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Book Reviews

Best New Food-Studies Books: Coffee Life in Japan and Curried Cultures

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Thu, Oct 18, 2012 at 6:00 AM
click to enlarge Curried Cultures - UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
  • University of California Press
  • Curried Cultures

Looking to up your dinner table conversation? Coffee Life in Japan and Curried Cultures, both published by the University of California Press under its California Studies in Food and Culture branch (and edited by Darra Goldstein), supply plenty of digestif fodder.

Curried Cultures is co-edited by Krishnendu Ray, assistant professor of nutrition/food studies at NYU, and Tulasi Srinivas, assistant professor in communications studies at Emerson College. Together they wrote and edited a collection of essays exploring food culture in South Asia, from the colonial period through today, through a global lens.

"South Asia is a new hub of intersecting global networks nourished by proliferating material and symbolic transactions propelling bodies, things and conceptions across national boundaries," Ray and Srinivas explain in the Introduction. Get more on both books after the jump.

"In this book, traversing national boundaries is the contingent operational definition of globalization," continue Ray and Srinivas. "That implies at least two things: Globalization becomes more visible after national boundaries crystallize; and we witness a new kind of self-consciousness about the connections between various locales and between the local and the supra-local in this phase of globalization."

It's a curry mouthful of academic proportions, but an intriguing one that delves into the influence of Indian cuisine in Britain, New York City ("Dreams of Pakistani Grill in Manhattan") and the contemporary South Asia café scene. Other chapters include "Nation on a Platter: The Culture and Politics of Food and Cuisine in Colonial Bengal" and "Teaching Modern India How to Eat: 'Authentic' Foodways and Regimes of Exclusion in Affluent Mumbai."

That last chapter, "An Invitation to Indian Cooking," begins with a quote from Madhur Jaffrey: "Today Americans especially seem to have a great desire to experience the 'real' thing, an authentic taste, a different lifestyle. Anything fake is deplored, fake foods included." For some of us, at least. And then there's Dominos "artisan pizza" side of the current food equation.

click to enlarge Coffee Life In Japan - UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS
  • University of California Press
  • Coffee Life In Japan

That "fusion confusion" is a universal problem, says an Indian restaurateur simply referred to as Rahul. "My main goal is to teach modern India how to eat, because that's something as a country we really don't know how to do just yet. So much of what we call 'fusion cuisine' is really just confusion, so as a consequence of this I want to teach people how to explore their senses, to really understand that authentic cuisine is all about the subtleties of differences."

If you're more interested in the caffeinated side of food history, Coffee Life in Japan, by Boston University anthropology professor Merry White, explores Japan's role in launching the Brazilian coffee industry and ends with modern café life in Japan. It's a fascinating 130-year illumination of Japan's deeply rooted sipping culture, perhaps more so when you consider the vast attention given to teahouses by foreign press over the decades.

What makes coffee "Japanese"? There's a chapter on that, too. The excerpt below serves as a reminder how much our frantic "half-caff, no foam, low-fat latte" culture has hindered many Americans' ability to simply appreciate a cup of good coffee -- or even the timeless art of relaxation, even for just a few sips.

At Lush Life, a small jazz kissaten in Kyoto, the master makes the coffee - only one kind of bean, one cup at a time - while his wife makes the day's curry. There are few choices. As a guest, you simply receive the dark brew and the dark stew, and relax gratefully as you listen to Brubeck or Miles or Billy Strayhorn - again, for the most part, what the master has chosen. Taste is about trust in such places; you come without demands and none are placed on you. The anxiety of choosing the right thing is notably missing. You have not come to demonstrate your active connoisseurship, only to receive what has been made for you.... Taste then is a product of an interdependent relationship between maker and consumer. This reciprocity, trust in exchange for quality, works in Japan, even in the context of constant change in coffee production and places.


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