New book by Chao Center’s Ryang challenges readers to think about the food they eat

What happens when food with a national identity travels beyond the boundaries of a nation? A new book by Sonia Ryang, director of the School of Humanities’ Chao Center for Asian Studies, explores the world of Korean food in four American locations and examines what makes a food authentically national and yet American or more broadly global at the same time.

Sonia Ryang

“Eating Korean in America: Gastronomic Ethnography of Authenticity” will be published this month by the University of Hawaii Press. A noted social anthropologist and Rice’s T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Asian Studies, Ryang is ethnic Korean and grew up in Japan. She is fluent in Korean and Japanese.

Her book is divided into four chapters, each focused on a specific U.S. location and type of food — naengmyeon cold noodle soup in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, jeon pancakes in Baltimore, Md., galbi barbecued beef in Honolulu and Kona, Hawaii, and bibimbap (rice with mixed vegetables) in Iowa City, Iowa.

“The most basic question I wanted to ask is, What is authenticity?, and more importantly, Is authenticity possible in capitalism?” said Ryang. She visited restaurants and grocery stores in each location and observed Korean food as it was prepared and served to customers. In her book, she analyzes the history and evolution of each dish, how it arrived and what it became, and she tastes and experiences the food.

“We see so many books and media products on food, and it is such a strange thing to me,” Ryang said. “I mean, how would you write about food when the actual taster of that food is only you? This came to me as a grave methodological challenge. It resembles the study of love and romance, one of my major research concerns. When a researcher studies love, often she is studying the ‘language of love,’ rather than love itself: what we say about how we felt in, of and about love. Is this love itself? Maybe not. And what happens when one wants to study food? I wanted to experience this myself.”

Ryang discovers how the chewy noodles from Pyongyang continue to retain their texture and yet are served differently in different locales in South Korea, U.S. and globally. Jeon pancakes become completely decontextualized in the U.S. and metamorphose into a portable and packable carryout food. American consumers are unaware of the pancake’s sacred origin of being a food for an ancestral memorial ritual. In Kona on Hawaii’s big island, Ryang finds that it is the Vietnamese restaurant that serves unexpectedly delicious galbi barbecued meat. Intertwined in the complex colonial and postcolonial contexts, Korean galbi and Japanese yakiniku can be found side by side on the streets of Honolulu frequented by both the locals and tourists.

Credit: University of Hawaii Press

A scholar whose research encompasses diverse topics, including diaspora, identity, cultural logic of nation-states and ideology, Ryang challenges the reader to think about the food they eat every day in close connection to colonial histories, ethnic displacements and global capitalism.

“Young Karl Marx said, about 170 years ago, that money can do everything even when you yourself cannot,” Ryang said. “In this logic, money, in fact, can eat food for you and you don’t even have to eat it. In inversion, when you don’t have the money, you don’t eat — making your need to eat disappear. Food is a basic human need and that is precisely why global capital is extremely interested in this. I wanted to shed light on this by raising a question of authenticity — beyond simply asking whether Korean food we eat in the U.S. is authentic or not. In capitalism, one might argue that nothing is authentic, since the original is quickly replaced by endless copies, each claiming its own authenticity. This is capitalist marketing strategy. If so, what does our act of eating do, when millions of fellow human beings do not have enough to eat? It may sound strange, but it was rather painful to write this book.”

The research toward Ryang’s book was funded by a grant from South Korea’s Academy of Korean Studies.

Ryang came to Rice in July 2014 from the University of Iowa, where she was a professor of anthropology and international studies and the C. Maxwell and Elizabeth M. Stanley Family and Korea Foundation Chair of Korean Studies.

She is the author of five books in English and one in Japanese, editor of two volumes and co-editor of one. These titles include “North Koreans in Japan: Language, Ideology and Identity” (1997), “Japan and National Anthropology: A Critique” (2004), “Love in Modern Japan: Its Estrangement from Self, Sex and Society” (2006), “Writing Selves in Diaspora: Ethnography of Autobiographics of Korean Women in Japan and the United States” (2008) and most recently, “Reading North Korea: An Ethnological Inquiry” (2011).

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.