How do South Asian Americans remember home cooking?

If you’ve eaten a local dish while abroad, you might have thought, It’s just not the same here. But the lack of familiar cooking goes beyond a simple desire for food. It is also a way of deriving a national identity, according to Anita Manur’s analysis of the “deep nostalgic investment in seeing certain types of food as authentic and indigenous, ‘Indian'” in South Asian immigrant fiction, memoirs, and cookbooks” gastronomic habits in North America.

Madhur Jaffrey Reading An invitation to Indian cuisinethe memoirs of Sarah Sullery Meatless daysand two short stories by Shani Mutu, Manur suggests that cooking allows immigrants to feel connected to “the homeland as an unchanging and enduring cultural entity”—even when that culinary culture is imaginary or more diverse than nostalgic cooks want to say.

Diaspora immigrants value “Indian” food not for “any independent intrinsic value as food,” but for its status as a “symbolic connection to the articulation of national identity,” she writes.

“For voluntary exiles and immigrants like Jaffrey, culinary culture becomes associated with ‘feelings’ that take on monolithic and mythological proportions,” Manour argues. Indeed, the nostalgic value they ascribe to Indian food is only made possible by the act of emigration and “can only exist once it leaves the physical boundaries of India.”

In some cases, culinary nostalgia also plays host to a “logic of hegemonic Indianness” that erases regional and linguistic diversity, alternative histories of “Indianness,” the gendered nature of housework, and workers who do the home-style cooking that some immigrants remembered as fondly as Suleri’s childhood in Pakistan.

Precisely because immigrants are far from home, food also takes on a heightened nationalistic meaning. For example, Manur argues that Jaffrey’s iconic cookbook is in part addressed to an “audience of responsible and ‘patriotic’ Indians in the United States who care enough about their nation’s culinary image to present an ‘authentic’ version of Indianness in the space of your home.”

Meanwhile, the Indo-Trinidadian narrator of Mootoo’s story “Out on Main Street” and a pastry shop owner who is a Fijian immigrant of Indian descent struggle over “competing notions of ethnic authenticity and national legitimacy” when they cannot agree on the proper name for what the narrator calls a “sugar cake” and the shopkeeper calls a “chum-chum.”

Manur calls food a “powerful symbol” of Asian American identity, including in literature. Despite what she saw in 2007 as a dearth of “paradigms for navigating the meaning of food in the mental and material lives of Asian Americans and Asian migrants,” more recent publications include Wenying Xu Identities in eating; Debt of Manur’s book Culinary concoctions; the collection Eating Asian America, which Manur co-edited; and to Mark Padongpat The flavors of empire.

The continued interest in Asian-American foods aptly illustrates Manour’s observation that “[w]in the tradition of immigrant literature, culinary discourse initiates an extended discussion of the interwoven layers of food, nostalgia, and national identity.

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By: Anita Manur

MELUS, vol. 32, No. 4, Food in Multiethnic Literatures (Winter 2007), pp. 11–31

Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Multiethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)

By: Wenying Xu

Eating Identities: Reading Food in Asian American Literature, 2008

University of Hawai’i Press

By: Review by: Inderpal Grewal

NWSA Journal, Vol. 2 pcs. 3 (Summer 1990), pp. 508–510

The Johns Hopkins University Press

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