AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 338

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Session 338: Aesthetics and Authenticity in the Production and Consumption of Food and Drink in East Asia

Organizer: Satomi Fukutomi, University of St. Thomas, USA

Discussant: R. Kenji Tierney, State University of New York, New Paltz, USA

Food encircles the world, embedding various locations and cultures with new and meaningful culinary trends. Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant noodles, asserted that “flavor knows no border,” and food easily finds its new homes in other cultures. Food may “educate” new palates, its flavor and consumptive purposes modified to suit local foodways, creating and sustaining local brands. Through travel food often transcends class, gender, or national boundaries and creates aesthetics and authenticity in its production and consumption. In Japan, Chinese-originated ramen developed from a working-class fast food into a “gourmet” consumable and an object of obsession among middle-class consumers. Meanwhile Japanese institutions create and attach national identity to ramen and make it authentic to Japan. Aesthetics and authenticity are further embedded in Japanese sake. Sake labels carry stories of local and national history and valorize ingredients and sake makers. In China, in addition to domestic drinks, coffee has gained popularity among urbanites and entered middle-class foodways as a result of continuously opening national and international franchised coffee shops. This panel explores how foreign and domestic foods and drinks (re)create aesthetics and authenticity within and outside the original culture. How do people choose specific food or drink and integrate it into their foodways and form individual and group identities?

Crafting the Working-Class Taste: Passion and Obsession for Rāmen Consumption in Japan
Satomi Fukutomi, University of St. Thomas, USA

This paper examines the ways in which middle-class consumers and their passion and obsession transform rāmen into a connoisseurial object. In Japan rāmen, everyday food for the masses, was associated with working-class for a long time. But the recent rāmen boom invites middle-class consumers and white-collar businessmen to celebrate the food. I argue that these “new” consumers play the crucial roles that transform the ordinary food into the extraordinary. Among them, aficionados in particular form voluntary associations around the processes of the transformation. The aficionados frequently express their obsession for the food and exchange their ideas about it on the internet. I discuss their fetishism of rāmen by analyzing one of the internet blogs, the Rāmen Club. Its bylaws advocate the importance of eating rāmen and complement chefs. Despite the fact that the aficionado creates and follows the bylaws, he does not impose them to others; he claims that everyone should appreciate rāmen in his/her own ways. In this paper, I pose the question, “What does rāmen consumption mean for aficionados? And, how do they create aesthetic values to transform this everyday food into a connoisseurial object?”

Ramen Rage: Instant noodles in global capitalism and the production, reproduction and transformation of social meanings and taste
Annie Sheng, Columbia University, USA

Instant ramen’s uniqueness lies in its qualities of being so banal, so cheap, light in weight, ubiquitous, preservable, and, for many, tasty, as a commodity. I evoke Sidney Mintz’s Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, to link the activities of capitalism and notions of local taste and preferences. The instant noodle product may be considered ‘tasty’ but how does one define taste and preference? What constitutes taste and are there other meanings that underlie such a preference? I examine how the consumption of instant ramen in different social spaces generates different social meanings: whether identification to a nation, group, culture, or community; reproducing and reinvigorating social relations among family and friends; and by generating meaning through pleasure. I argue that institutions in Japan such as museums and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency produce and reproduce associations of ramen and national identity, through education and promotion of the instant noodle in their displays and campaigns. Yet, given the widespread consumption of the commodity, the act of consumption by disparate people in disparate sites mean more than representing or embodying a national identity, and acts not only as, as some suggest, a force of modernity that destroys traditional family values. I also explore through interviews and newspaper media how consumption of the noodles outside of Japan conjures a community identity and reanimates kinship ties among individuals within the US. Through these encounters, I contest the notion of the food as innately tasty, to understand what these tastes and preferences mean in different social contexts.

Japanese Sake Labels: Tales of valor and aesthetic rapport
Patricia Yarrow, Meiji University, Japan

The aesthetics of the label found on Japanese sake bottles evoke a shared conversation and sense of identity between sake and label maker and the viewing consumer. In this paper I will examine the content and nature of the dialogue specifically established by the non-required additional few sentences inscribed on sake labels (and additional packaging). These vignettes seek to establish a rapport with consumers and lay claim to or renew their authenticity by valorizing the ingredients, sake makers, historical, literary and legendary connections. How does this dialogue contribute to the rituals of consumption? I contest that these vignettes celebrate borders just as heartfelt self-promotion involves reaching out to consumers within Japan. While largely viewed within Japan, a significant percentage is now available to outside markets in a self-proclaimed sake-boom. How will this affect the aesthetic reception, what changes at the border will be made, and what challenges to authenticity does this present?

Individuality for the masses? Coffee consumption and the imagination of the Chinese middle class
Lena Henningsen, University of Freiburg, Germany

Over the past few years, coffee consumption has become increasingly fashionable and popular in urban China. Many young, urban, middle-class professionals have integrated drinking coffee into their daily lives. Increasingly, national and international coffee shop chains cater to their taste. However, as with other drinks, consumption of coffee is a means to give meaning to one’s life and it may serve as a marker of social distinction, especially with a global product like coffee. Therefore, the success of coffee and coffee shops largely rests upon their (potential) consumers’ desires and imaginations. But how are these desires and imaginations created? What are the cultural products that spur these? What meaning is ascribed to coffee consumption in these cultural products? What is the relationship between these cultural products and the relating material product: coffee? To address these questions, I will first present evidence from Chinese lifestyle guidebooks and novels – among them a Taiwanese bestselling novel successful in mainland China – that describe and prescribe how to consume the “foreign” drink. Second, these will be confronted with actual consumer reactions. I will thus demonstrate that – ample resonances of those descriptions and prescriptions notwithstanding – consumers of coffee claim their individuality with acts of consumption and interpretations thereof. Rather than to dismiss these claims for individuality and to state an outright success of commercialism and mainstream products, I argue that the diverse cultural products do in fact allow individuals to bestow meaning to these new mainstream products and to their own ways of life.

Qing Zhen Noodles in Qing Zhen Spaces: Crafting Authentic Food in the Noodle Shops of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region
Stephanie Clarey, University of Chicago, USA

Among Chinese Muslim ethnicities, such as the Hui, "qing zhen" is commonly used as a transliteration of "halal" as applied to foodcraft, consumption, and daily ritual. The qing zhen properties assigned to hand-pulled noodles (and all foods produced by Muslim people) posses special value to conscientious Muslims because they not only adhere to the central dietary restrictions prescribed by the Quran but also are crafted in traditional and authentic ways that aid participants in remembering and maintaining their ethnic identity. In eating hand-pulled noodles, Chinese Muslims are able to use qing zhen foodways to express unique ideologies and self histories. In the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, for example, the commercialization of qing zhen certified goods is encompassing new kinds of non-traditional, factory-made foods that are challenging and even re-creating ideologies of qing zhen, allowing corporate manufacturers more control over the production and marketing of goods sold to Muslim and Hui demographics. The street-side noodle shop, however, is a site of artisinal craft that functions as an arena for reproducing and sharing cultural knowledge and values with Hui and non-Muslims customers. Unlike other types of noodles in China, hand-pulled qing zhen noodles crafted by Hui Muslim noodle makers maintain the noodles’ legitimacy through intimate orientation with the noodle shop itself. Here, product integrity is tangible to the consumer while temporarily inhabiting a space created to reflect ethnic and religious characteristics. In this context, the noodle shop imbues the hand-crafted fare with qing zhen value and authenticity in a way that mass produced qing zhen food products cannot duplicate.