater influence of Chinese culture and the causes of it.
Nir describes a certain community festival Le Hoi that takes place in Vietnamese port Hoi An. Five different Chinese communities that reside at that port gather to reunite, worship their ancestors, tell myths about their place of origin and creation as a social group. A notable part of such a festival is a major feast. It is not an ordinary feast because the amount of resources, efforts, and time put in it is rather big. Anthropologists and various researchers usually dismiss festive food and do not take it seriously. However, Nir tries to analyze the ethnic context of dishes and tries to discover the meanings defined by those who make ethnic food. (Avieli 282)
It took a lot of work for Nir to observe the influence of ethnic food on identity: he learned a certain Vietnamese dialect, spent time with locals and collected ethnographic data by taking notes and photos. Certain scientists during the last decade grew an interest in food-identity connection. They pointed out, however, that such connection is rather complex. Notably, ethnic and regional food often appear to be imagined. Nir explains that with the example of Indian curry. Despite it being a marker of Indian identity, the truth is that curry powder is nowhere to be found in Indian stores. Instead, Indians use different mixtures of spices called masalas. Therefore, Narayan, who made this analysis of Indian curry, notes that identifying a certain dish with a certain ethnicity could be misleading sometimes. Culinary customs of immigrants have an even stronger connection between food, place and identity. During the post-World War II era, several social scientists discovered that the persisting ethnic foodways of immigrants are an indication of an extremely conservative cultural form. Although the preparations for making ethnic food could be simplified by certain generations, the core idea is that eating habits and ethnic ways of cooking will be maintained as long as possible.
The author also shares with readers his impressions of visiting the Phuoc Kien community festival. He describes the local temple where the festival takes place, its decorations, and, of course, all the food that was being prepared for hundreds of people crowded into the temple. One interesting moment, however, was when the chef handled Nir a menu. He asked the chef whether any of the dishes were from Fukien, and the chef replied that only one dish was from Fukien, the rest were Chinese. Logically, in an event celebrating Fukienese origins, one would expect the dishes from Phuoc Kien to be served. After so many years of residence between ethnic Vietnamese, it is natural to expect the influence of Vietnamese foodways. Still, it turns out that the cultural horizons at that festival were different. Despite being of Cantonese ancestry, the chef mostly served Chinese dishes at his restaurant. Some dishes were not Chinese, but, eventually, it was a clear indication that ethnic and regional identities suggested by the food could be labeled as Chinese.
Phuoc Kien was not the only festival that opted for the Chinese menu. During the Hai Nam feast, the author also discovered from a member of Hai Nai that the food there was mostly Chinese. This implies that those festive menus were Southern-Chinese oriented, with a small Vietnamese influence. Such special orientation could be also noted during conversations. Casual conversations during the festivals were spoken in Vietnamese, but formal speeches were made in Mandarin.
After making these observations, one could ask himself why such things happen. Nir explains that the reason for this is that barely anyone considers the cultural meaning of food. Cooking and eating cannot be monitored or censored; therefore, cultural inclinations similar to Chinese-Vietnamese will tend to appear in areas that are regarded in society as non-important.
Avieli, Nir. “Roasted Pigs and Bao Dumplings: Festive Food and Imagined Transnational Identity in Chinese–Vietnamese Festivals.” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 46.3 (2005): 281-293. Print.