Will Payne reviews Robert Ji-Song Ku’s “Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA,” a book that illuminates the many cultural and political hazards inherent in Asian-American cuisine.
In a work of occasionally dizzying breadth, Robert Ji-Song Ku deftly combines literature in food studies, ethnic studies, and critical race theory, using a series of controversial foods associated with East Asian immigrants in the United States to illuminate the many cultural and political hazards inherent in Asian-American cuisine. In doing so, Dubious Gastronomy also critiques the powerful “cult of gastronomic authenticity” that plagues contemporary Western food cultures (38). Ku draws on theorists Arjun Appadurai, Toni Morrison, and Edward Said to examine the role of non-white people and objects as a “constitutive outside” that define whiteness through negation and the myth of the “demise of the authentic Orient,” perpetually refigured as a foil both to Occidental foodways and to the more worldly cuisines assembled by longstanding diasporic Asian communities (2).
Popular discourse about East Asian cultures in the United States is riddled with clichés about transposing the past and the future, the profane and the sacred. While postdating Ku’s book, the 2017 episode of the Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table profiling Korean Buddhist nun Jeong Kwan exemplifies these tropes. Kwan’s “discovery” by French-American celebrity chef Éric Ripert led to a cascade of media accounts regarding her “timeless” temple cuisine, produced outside of the star system of Euro-American elite culinary culture, but now another raw material to be digested by the Michelin machine. Ku complicates this notion of foreignness when it comes to Asian-American food, which he classifies instead as “alien,” drawing on Robert G. Lee’s definition in Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999), that it refers to people and things deemed out of place, not temporary outsiders like tourists, but problematic exceptions at home, perpetual immigrants, and cultural interlopers.
In Dubious Gastronomy’s six body chapters, Ku tells a series of unexpected stories behind common Asian-American foods, choosing foods associated with Asian cultures that have been regarded as somehow dubious, inauthentic, or repulsive: California roll, Chinese take-out, kimchi, dog meat, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and SPAM. Many of the foundational subjects in the food studies literature appear in these accounts, especially the roles played by migration, colonialism, and war, as evidenced both by the “empire of flavor” of MSG usage that Ku describes in Japanese-occupied territory before 1945 and the anti-Japanese sentiment made manifest in a popular Korean kimchi brand’s logo: the Dokdo/Takeshima islands contested by the two nations. Industrial food processing and globalized trade, combined with the U.S. occupation of Japan and South Korea, set the stage for the pan-Pacific popularity of SPAM, whether fried atop eggs or sushi rice in seaweed-wrapped musubi form. Ku cheekily points out that this much-mocked “mystery meat” has only six ingredients: pork, salt, water, sugar, potato starch, and sodium nitrite. In a similarly contrarian move, he builds up the widely held myth of the California roll as a chop suey-like American facsimile of “real” sushi only to break it down: the combination of imitation crab and avocado was apparently a response to shortages of sushi-grade tuna in a 1960s Los Angeles sushi bar run primarily by and for Japanese expatriates, not a trick played on gullible Westerners. Ku also draws on his own experiences to write movingly of the role of food in diasporic Asian communities in North America, both the hybrid or transposed dishes prepared in migrants’ new homes as well as the memories they bring of their previous ways of life. In one particularly fascinating section, Ku reads the common discourse around eating dog meat by older Korean-Americans as serving to “prove” one’s masculinity and authentic ties to the homeland, in part because of the strong taboo against it in their adopted home.
In a particularly incisive critique with contemporary political implications, Ku calls the “culture of complaint” that characterizes Chinese food in the United States a “gastronomic reification” of the pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment that began in the California Gold Rush and continues to the present day, expressed in everything from scientifically unsupported reactions to MSG (so-called “Chinese restaurant syndrome”) to rants about bad service and a lingering fear of being taken advantage of, whether by being served ersatz foods or being overcharged compared to Chinese-speaking customers (57). Rants about bad service and food sickness may be a cross-class phenomenon, but Ku points to the role of elite tastemakers like anthropologist E.N. Anderson, author of The Food of China (1988), and restaurant guide entrepreneurs Tim and Nina Zagat, who have lamented the inauthenticity and poor quality of Chinese-American food, largely ignoring established outposts of Chinese regional cuisine in places like New York City’s Flushing neighborhood and the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. Nevertheless, while Ku asks how long it will be “before Chinese food in the United States [is] appraised on [its] own terms and merits,” his own account misses the chance to engage with more promising recent developments (77). Ku mentions Momofuku chef David Chang for his unrepentant use of MSG-laden Kewpie mayonnaise but not for his role in the (now-defunct) celebrated food magazine Lucky Peach or his rise among a wave of chefs cooking unabashedly Asian-American food. These include Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco and New York (famous for their kung pao pastrami), Roy Choi’s Kogi “Korean taco truck” in Los Angeles, and the Li siblings’ Boston restaurant Mei Mei (known for its “Double Awesome” scallion pancake breakfast sandwich stuffed with pesto and cheddar). The future of Asian-American food looks far less “dubious” than its relatively recent past.
Dubious Gastronomy is a pleasure to read and a useful introduction to the broader interdisciplinary community of food studies scholars. Instructors in undergraduate or graduate courses in food studies, American studies, or ethnic studies will find this volume indispensable, either in monograph form or split into chapters, each of which can usefully stand on its own or be paired with the introduction’s theoretical framing. Given the wide-ranging geographical and culinary ambit of the book, the included glossary is also particularly helpful in navigating the lexicon of myriad Asian-derived cuisines from Filipino adobo stew to Korean yukgaejang soup.
Will Payne is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also a member of the Berkeley Center for New Media and a UC Global Food Initiative Fellow. He is currently researching the parallel evolution of elite urban consumption cultures and location-based services, both digital applications like Yelp, Foursquare, and Google Local as well as their analogue predecessors like the Zagat Survey. He is interested in the role these technologies and practices have played in the transformation of urban neighborhoods and housing markets since the 1980s, in a process he refers to as “gourmet gentrification,” with a focus on New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @willbpayne on Twitter.