Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CULTURE : Food Fever!


            Christians say grace before they eat, Muslims say Bismillah before they eat, Japanese say “itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”) before they eat, and me? I whip out a camera and take a picture of the food before I eat.

            I don’t know what it is about food: Asian girls like me automatically jump to press the shutter release on our cameras whenever we are eating out. Every weekend my Facebook newsfeed is flooded by pictures of food cooked by my friends, ordered out or even passed by in a display. Some of these pictures only feature the dish, others have my friends holding their food and making peace signs. It must be a little embarrassing to ask the person sitting on the other side of the table “hey could you take a picture of me and my potato?”. Trust me, I’ve asked hundreds of times-- I still feel embarrassed. Sometimes I even ask my starving friends to wait until I take a perfect picture of their food; admittedly, this is not the wisest thing I’ve ever done... As much as I enjoy taking pictures, I still couldn’t help but ask myself: why do I want a picture of food?

           Food presentation plays a significant role in many culinary cultures. Back in the imperial times in China, royal kitchens focused mostly on the color (appearance) and aroma of the dish. This became a tradition that has passed down for generations in Chinese cuisine, from hot and spicy Szechuan food to sweet and sour Cantonese food. Even the most commonly known Kung Pao Chicken follows this tradition. Every ingredients in this dish must be diced into little cubes around the same size, then you cover the chewy chicken in light brown sauce, fresh green onions and flamboyant red chili pepper, all in the same shape, finally scattering this all on the plate like a colorful cubism painting. The dish is often garnished by roasted peanuts, adding a nutty aroma and crunchy texture to the dish. And, with that, there you have it: appearance, aroma and taste! All assembled in a simple dish of Kung Pao Chicken.

            The same amount of attention is paid to food presentation in other Asian countries. In Japan, where people firmly believe that when you are dining, you eat with your eyes first. The visual presentation of a dish is believed to call for balance and harmony.  Sushi, always lined up in a straight line, is often served on a long strand of bamboo, leaf on top of a wooden platform. The combination of neatly cut raw fish, fresh leaf and wood creates a picture of naturalism and primitive beauty. Sashimi is also carefully arranged on top of Daikon strings, which are sliced so thin that they look like a puff of cloud floating on the plate, carrying maroon, pink, silver and white sashimi. 

                In Thai food, garnishes like basil and tropical flowers are not enough; crafty chefs carve fruits and vegetables into flowers with paring knives and ice water, a tradition developed by imperial kitchens to please the King of Siam. When food goes beyond the category of just filling your stomach, it becomes a special visual experience like a piece of art. And, Asian girls tend to be more sensitive to the appearance of food, probably because they have been brought up in a culture that traditionally pays special attention to aesthetic details.

             As for me, I love taking pictures of food that I have never encountered before. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, my friends and I went to try Ethiopian food for the first time. I entered the restaurant with an empty stomach and a fully charged camera. Now when I go over the pictures I took, the excitement of sharing a huge pan of food (it was humongous) with my friends, the embarrassment of making a total mess on the table (since you are eating with your hands), and the satisfaction of finishing at least seven kinds of beans for one meal all came back to me as if it was just happened yesterday. What can I say: it's the little things that count! Bonne appetite-- I hope I've made you hungry! I know I am... !


The Woman Behind the Cultural Perspectives Section:
Asheley Gao is an extremely creative young woman, currently attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, a long way away from her home country of China. She is double majoring in Political Economy and History of Art. Her interest in life and exuberance is evident, not only in her work as an artist and academic, but also a friend and co-worker.

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