31 October 2008

Where we go, what we eat

Where we go, what we eat
Tonkao Panin
French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Thai.
Hearing these words, some may think of people with different ethnic and cultural identities. Some may think of different countries with picturesque landscapes. Some may even picture cities with distinct architectural qualities. A lot of us simply think of food.
Black truffles, sun-dried tomato, jalapeno, sesame oil, soy sauce, lemon grass, these ingredients once spoke languages particular to places and cultures. Not only did they remind us of the distinct flavors and aromas of the food we have tasted, they also connected us to various sights, sounds and touches of the places they came from. There were times when food was defined by small geographic zones, prescribed by the products and traditions in those areas. But as places and people became connected, either by profitable trades, sympathetic diplomacy or hostile wars, our food has been modified. When we migrated, we always left remarkable culinary traces in places we passed and settled. Today the food we consider local may contain ingredients our grandparents never dreamt of. Changes in our environment also alter our food, particularly climate changes that have affected both our soil and water. Franchised restaurants and cafes, globe-trotting chefs, fusion fares and exotic ingredients that cross continents, all affirm that today food has become more of a global commodity than ever before. So have architecture and place.
In this age of rapid communication network and advanced information technology, we are living in a here-and-now mode. No places seem to be too far away, no information impossible, no goods unattainable. Today a trip to a Cuban or a Greek restaurant means more than actually eating the food. It offers a quick escape or a short break and satisfies us in a manner not so different from surfing the internet searching for exotic places we wish we could go to. But as exotic consumer goods and faraway places became much easier to reach, we begin to turn our interest to something more obscure and something previously unobtainable. Today Chinese, Japanese and Thai have become such household cuisines that we begin to look for something else.
Within the past few years, an odd type of specialist was born. It is the food hunter, who glimpses and tastes the new frontier of global food.1 The food hunter acts like a culinary detective, tracking down exotic and obscure ingredients from Asia, tasting them and putting them in hands of daring chefs. The focus of his job is to concoct the methods and combinations to get odd ingredients into the world’s menus, restaurants and markets. This is how bael fruit syrup and fish-paste from Thailand or wild guava liquor from Vietnam entered the menus of restaurants in the US and Europe. Perhaps these ingredients count not so much for their flavour but more for their rarity and obscurity. Once out of their native contexts, these ingredients became a symbol for exclusivity much like visiting a faraway land so pure in its natural state that only a few are allowed to enter.
As the new class of food connoisseur seeks for the more authentic (perhaps meaning the more obscure), the traveller of the twenty-first century aims for something similar. During the twentieth century, a type of tourism became popular in many countries with the rise of packaged tours to cities for vacations that would entertain and edify. It was the beginnings of urban tourism — a set of tourist resources or activities in towns and cities offered to visitors from ‘elsewhere’. The urban tourist leaves his own locale in search of excitement in other cities. Urban tourism focuses on urban culture and local environments presenting experiences that are absorbed by the visitor to a place that is far beyond their own living environment. But as the twentieth century closed, urban tourism has also been transformed. While some of us take great pleasure in consuming exotic ingredients, others are satisfied by being able to reach places equally uncommon. As Thai and Vietnamese food have lost their novelty, so have their well-known cities and towns. Bangkok, Phuket, Hanoi and Shanghai seem so familiar that they can no longer generate the sense of surprise that twenty-first century tourists want.
Certainly, tourists who seek well-known destinations still exist, but there are some travellers who intentionally neglect those iconic places. They see themselves as cultural travellers, travelling to less known destinations, looking for something seemingly ‘authentic’. They want to see the real, daily lives of local people. Paradoxically this search for authenticity that drives cultural travellers to the so-called non-tourist destinations has caused changes more dramatic than urban tourism did to major cities during the twentieth century. Tokyo, Beijing or Bangkok have been major tourist destinations for decades, slowly becoming accustomed to visitors. But today the once unheard-of Hoi-an in Vietnam, Lijiang in China, Mae-Hong-Son in Thailand have abruptly been outfitted for curious cultural tourists. Every place, as a tourist destination, can be considered as an image integrated by cultural attributes that travellers shape from their perceptions and their symbolic interpretation of this global image. However, tourist destinations can convey images that are artificially created by marketting strategies. As the towns turn their attention towards travellers, ways of life long vanished have been resurrected, scenes that no longer exist have been recreated. Thus emerges a contrast between the created image and the perceived reality. Today many cities have accepted that the fabrication of cultures is a part of urban reality in the twenty-first century.
As our food culture has dramatically been transformed, our travelling culture as well as its relationship with everyday life has also changed. Certainly there is nothing wrong with using Thai bael fruit syrup or Vietnamese guava liquor in any dish, as long as they complement the cuisine. However, exotic ingredients from faraway also fulfil our anxiety and curiosity for global information. They demonstrate our imaginary ability to go everywhere, to know and to be able to obtain everything. But when this quest for the exotics extends its boundary from culinary and consumer goods to real places, how shall we prevent lives and cultures from becoming merely a product or ingredient shaped and reshaped according to the needs of the visitors. Perhaps time will tell us how we, in the twenty-first century, will be able offer cultural solutions for the riddle we have created from our cultural demands.

1 John Krich, ‘The Food Hunter’. Time, vol 169, no. 24-25, 2007.

Panin, Tonkao. 'Where We Go, What We Eat' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Tonkao Panin and On Site review

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