Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review No 21 ([Northern] Autumn 2011)
[Note added in 2021: All the links in this blog post are broken except the ones in the journal title above and in the image to the left. The whole journal is still available online to subscribers.]
Under Stephen McCarty’s editorship, the Asia Literary Review tends to have themed issues. The last three focused on China, Burma and Japan respectively. This one moves to a subject that transcends political and geographic boundaries: food.
Where a focus on a single country can lead to a journal as diverse – and as integrated – as anyone could wish, other kinds of themes, even one as vast as food, risk crossing the line between relatedness and sameness. This issue comes close to that line a couple of times, but it manages to stay on the right side. Notably, Felipe Fernández-Armesto kicks things off with ‘History à la Carte‘, a short essay on food as an ‘instructive historical document’, particularly about the ‘relative input of different cultures to a globalising world’ over the centuries – and the pages that follow provide a number exemplars of the kind of thing he means: Fuchsia Dunlop, an Englishwoman who has trained as a chef in Sichuan, writes of her childhood love for sweet and sour pork, and explores its origins as a dish invented for despised foreigners (or was it?); Bernard Cohen’s story about a disintegrating marriage, ‘The Chinese Meal, Uneaten‘ can be read as a meditation on the cheap Chinese restaurants of a bygone Australia; in Erin Swan’s ‘Tomatoes‘, a couple of western tourists in the Himalayas get some humility about their privileged status thanks to a box of tomatoes; Jennifer 8. Lee’s ‘Making Pasta Sauce: My Independence’ tells of a Chinese New Yorker’s discovery in Italian cuisine (this little memoir-recipe, sadly not available online to non-subscribers, has had a significant impact on the cooking in this house); in Wena Poon’s story ‘Fideuà’, a woman who was a ‘China baby’ adopted by a Spanish couple finds in seafood noodles a deep emotional connection between her birth home and her adoptive one (a Chinese matriarch watches the protagonist cook Spanish fideuà in a paella pan and says, a little scornfully, a little proudly, ‘This pan is like our wok. This noodle, come from China. Seafood, same. All same. We call it hoi seen meen. We use same ingredients.’). Perhaps because a jungle of self-sown vines is producing abundantly in our tiny back yard, I particularly enjoyed the way tomatoes kept appearing: here we learn they are known in some parts of China as barbarian aubergines, there that Europeans thought they were poisonous for hundred of years after they were brought over from the Americas, in a third place that they have delicacy status in Himalayan villages.
I should mention Lizzie Collingham’s fascinating piece of history, ‘Japan and the Battle for Rice’, which makes the case for thinking of Japan’s participation in World War Two as in part a war about food, of which we may be about to see many more. Chandran Nair stops short of making that prediction in his chilling article, ‘The World Food Crisis – An Asian Perspective’, which echoes the Annie Leonard video I posted yesterday by calling on Asian governments to ‘reject the consumption-led growth model and adopt instead an approach that makes resources conservation the heart of all policymaking’. Good luck to us all with that!
Oh, and there’s ‘Table d’Hôte’ by Murong Xuecu, translated by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan. It’s the journal’s only prose piece translated from an Asian language and easily its most powerful fiction, with something of the feel of that contemporary Chinese art that plays around with death and mutilation.
And there’s plenty else.
I’ve linked to the stories that are accessible online. If you want to read the others you have to subscribe.