Who Owns a Dish?: One View on Asian Culinary Traditions

  • Kaya Toast (photo: flickr/arnold | inuyaki)
  • Chili Crab (photo: flickr/maywong_photos)
  • Nasi Lemak (photo: flickr/jasonlam)

On the Wall Street Journal‘s “Scene Asia,” Robin Eckhardt wonders why Asian countries can’t simply get along with one another when it comes to debates about the provenance of food traditions. She asks, “When a street food (or other dish) is prepared by different cooks in different ways in different places, can any one country truly claim ownership? After all, culinary heritage is rarely cut and dried.”

In part due to the quick-fire format of the post, Eckhardt glosses a little too easily over the political and cultural histories of the Asian countries she brings up. One such example is her mention of how China supposedly accused Taiwan of beef noodle theft. Regardless of which side one stands on with regards to Cross-Strait relations, there is general acceptance that modern beef noodles were created by Sichuan Kuomintang soldiers who settled on the island post-1949. (Since then, the dish has been modified and adapted many times over in Taiwan.) There is even a Baidu (China’s Wikipedia) entry on 台式牛肉面, or Taiwanese-style beef noodles, acknowledging its culinary roots. If there have been claims of theft, it would have reflected larger discussion(s) on political identity still at play.

Nevertheless, her criticism of drawing neat lines among a mélange of overlapping traditions is worth considering alongside ongoing discussions on identity and food. And there have been quite a few of those, from Francis Lam and Eddie Huang’s he-said/he-said Gilt Taste convo on chefs cooking cuisines divorced from their own cultural heritage, to Sarah Martin recent essay about the importance of terroir on Vice.

[via The Wall Street Journal]

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