The keystone of a good night out is the consumption of comfort food. From British cheesy chips to the Japanese okonomiyaki, to a Turkish döner kebab, the foods we crave become a telling symbol of identity and difference. The act of eating, a veritable melting pot of customs and conventions, will wordlessly display anything from one’s heritage, class status, political leanings or social bonds. On this basis, connections are constantly made and broken around the table – the allegorical breaking of bread.
Nevertheless, despite this apparent diversity, critics fear the encroachment of an expanding, homogenous culture. There is far greater reliance on a small number of staple crops, evident through the domination of rice, wheat and maize in the global diet. Increasing urbanization and economic progress fuels the phenomenon known as ‘McDonaldization’, referring to the spread of the modern ‘Western lifestyle’. And yet, cultural communities are not powerless against this tide, creating new ways of defining themselves and, in the process, new forms of food.
The underlying assumption of this fear is that there is a clear division between the original and authentic, and the foreign invader, in essence, a battle between local and global. In some cases, this is arguably true. The resurgence of nationalism, whilst taking the centre stage in contemporary politics, can also be perceived through the medium of food. The chewing of betel nut, an act which is said to produce feelings of intoxication not unlike tobacco, has its historical roots in indigenous South-East Asian tribes. This habit was picked up later by Taiwanese and Chinese aboriginal peoples as early as 4,500 years ago (Watson, 116). Chewing produces a red colorant, causing the chewer's mouth and teeth to be dyed red and requiring them to regularly spit mouthfuls of blood-coloured juice onto their surrounding environment. This has been met with disdain on multiple fronts, with criticisms ranging from hygiene to health risks, yet nonetheless has seen a great increase in popularity in Taiwan over the past few decades.
A study by David Wu connects this increase with the period of political liberalization in the late 1980s, observing that the food’s meaning evolved from a symbol of rural life to one of prestige and ethnic awareness. As Taiwan established its place in the global market as one of the four ‘Asian Tigers’, opening its doors to foreign investment and rapid industrialization, the home-front saw a return to more ‘native’ cuisine. This retreat to the past may be representative of a desire to achieve a sense of national solidarity against the rapidly changing cultural landscape.
The hybridization of food is a common feature of diasporas. Dishes are created using elements and techniques from the country of origin, mixed with the ingredients and styles of the destination country. It has become a source of amusement for me to tell non-British friends that Britain's national dish is chicken tikka masala. Although the exact origin of the famed curry is a contentious topic, it is clear that it is the product of generations of British-Indian communities, adapting and adopting new tastes and techniques to suit the local environment. The same could be said of the constructions made by the Asian-American diaspora, with such classics as the Californian Roll and orange chicken. Although there may certainly have been elements of nostalgia involved, these items had a self-perpetuating role to provide a cuisine for the ‘third generation’, thus blurring the lines between foreign and familiar.
A source of comfort for the weary traveller is the knowledge that across the world the classic combination of Big Mac and fries does not deviate in taste. This fact alludes to two of the pillars of McDonaldisation – efficiency and predictability (Ritzer). The food and internal environment retains a constant standard and great company pride is taken in its uniformity. Yet, whilst seen in the West as a source of affordable fast food, the iconic Golden Arches take on an entirely different role throughout Asia. In Beijing, it has become a symbol of the modern Americana lifestyle, offering the chance to savour a transnational experience within the comfort of your own city. Efficiency is no longer a main objective: instead, families and friends choose to dine for extensive hours and one’s presence is an outward display of ostentation.
The acceptance of McDonald’s did not come easily in the Chinese mind. Globalization’s success will often go hand in hand with glocalisation. McDonalds famously adapts its menu based on the local customs and eating styles of its destination country – with examples including the Japanese Ebi Fillet-O Shrimp burger and the McArabia in the Middle East. This has created subtle changes in the social behaviour and dietary patterns of people as well, from the more normalized consumption of food with hands and changing perspectives of cleanliness, to the subverted meaning of 'fast' in fast food. In a way, this relationship follows the same form of conduct of a guest and a host – both must take into account the thoughts and behaviours of the other in order to gain their acceptance.
The common cliché of healthy eating books and the sort is that “you are what you eat”. And yet, this simplified statement rings true – those that you share your meal with, the customs you subconsciously use whilst eating, and the very dishes of choice form bubbles of meaning around the individual and the networks of communities they belong to. These are not static by any means. Globalization has been seen to both fuel the increased connections of networks and draw them apart, looking inwards to find their own meanings of solidarity. Food provides the medium with which to witness these ever-changing social and cultural shifts.
Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization of Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2004. Print.
Watson, James L. Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1997. Print.