Nostalgia and Regional Chinese Cuisine
Food has this inexplicable power of bringing people together. Perhaps this effect is why people experience nostalgia for their national foods. For example, one of my favorite foods of all time is pho. Pho is a noodle dish that originates from Vietnam and is eaten at all parts of the day. For example, when I was in Vietnam, it wouldn’t be unusual to wake up and have a bowl of pho before tackling the day. Because of this morning ritual, every time I eat a good bowl of pho, I think of home. Something that is often overlooked is that not everyone from a specific country will experience nostalgia through food in the same way. That is because different regions of different countries have different techniques and serve different styles of food. Such as how barbeque is different in different parts of the United States because of the different techniques and wood used when smoking the meat. Nostalgia exists in two forms, reflective and restorative, and have certain conditions that need to be met in order to evoke nostalgia. As a result of nostalgia, immigrants seek foods that they are familiar with and associate with comfort. Each region of China is known for their distinct flavors, styles and ingredients that differ greatly from each other. As such, immigrants of China are nostalgic for different Chinese foods depending on where they are from.
The most notable thing that separates cuisine is the geographical regions (Xiao and Zhu et al.). This is most likely the result of the availability of food in the distinct regions of China. Similar to how coastal cities are bound to have more restaurants serving seafood compared to inland where the emphasis will most likely be on livestock or agriculture. Chen from Yangzhou University and Huang from Plymouth University stated that, “the development of a variety of cooking forms and styles… were gradually shaped into ‘Eight Major Schools of Cuisine’” (Chen et. al., 2017). Sichuan is a region in China that is world renowned for their spiciness, and is simultaneously the home of one of the aforementioned “Schools of Cuisine.” Sichuan peppercorn is the most famous ingredient from this region. Some examples of Sichuan foods include dan dan noodles, ma po dou fu, and squirrel fish to name a few (Off the Great Wall). However, the trait that unifies all of these unique dishes is that all of them are known for being spicy. Because of the unique, mouth-numbing effect of Sichuan style cuisine, people from this region of China are nostalgic for food from this region in particular because the spice in the food is unique to this region alone.
Another unique region of Chinese food is the Hunan region. The Hunan region and Sichuan region are both known for their spiciness. However, they are different because Hunan and Sichuan have different kinds of spicy. Sichuan style cuisine is known for being the type of spice that makes your mouth go numb as opposed to Hunan style cuisine which is known for their bold spices along with their bold flavors. This is because that is the nature of the spices used. Sichuan peppercorns are known for being mouth-numbingly spicy while Hunan will focus on getting their heat from chili peppers. An example of Hunan style food would be spicy steamed fish with tofu and minced chilis (YuCanCook). From personal experience, I would say the inclusion of chilis is almost a requirement at this point, because it is a common ingredient in Hunan style dishes. As Nancy from the YouTube channel YuCanCook, stated, “[Hunan spicy steamed fish with tofu and minced chilis] has the sour and spicy flavors… of Hunan cuisine.” This dish hits especially close to home for me because this is a food that my mother would often make for me. Although I identify as Vietnamese, my mom knows many Chinese recipes because she is half Chinese, so these traditional dishes are a staple in my home. I particularly resonate with this region of China because of how I remember I would walk outside into my grandmother’s garden and pick chili peppers that we would eat for the next few days. My neighbors, who were immigrants from this region of China, would often come and ask for the peppers that we grew in our garden because it would give them a taste of home.
Another region of China with its own distinct style is Shandong cuisine. Shandong is known for its seafood. Some notable street foods from the Shandong region are prawns, crab, fish balls, and even oysters (Friendly Shandong). Something to be noted is that a lot of the street food listed was seafood, a staple in Shandong cuisine. For context, in Asia, walking around the streets looking for a stall with food or even eating in someone else’s home that has been converted into a restaurant is very common. This point is made to show that seafood is prevalent in the Shandong region. For example, author Mary Ann O’Donnell writes about her trip to the Shenzen region where she speaks to a migrant from Shandong, learning about the migrant’s experience eating cornbread instead of rice because the government increased rice collection during a time of conflict (O’Donnell, 35). This shows that nostalgia evokes more than just feelings of happiness. Nostalgia can also bring people back to a time of conflict as well as bring people back to feelings of comfort and happiness. The author then describes how the interviewee wants to take her son there for him to understand the struggles that the parents had to go through (O’Donnell, 35). In this case, the cornbread was a symbol for the interviewee from a time of hardship. The passage goes to further show the connection that food has between all things. When comparing the common street foods of Shandong to the foods that were eaten by O’Donnell in the Shenzhen region, the foods seem completely different even though they are from the same country. Author Gabika Bockaj states that, “nostalgia mediates between past, present, and future, and “nostalgia is mediatic in that it can only work through some sort of mediated archive of memories” (Bockaj, 172). The part about the archive of memories could be seen with O’Donnell where the interviewee was talking about the history of the Shandong region and the significance of something as simple as cornbread.
Overall, given the choice immigrants always go for the food that is most familiar to them. Chen, from the School of Tourism and Culinary Science in Yangzhou University, and Huang, from the School of Tourism and Hospitality in Plymouth University, stated that although Chinese tourists are willing to try local foods, they are more likely to default to Chinese cuisine when presented the choice (Chen and Huang, 2017). As a member of an Asian household, I have firsthand experience of this behavior while travelling. My parents would always be unwilling to try restaurants that did not serve Vietnamese or Chinese cuisine. I believe that this comes from a mixture of longing for a piece of home. The advantage of going back to what you know is that it is often a safe choice, which is often the favorable choice in the case of my parents. Something that is also not widely known is that there is more than one type of nostalgia. Boym, a researcher on the topic of nostalgia, stated that there is reflective and restorative nostalgia (Boym, 41). Restorative nostalgia is the idea that the past needs to be rebuilt. In contrast, reflective nostalgia is the idea that the past does not need to be rebuilt, but rather focus on the feeling that comes from experiencing something nostalgic. The nostalgia most immigrants feel when eating food from where they are from is most likely reflective nostalgia. For example, I experience reflective nostalgia whenever I eat pho because I focus on the feeling of comfort from eating something that I am familiar with. This feeling is likely how other immigrants feel eating food from where they are from.
In conclusion, immigrants of Chinese regions are often nostalgic for the food from their region as opposed to nostalgia for all Chinese food. Immigrants from the Sichuan region are nostalgic for mouth numbing food. In comparison, immigrants from Hunan are nostalgic for highly flavorful spicy food. As opposed to the first two regions, the Shandong region is known for their seafood because of the proximity to the coast instead of bold flavors or spices. Each of these regions all have their own style of cuisine, which is why the region that the food is from affects whether or not immigrants are nostalgic for that particular food. Immigrants prefer food that they have already experienced because of the comfort that comes from eating food that they already know. Although the connection between nostalgia and food is already known, there is no real scientific explanation found as to why food bring back memories of the past. Because of this, there are still many areas that can be explored as to why immigrants of particular regions are nostalgic for food from that region.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, 2008.
BuzzFeedVideo. “$2 Vs. $75 Curry.” YouTube, 8 Apr. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JmA5_gHrrM .
Friendly Shandong. “Delicacies in Shandong China.” YouTube, 26 Sep. 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CL7-UijbKuk.
Off the Great Wall. “Sichuan Food Guide: Must Try Dishes at Sichuan Restaurants.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Nov. 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joMuTa82b8M.
O'Donnell, Mary Ann. “The Cultural Politics of Eating in Shenzhen.” Gastronomica, vol. 10, no. 2, 2010, pp. 31–39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2010.10.2.31.
Bockaj, Gabika. Media and Utopia: History, Imagination and Technology. Edited by Arvind Rajagopal and Anupama Rao. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2016.
Qian Chen, Rong Huang, (2018) “Local food in China: a viable destination attraction”, British Food Journal, Vol. 120 Issue 1, pp.146-157, https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/BFJ-03-2017-0135
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YuCanCook. “S3Ep03-Hunan Spicy Steamed Fish with Tofu and Minced Chilies 湖南剁椒豆腐蒸魚片” , YouTube, 21 Jan. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV1g9D0c8yQ.