Roland Barthes, in an essay about the role of food in contemporary sociology and psychology, writes that food is “a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations and behaviours” (Barthes 21). Many critics have commented on the importance of food as a symbol of Asian identity within the Western world; Jennifer Ho, for example, writes that “food communicates values and social attitudes” (Ho 29). While this is undeniably the case when it comes to particular dishes and ingredients, it is also the case when it comes to the tools and objects associated with cooking. For Asian-American identity, no object carries more cultural currency than the wok, which has come to be universally recognisable symbol of Asian culinary culture. This essay will argue that the wok represents the juxtaposition of Western consumerism and Asian spirituality within contemporary American society.
Historically, the wok is an important tool in Asian cuisine, forming the backbone of the culinary tradition. Asian Nation, a website dedicated to exploring Asian-American identity and culture, describes the economic necessity that shaped the function and importance of the wok. The website explains that because many Asian families lacked the economic resources to make or purchase a variety of different cooking utensils and pans, the wok was developed to be extremely versatile; featuring a unique, rounded bottom which could provide a “range of cooking temperatures in one pan”, the wok became “a nearly universal staple of Asian households” (Asian Nation n.p.). In this way, it can be understood that the wok stands as a symbol of Asian roots in poverty and resourcefulness: the necessities of poverty or social hardship are the reason many Asian-American families found themselves leaving their homelands to begin new lives in the West; the wok, as the tool which embodies both the hardship of poverty, and the ability of people to overcome those hardships, is a fitting symbol of the Asian-American immigrant.
What complicates the symbol of the wok for contemporary Asian Americans, however, is the way in which it has been assimilated into Western culture with the growing popularity of Asian – and especially Chinese – cuisine, and fusion foods. Chinese food, for all that it is represented only in a limited way in American culture, is one of the most popular fast-food and restaurant cuisines in the nation, and TV celebrity chefs such as Ching he Huan and Ken Hom have made the cooking of Asian cuisines at home more common in non-Asian households. As a result, tools such as the wok have become commodified as a part of the assimilation of Asian cuisine into mainstream culture. For Anita Mannur, the wok has become a clear symbol of the way in which Chinese culture has been commodified by the West. In “’Peking Ducks’ and ‘Food Pornographers’: Commodifying Culinary Chinese Americanness”, she describes Asian culinary cuisine, and particularly commodities such as the wok, as the commodification of Chineseness, in which the objects of Chinese culture are assimilated into Western culture, while keeping Chinese identity separate (Mannur 23). In other words, it is the very “otherness” of Asian culture which is being commodified, with Western consumers attracted by exoticism represented by the wok. Such commodification poses problems for Asian-Americanness as an identity, with the appropriation of the wok coming to symbolise the uneasy relationship of the Asian community with the dominant non-Asian culture.
However, the popularity of Asian cuisine in Western culture has also allowed the economic value of Asian identity to be realised, with the wok acting as a symbol linking American success to Asian spirituality. Jennifer Ho, writing about the symbol of the wok in Asian-American literature, describes one author as linking the current economic value of the wok to the nineteenth-century status of Asian-Americans as lowly railroad workers: “Cooking, like building, requires fortitude and skill combined with artistry and musicality. Singing steel, whether of wok or track, attests to the prowess of both the contemporary Chinese chef and the nineteenth-century railroad worker” (Ho 35). Ho’s description not only shows the way in which Asian labour has been fundamental to Asian-American identity throughout history, it also shows how symbols of culture such as the wok have retained their importance as spiritual as well as functional objects. The web log Hakkasan, dedicated to exploring the culture of Asian cuisine, describes the intimate relationship between spirit and food, cook and wok, known as “Wok Hei”, or “the breath of the wok”: “creating wok hei is so tricky to get right that often it is used as a measure of a Chinese chef’s skill, and these chefs often spend years trying to perfect the art” (Hakkasan n.p.). From this description, it can be seen that in Asian-American culture, the wok is symbol not only of economic success within the dominant non-Asian culture, but also a symbol of a uniquely Asian skill and spirit.
Asian-American identity, over the long course of its development, has negotiated a delicate balance between the Western drive for consumerism and consumption, and the spiritualism and balance which typify Asian culture. The wok has served as a connection and a means of communication between two cultures, contributing at a fundamental level to perspectives of what it means to be Asian-American. If Asian food symbolises the assimilation of Asian culture in mainstream society, then the wok as a food symbol stands for the way in which Asian-Americanness has been both adaptable and constant.
- Le, C.N. “Asian Cuisine and Foods.” Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. Asian-Nation.org, 29 February, 2016. Web. 29 February, 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.asian-nation.org/aboutme.shtml.
- Barthes, Roland. “Towards a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carol Counihan and Penny van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 23-30. Print.
- Hakkasan. “Wok Hei, Or the Breath of the Wok.” Hakkasan. Ling Ling, 07 October, 2014. Web. 29 February 2016. Retrieved from: http://hakkasan.com/blog/category/cuisine/.
- Ho, Jennifer. Consumption and Identity in Asian-American Coming of Age Novels. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Mannur, Anita. “”’Peking Ducks’ and ‘Food Pornographers’: Commodifying Culinary Chinese Americanness.” Culture, Identity, Commodity: Diasporic Chinese Literatures in English. Ed. Tseen Khoo and Kam Louie. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. 19-38.