By Federico Arcuri
“Is this restaurant Orientalist?” It all started as a joke. The restaurant Amazing Taste, located between Schouwburgstraat and Wijnhaven, is our go-to restaurant when I and my peers want to grab something to eat after a long day at uni or in between two classes. Besides its strategic location, what appeals to us is the wide range of dishes from different Asian countries, and its relatively cheap prices. After many meals in this restaurant, we started to discuss how this business succeeds in presenting an overview of the gastronomy of Asia, which entails many different cultures. Half-jokingly, we applied what we learned about Edward Said’s theory of “Orientalism”, which defines western approaches to thinking of the ‘East’ as imposing a set of preconceived archetypes, interpreting the East in contrast to the West. It started as a joke, but I was compelled to reflect more on this idea. I decided to look more closely at the narrative used by Amazing Taste, as well as ask other students what they thought about the restaurant.
Said hypothesizes that an Orientalist approach to Asia, a discourse crafted by European intellectuals, is characterized by the tendency to represent “the Orient” from their point of view through their power to create knowledge which had the effect of limiting any other form of thought or action concerning Asia and its cultural production. According to him, this demonstrates the persistence of “hegemonic systems in culture, which actively influenced the production of many writers and artists” (Said 1978, 14). Do these hegemonic systems still persist, and do they affect our everyday life?
Another useful concept outlined by Said and other postcolonial writers is “Self-Orientalism”, defined as the way in which, through “economic, clinical, and social exchange, the modern Orient, […] participates in its own Orientalising.” (Said 1978, 325). Self-Orientalism can be defined as a conscious or unconscious self-identification with constructed Orientalist images, as citizens in a country evaluate and understand themselves through the eyes of the West and judge themselves through these norms. It can also be interpreted as the willingness (reaction) of non-western individuals and institutions to play the “Other” dominated by the global economy, system, and order. How does self-orientalism occur? Is Amazing Taste ‘self-orientalizing’ itself to appeal to Western consumers? To answer these questions I first looked at different applications of this framework to our everyday life. Then, I analyzed the discourse used by Amazing Taste and I used a poll to understand my peers’ perception of this issue.
The concept of self-orientalism has been applied to many examples of Asian cultural productions. For instance, some movies have been criticized for cashing in on their ‘otherness’ in order to appeal to a Western audience. This is the case in the academy award-winning Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern, which has been accused of orientalist commodification. The spectacle of largely invented rituals, as well as the Confucian stillness, classical composition, presentation of concubinage, and museum-like enactment of historical China, have been seen by some as fetishizing Chinese ethnography for western consumption.
More topical for this case, it has also been argued that “in the gastronomical consumption of ethnic food, ‘culture’ is a representation of a racialized being. In other words, cultural otherness and racialized otherness are inseparable and conflated in the discursive performance involving cultural consumption.” Can the same be said about Amazing Taste?
A (not entirely academic) Discourse Analysis of Amazing Taste
By looking at the menu, one can see that the restaurant is consistent with its declared aim of providing “Asian” gastronomy. But, given Asia’s high number of countries, and thus the variety of culinary cultures, how does the restaurant choose which countries to represent? Does the hegemony of the Western system of culture play a role in this choice? A very malicious observer might ask, why are there no dishes being offered from big countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Cambodia? Why is India represented by only four dishes, in contrast to a country such as Suriname, with a population comparable to the municipality of The Hague, which has twelve dishes? One might argue that the restaurant over-represents Surinaam as a symbol of “Asian cuisine” because it satisfies the Dutch consumer, who is used to Surinamese food due to well-known historical reasons. The same malicious observer might also make a similar comparison with South Korean cuisine, which is present in only two dishes – an underrepresentation which is compensated with an evident – as well as predictable – predominance in terms of background music.
In contrast with the balance between South East Asian and North-East Asian cultures on the menu, the restaurant’s choices in terms of interior decoration tend to overrepresent Chinese and Japanese culture. The notion of “Asia” is, in this case, conveyed through the use of images such as Japanese rice balls, Japanese Kokeshi dolls, Chinese fortune cookies (see here why Chinese cookies themselves can be quite problematic), smiling bubble teas, and traditional Chinese characters. Why isn’t the “geographical distribution” of the menu reflected by the decorations, which seem to convey the idea that “Asian Culture” is best represented by East Asia, ignoring their Southeast Asian and Central Asian neighbors? Is it because Japanese and Chinese aesthetics are more appealing and accessible for the European public, rather than Vietnamese and Thailandese?
Thus, it can be argued that these choices in terms of representation fit the definition of Self-orientalism. Amazing Taste, maybe subconsciously, evaluates and understands the broad concept of “Asian culinary culture” through the lenses of the West, in a quite inconsistent way, I would add. Is this claim convincing? I asked this question to my peers.
The students’ opinions
Whereas I was not surprised to learn that the two major reasons for eating in the restaurant are the prices (50%) and location (25%), I was quite surprised to learn that the majority of the respondents (59,8%) – mainly IS and IRO Students – are not aware of the specific cultural origin of their favorite dishes. These numbers, which go against the widespread narrative which sees young people as responsible and well-informed consumers, are confirmed by the fact that most of the respondents believe that Amazing Taste does not organize its products so that they are clearly distinguishable from their different cultures and cuisines (66,7%).
When asked to associate the restaurant’s offer with two specific Asian national cuisines, the responses were very different. However, the balance between China, Indonesia, and Japan as the three most chosen countries can be observed, reflecting their dominant representation within the menu. In contrast, regarding the restaurant’s atmosphere, respondents seem to agree that there is an effort of using multiple cultures as one (58%), ultimately agreeing with the proposition that “Amazing Taste is self-orientalizing its image: it is cashing in on its otherness and on a Western idea of the ‘Orient’ for the Western spectator” (69%).
Conclusions – Why an article about Amazing Taste?
Is Amazing Taste actually self-orientalizing its brand? Is this presentation of “Asia” as one ambiguous culinary culture motivated by consumers’ choices? Looking at the considerations above, one might argue that this is indeed the case. But why does this even matter? Why do I (a white Italian guy who has the privilege of studying abroad) care? It matters because if we really want to be responsible consumers, even if there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, we need to be aware of what we are buying. We need to know why we are being offered specific products in predetermined ways, and we also need to continuously deconstruct the narrative behind what is imposed on us. A better understanding of how things are commodified for our consumption may help us to reject an attribution of meanings and values to things that reflect an unjust order. In this case, food consumption is just an example of a wider phenomenon. Food consumption and cooking can be a collective event, that has the potential of conveying collective memory and a common cultural heritage. This potential can be used to foster an internationalist ideal of multiculturalism, with all its positive advantages. At the same time, it can be channeled by the inescapable logic of capitalism.
We cannot be sure of why Amazing Taste is employing this narrative; it might be to attract more clients and earn more money, or to give voice to a genuine ideal of Pan-Asianism, Integration, and Internationalism, or for other reasons. What is clear to me is that by doing so it is using a definition of Asia created by the West for Western consumption, a vision that tends to simplify and fetishize a complex and diverse culture, ultimately implying the superiority of Western culture over a simplifiable, malleable and governable “Other”. “Asia” is here being framed as an appealing product for Western consumers, who, in turn, incorporate it as a source of collective craving. This does not mean that this and hundreds of other restaurants in The Hague are evil. They are just selling their products in the best way they can.
If you will excuse me, I will now go eat my beloved Katsuo Udon soup, with Kimchi and Bubble tea on the side. And maybe some Mini Loempias.
Edited by Ricarda Bluemcke, artwork by Maria Beckers