Education About Asia: Online Archives

Understanding Contemporary Asia through Food

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While once-exotic Asian foods have become a familiar part of American life, the study of Asian food continues to be a sharp lens, giving focus to the broad sweep of history and the complex patterns of contemporary Asian societies. The eating habits and culinary practices (foodways) of Asian societies are both local and global, revealing the historical impact of past events and the everyday tensions of contemporary Asian societies. Humans often use food to distinguish their own group from others. (note 1) The following essay is an overview of “big-picture” issues in Asian food that are of immediate interest to students and teachers at all levels. Are we really “what we eat?” Asian interactions with food can be understood by examining how food establishes cultural identity, the social ramifications of food production, and how food and globalization intersect. (note 2) This essay and accompanying resources will assist readers in gaining new perspectives about the roles of food in Asians’ lives. (note 3)



1. For a good collection of general food studies, see Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, eds., Food and Culture: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 2008); and James L. Watson and Melissa Caldwell, eds., The Cultural Politics of Eating (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005). These readers provide an interdisciplinary set of foundational readings that span the wide variety of topics in the study of food.

2. Over the course of ten years, I have taught a food and culture class in a number of different formats: as a lecture course, upper-level seminar, and as a community-based learning class. See for past syllabi and other teaching material.

3. I have also tried to select articles instead of books or chapters within books that are of a more manageable scale for students at all levels; for example, James L. Watson, “China’s Big Mac Attack,” Foreign Affairs 79 no. 3 (2000): 123–134 brings out many of the same issues from his more detailed book Golden Arches East: McDonalds in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

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