Its not even been a week since the official end of MO3351 (and the end of my third year), and I’m already bored. Between trying to find a job, keeping up my Duolingo streak (trying to stay in the top 10 of the Diamond League is really hard), and doing the occasional spot of exercise, I’ve spent most of my time thinking of ways to occupy the next three – or more – months. I’ve whittled down my options to berry-picking, getting a drivers’ license, and researching for my dissertation. But – and please don’t tell my supervisor – I’ve also been leaning towards the idea of starting yet another research project in transnational history.

Specifically, I’m thinking about researching on food.

My 素菜包 sou choi bao, which are vegetarian steamed vegetable buns.

The idea came to me the other day when I was making 素菜包 sou choi bao, steamed vegetable buns. As a homesick student that really likes to cook, I had challenged myself to recreate dim sum in my home in St Andrews. However, I was faced with a problem – I had to make a few substitutions in my ingredients. St Andrews doesn’t have an Asian grocer, and the nearest one is in Dundee. Going to Dundee is completely unfeasible at the moment; I couldn’t justifying it as an essential trip when I’m five minutes from Tesco and Sainsbury’s. So I made do, swapping out bok choy for blanched kale and peas. The dried shiitake mushrooms and wood ears were traded for fresh chestnut mushrooms, sautéed until crisp with soy sauce for an extra boost of umami. The whole affair was then mixed together with half an inch of grated ginger, a dash of sesame oil, and a bit of sugar and salt to taste. As for the bun itself, that was fairly straightforward. Flour, water, yeast, salt, and cornstarch are all readily accessible in the UK. The only unconventional thing I added in was pandan extract, which I brought back with me from Hong Kong, to make the tops green.

The end result was delicious; I think I ate three in one sitting. However, as I was eating, I started thinking about whether or not these buns could count as ‘Chinese food’ and, tangentially, what makes Chinese food ‘Chinese’. With the addition of kale, peas, and chestnut mushrooms, all of which are relegated to the ‘Western food’ section of Hong Kong supermarkets, the core ingredients that made up most of the bun were hardly Asian. The bun, too, wasn’t Asian a priori. There is nothing distinctly Asian about the combination of flour and water, with most cultures having claim to some form of bread in their diets. Yet despite these things making the bun inauthentic as Chinese food, it still felt like I had made Chinese food.

But, if that was the case, what made the buns ‘Chinese’? The most Chinese things I included were probably the ginger, sesame oil, and soy sauce (pandan is Southeast Asian). However, I felt that it was insufficient to call the bun ‘Chinese’ because of their presence; it wasn’t as if I went ‘ah yes, the flavours of ginger, sesame oil, and soy sauce are the only things that make this bun Chinese dim sum’. Instead, as silly as it probably sounds, it felt like the bun itself carried an essence of Chinese culture with it in the way it was prepared. Put simply, the preparation of food is bound up in national containers and cultures – even if the ingredients we use to make it aren’t necessarily ‘traditional’ to that culture in question. Food thus contributes to how we define and divide up the world.

In turn, this strong association we have between our food and our various geo-containers has some bearing on the way we understand migrants. After researching on Chinese migrants in Cuba this semester, I learned that food played an important role in signifying their status as insiders and outsiders. In the Apunte Histórico, Antonio Chuffat-Latour writes that the Chinese that helped rebel militias hide from the Spanish cooked them a meal of ‘arroz con pollo, plátano y boniato’, chicken rice, plantains, and sweet potatoes – classic Cuban food. [1] Chuffat-Latour used this meal to demonstrate that the Chinese had a place within the emergent Cuban nation, and that they were just as worthy of being called Cubans as much as your average, native-born José. In reality, of course, he had to make such assertions because the Chinese were subject to both anti-immigration laws, and Sinophobia, in the new Cuban nation. [2] Eventually, some of these Chinese-Cubans would go on to open their own Chinese-Cuban restaurants that would serve Cuban and Chinese food as ‘distinct but co-existing’ sets of dishes from which customers can mix and match, according to Lok Chun Debra Siu. [3] For instance, in La Caridad 78, a Chinese-Cuban restaurant in New York, you can order a ‘combo fried rice, plantain, and salad’ all on one plate. [4] This demonstrates that the Chinese-Cubans are bicultural, simultaneously insider yet also outsider.

In wake of this biculturality, it would be tempting to characterise the Chinese-Cubans, vis-a-vis their cuisine, as actors that hybridise and fuse together two cultures. However, Siu’s assertion that Chinese-Cuban food is ‘distinct but co-existing’ is an important one that demonstrates that there is more going on here beyond hybridisation. ‘Hybridisation’ is frequently used to refer to the mixing of cultures. [5] This is typified in our conception of fusion cuisine: the combining of ingredients, cooking techniques, or culinary knowledge from one cuisine into another. [6] One example of this fusion cuisine is seen in addition of baked goods into Cantonese dim sum, which brought together the British tradition of baking together with established ingredients and dishes in Hong Kong’s food culture.

This is a 菠蘿叉燒包 bolo charsiu bao, literally pineapple barbecued pork bun, that bakes char siu, Cantonese barbecued pork, in a brioche-type bun topped with a cookie crust. There’s no pineapple in it; ‘pineapple’ is only used to refer to the craggly-looking cookie.

Siu’s ‘distinct but co-existing’ seems to suggest that Chinese-Cubans do not necessarily hybridise and fuse cuisines with Cuba. If La Caridad wanted to produce a Chinese-Cuban fusion cuisine, they could have put plátanos inside the fried rice. Instead, they made the conscious decision to serve them to the side, separate from the fried rice but nonetheless part of the plate overall. To characterise this as hybridisation, therefore, is to ignore the conscious distinction made between the Chinese and Cuban cuisines. We also end up ignoring the agency and creativity of the Chinese-Cubans in their cultural production and reproduction of both Chinese and Cuban cultures. [7]

If food is bound up in national containers, and if food can be used to demarcate difference and coexistence, not just hybridity, then this means that food can be used to study how migrant cultures see and relate themselves to their home and host cultures. This opens the door to further research into the transnational history of food, and specifically its use as a door into the mindset of the migrant cook. These are some pretty interesting implications, and I’m still thinking of questions and ways to make this relevant to my own research within Global Intellectual History. However, I hope that this blog post may help transnational historians think about taking unconventional (for academic History) and everyday subjects, like baos, as food for thought in the future.

Citations:

[1] Antonio Chuffat-Latour, Apunte Histórico (1927), p. 102

[2] Kathleen López, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (2013), pp. 136, 219

[3] Lok Chun Debra Siu, ‘In Search of Chino Latinos in Diaspora : the Cuban Chinese in New York City’ in Andrea O’Reilly Herrera, Cuba: Idea of a Nation Displaced (2007), p. 127

[4] Great Big Story, ‘The Last Cuban-Chinese Restaurant in NYC’, YouTube, 22 February 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOckvBaOcLM> [Accessed: 03 February 2020]

[5] Tan Chee-Beng, ‘Cultural Reproduction, Local Invention and Globalization of Southeast Asian Chinese Food’ in Tan Chee-Beng (ed.), Chinese Food and Foodways in Southeast Asia and Beyond (2012), p. 40

[6] Ibid, pp. 31-32

[7] Ibid, p. 41

Doing transnational history … By cooking?

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