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Alimentary Asians: Bringing Asian American Studies to Bear on Food Studies

Erica Maria Cheung makes the case for "Eating Asian America" (2013), an anthology edited by Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan, and Anita Mannur.

Published onDec 11, 2018
Alimentary Asians: Bringing Asian American Studies to Bear on Food Studies

Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan, and Anita Mannur, Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader (New York: NYU Press, 2013).

Contemporary food studies scholarship increasingly turns to cultural politics to discuss race, gender, sexuality, and class in analyses of the production and consumption of food. The past two decades have seen an emergence of scholarship from fields that interrogate the colonial origins and hegemonic whiteness of food studies. Eating Asian America: A Food Studies Reader is an anthology of essays within Asian American Studies that argue that Asian Americans have been fundamental to the development of food systems in the United States. As such, the featured scholars contend that food has and continues to play a significant role in the political, cultural, and economic construction of Asian America. Eating Asian America is a valuable addition to the food studies canon because it widens the field to include Asian American food history and systems, which have been relatively underrepresented in food studies scholarship. In addition, Eating Asian America presents intersectional and interdisciplinary approaches to thinking food in order to argue that food studies must be in conversation with American ethnic studies as well as gender and sexuality studies in order to fully understand the political, economic, and cultural systems that allow for the production and consumption of food in society.

While there have been several important food studies texts that focus on Asian foods and food practices, Eating Asian America is the first collection of essays that bridges area studies, food studies, cultural studies, and gender and sexuality studies to think about the creation of Asian American food and food practices. In doing so, the scholars in this book position Asian American foodways as diasporic, transnational, and historical, embedded in the same social, political, and economic forces that have “circumscribed Asians materially and symbolically in the alimentary realm” through processes of immigration, discriminatory labor practices, and the gendered production of food work in the United States (1). Eating Asian America also presents scholarship on the heterogeneous histories and experiences of differently racialized and gendered Asian Americans as they relate to food production and consumption. This inclusive approach stands in contrast to the continued dominance of work on Chinese and Chinese American food history within food studies and within Asian American Studies. Eating Asian America presents work that recovers the histories of early Filipinx and Japanese American farm workers (Nina F. Ichikawa), the influence of Cambodian-owned donut shops on the creation of a Los Angeleno identity (Erin Curtis), and the role that Hawaiian regional cuisine played in the development of a postcolonial Hawai‘i (Samuel Hideo Yamashita), to name a few. By paying attention to the varied ways in which Asian Americans have been related to and interpolated by food, Eating Asian America does not fall into the trap of superficial multiculturalism that would celebrate Asian American foodways as a symbol of America’s “melting pot,” “salad bowl,” or any other culinary metaphor standing in for political reconciliation through diversity. Instead, it focuses on how alimentary tropes, such as authenticity and fusion, are products of historical, political, and economic forces through which food has become imbued with the power to be synonymous with identity. As such, Eating Asian America is a significant text that explores the limits and possibilities of food studies while celebrating its multidisciplinarity and amplifying its importance to Asian American Studies.


Erica Maria Cheung is a PhD candidate in the program of Culture & Theory at the University of California, Irvine. Her dissertation argues for an understanding of “umami” as a form of Asian/American soft power and asks how the increased influence of Asian and Asian American food and taste have affected food media, urban spaces, food work, and political resistance in the United States. As such, her research is located at the nexus of ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, media studies, and food studies.

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