By Glenda Orila
In this essay, I will provide a comparative analysis of the role of food in triggering nostalgia and the processes therein. I will be exploring the importance of context in the selection of food specifically for the purpose of triggering nostalgia, and the ways in which the selected food distribution venues, Casa Manila and Arz Fine Foods (hereafter referred to as ‘Arz’), calibrate themselves in order to capitalize on such sentiments as well as their own uniqueness. Finally, I will argue that the selected food venues tend to reflect politically and culturally-oriented motives and initiatives. I recognize that this discussion focuses primarily on the observations and analyses of experiences in Casa Manila due to my familiarity with its products and cultural associations, and my intention to ‘make the familiar strange’.
Context, ‘Foreign’, and ‘Local’
This study is heavily based on the shared and comparable experiences that I had with my friend Ahmed, who accompanied me to both venues. Ahmed, a pre-medicine student at UTSC, identifies as an Egyptian-Jordanian Muslim who was raised in Saudi Arabia. Both of his parents are doctors, which paved way to his exposure to Filipino food since childhood as many of their co-workers are Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). I was born in the Philippines where I lived until 2010 when I immigrated to Trinidad and Tobago to live with my mother and Trinidadian stepfather. Having attended international schools in Manila, I gained some exposure to Middle Eastern cuisine. There are also several Middle Eastern restaurants and food vendors in Trinidad because, as I have been told, there was a significant influx of Syrian and Lebanese migrants who have established businesses during the 1960s when the country gained its independence from Britain. Regardless, I do not consider myself to be knowledgeable in Middle Eastern food and culture, especially because of my skepticism towards the authenticity of the dishes that the food vendors have to offer.
In both visits to Arz and Casa Manila, I observed that Ahmed and I assigned ourselves the roles of ‘foreigner’ and ‘local’, depending on the venue that we visited. For instance, during our meals at Casa Manila, I would take on the role of ‘local’, as I would be better equipped to explain what the dishes mean, how they are prepared, and share memories associated with them, where applicable. In this case, Ahmed would become the ‘foreigner’ by default, spending most of the visit learning but at times also sharing any memories or associations with his own experiences. The reverse was true during our visit to Arz. In both cases, we were (and continue to be) foreigners before and after visiting the venues due to the change in context, that is, Canada. This goes to show that food venues (Casa Manila and Arz) are spaces or institutions within larger ones (Canada), that invite migrant customers to be ‘local’. Needless to say, the identities of the venues and the customers have to match for this to occur, at least in terms of nationality.
This idea is also explored by Mankekar (2002), who writes about the ways in which Indian grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay area (re)establish Indian culture outside India (p. 76). She argues that by selling Indian products, the grocery stores not only create a sense of familiarity (feeling ‘local’) for their Indian customers but become spaces for the discussion of a wide array of topics associated with India (Mankekar 2002: 81). On the other hand, Yan (1999), examines the ways in which McDonald’s in Beijing provides spaces for its Chinese customers to feel ‘foreign’. In his article, he mentioned the difference between customer service in McDonald’s and the local Chinese eateries during the mid-1990s onward, arguing that the food and service of the former provides customers with an affordable Western (American) experience, as well as a modern space within a context that predominantly embraces tradition (Yan 1999 : 456).
Nostalgia and Food Selection
I have observed that nostalgia, which I will define as ‘a longing for home and the feelings associated with it’, is most immediately vocalized through story-telling. The food venues and food itself, as mentioned earlier, provide spaces that encourage such exchanges. However, a person’s experiences and nostalgic associations will vary according to the role they take on in a particular venue (‘foreign’ or ‘local’), and in discussing a particular cuisine, in this case, Middle Eastern or Filipino.
For instance, during our visits to Casa Manila, I would often look at the wooden décor, which I believe to be on the border of excess. However, the excessiveness of the venue’s use of Philippine handicraft and designs in pursuit of producing a festive, tropical atmosphere inevitably reminds me of a phase in my childhood when my house would reflect my mom’s (near) obsession with Philippine handicraft and wooden furniture. Most of the portions in the restaurant are good for two people. This alludes to the way Filipinos encourage food sharing, which then requires a large amount of food. I recall my mother telling me that “it’s better to have ordered too much than too little,” especially when hosting gatherings or eating with friends.
There is a stark difference between the ‘nostalgic’ food that Ahmed and I each prefer and selected from the menu during our visit. Ahmed traces his love for pancit, a stir-fried noodle dish with vegetables and meat (often chicken or pork), and lumpia, deep-fried spring rolls, back to his childhood in Saudi Arabia, when his mother would receive the dish in large batches as a friendly gesture from her Filipino co-workers. During our visit, I ordered several dishes for him to try. Of those dishes, I noted that I have always preferred kare-kare, a peanut stew with oxtail from Pampanga where I spent my early childhood, and pan-fried, marinated boneless bangus (milkfish) both served with plain rice. Bangus is a commonly eaten fish that is relatively accessible to people regardless of income, and it is the fish (and dish) that my mother has loved her whole life. I shared with Ahmed that I only really came to love the dish myself after leaving the Philippines, as it was then when I understood how the plain rice allowed the flavors of the fish to stand out without being excessive. Mintz (1985) explains that this pattern of rice-meat (kanin-ulam) combinations is common among starch-centered diets (pp. 10-11)
Pancit is most commonly served in large quantities during celebrations, especially birthdays. Growing up, I was often told that noodles signify longevity, a symbolism that my family attribute to the Chinese. Avieli (2007) notes that a similar belief exists among the Hoianese in Vietnam (p. 143). In his article, he explores the ways in which feasts for ancestor worship act as spaces that allow hierarchies, tensions, and exchanges to occur within families (Avieli 2007). For instance, age-sex hierarchies are seen through the table and seating arrangements such that tables of older men are closest to the altar, while those of young children are the farthest (Avieli 2007: 128). In addition, tensions arise as hosts are expected to provide a huge feast for guests to eat but guests must exercise moderation when eating as consuming too much reflects negatively on them (Avieli 2007: 150).
Similarly, family gatherings in the Philippines and Filipino gatherings in Trinidad are also ridden with tension and politics, the centrepiece of which is the pancit that either the hosts or guests (in potlucks) would offer as it is an easy dish to prepare in bulk. As such, I am not particularly fond of pancit because I am often disenchanted by the excess and seeming lack of intimacy during the preparation. The symbolism and history of the ‘borrowed’ dish continues to make me hesitate from creating any emotional connections with it. On the other hand, Ahmed’s connection with pancit is positive due to the friendly nature and circumstances under which he recalls eating the dish. I would argue that pancit was selected to be given to the family as a gift for the following reasons: 1) as mentioned earlier, the ease of bulk preparation; 2) the noodle base limits the dish’s capacity to appear ‘strange’, which eases the uncertainty of the giver in terms of its reception; 3) the fact that it is mostly served in celebrations makes it a ‘special’ dish, which reflects on the giver’s opinion of the family – the ‘local’s opinion of the ‘foreign’ (in terms of the dish).
This example demonstrates that the context of experience influences how we select foods that trigger nostalgia. It is worth noting that both pancit and bangus are both on the Casa Manila menu, as it shows that the restaurant welcomes different scopes of social interaction, whether grand or intimate.
Catering to the ‘Foreign’ and the ‘Local’: Reflections on Political Economy
In the previous section, I mentioned that Casa Manila borders itself on excessive décor and food servings as a means of producing a festive atmosphere, representative of what one may encounter in the Philippines. I also explored how influential context is when it comes to the selection of ‘nostalgic food’ from the ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ perspectives. In this section I will discuss the ways in which ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ experiences in a food venue vary as a result of what the food venue chooses to (re)produce.
Casa Manila has calibrated itself to act as a Philippine tourist destination in Canada, which can be seen in the way its management has chosen to reproduce (and exacerbate) the more festive aspects of Philippine cuisine and culture. The experiences of ‘foreign’ (Ahmed, in this case) and ‘local’ customers within the context of the food venue vary in ways that are representative of the motivations behind the selection of the images produced.
The Philippine economy benefits from tourism, which contributed to 7.8% of the country’s GDP in 2014 (Adel 2015). The emphasis on tourism can also be seen in the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) catchphrase “It’s more fun in the Philippines”. Growing up, I recall my family’s karaoke machines rotating images of various picturesque locations and scenes in the country. In Trinidad where these machines would be used at parties with both Trinidadian and Filipino guests, the images would often inspire ‘foreign’ guests to visit the country, and amaze nostalgic ‘local’ guests at how much the country has changed since they left. Casa Manila follows a similar pattern in simultaneously creating different experiences for the ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ customers.
During our visits to Casa Manila, I have noticed that the ‘local’ waiters paid closer attention to Ahmed than they did to other ‘local’ customers, guiding him through the menu, warmly receiving his comments, and spending more time at the table to chat with him. This does not mean that the ‘local’ customers were completely ignored. However, it does follow a pattern that can also be observed in the Philippines, that is, hospitality is prioritized towards foreign tourists.
It is likely that this phenomenon, whether cultural, political, or both, is historically produced and potent enough to be reflected within ‘local’ Philippine spaces abroad. Mintz (1985) describes the structure of British mercantilism during the 17th century and how exploitative trade relationships were formed and maintained between Britain and its colonies (p. 43-45). The colonies relied on imported manufactured goods from Britain, while their own people and resources were being mobilized as slaves and raw materials (sugar cane) to perpetuate the system (Mintz 1985: 46). As a child, I was taught a specific narrative of Philippine history. The narrative teaches students that the Americans helped liberate the country after nearly four hundred years of Spanish colonial rule and again following the Japanese occupation during World War II.
It would not have been until university when I would begin to understand what the strong alliance between my country and the United States meant in terms of neoliberalism and its repercussions, food aid and the subsequent dependence on imported goods, and cultural hegemony in favor of the West. In short, the country’s reliance on affordable tourism (and remittances from migrant workers) to keep the economy afloat is a necessity imposed by the exploitative nature of the current global food regime, which mirrors the old mercantilist system described by Mintz. Perhaps the DOT’s slogan can be turned into a question for further discussion: “Who has more fun in the Philippines, and why?”.
Catering to the ‘Foreign’ and ‘Local’: Culture and Separation
I have outlined how Casa Manila aligns with the Philippine government’s agenda to maintain high levels of tourism in order to support the economy and how this was produced historically. In this section, I will briefly discuss how my observations in Arz compare, noting the limitations of my findings and analysis.
Being the ‘foreigner’ in the food venue, I let Ahmed guide me throughout the visit, explaining products, preferences, and anecdotes. The effects of the store as a ‘local’ space for him are immediate as, for instance, he would only speak English to me and Arabic to everyone else. He shares with me several rules he grew up with, most notably the fact that one must never ask an older person to move aside. Instead, one must wait for the elderly to do so. Another prominent observation I made during our visit to Arz is the clear distinction and separation between ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ products.
While Arz is not calibrated to attract tourists in the same way as Casa Manila, the seeming importance of distinction in age hierarchies and the ‘foreign’ – ‘local’ binary reflects on ideologies. Allison (1991) explores the ways in which Japanese obentos are used as a tool through which the state is able to indirectly impose its ideologies and gendered understandings onto households (p.155). The obentos are also physically structured to have distinguishable components and obvious separation of different foods to emphasize the importance of order, coordination, and precision (p. 158). The ideology represented by the practices in Arz may not be as clearly defined nor attributed to a specific state or culture in the Middle East. However, this still shows a cultural ideology that emphasizes respect towards the ‘old’ ways and allows ‘foreign’ products to co-exist with the ‘local’ without the former overtaking the latter.
My observations in Arz, while detailed, were some of the most difficult to analyze due to my sparse knowledge, first-hand and otherwise, of the Middle East, its cultures, cuisines, and historical context. If given the opportunity to discuss this further, I would most likely visit food venues with similar context and conduct on-site interviews that would shed light on their motivations.
In this essay, I demonstrated the importance of context in determining the ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ in food venues that market themselves as extensions of their home countries. I explained how the difference in the selection of ‘nostalgic food’ between the ‘foreign’ and ‘local’ is also greatly influenced by context. Similarly, these food venues create spaces through which the ‘foreign’ and the ‘local’ have varying experiences that reflect the political and economic agendas, and state and cultural ideologies of the countries/regions that they seek to represent. Finally, I shall reiterate that these agendas and ideologies are often historically produced, originating from formerly dominant political economic systems such as mercantilism, which may not have really disappeared but recalibrated to fit a new global context.
Adel, Rosette (2015) Tourism contributes 7.8% GDP in 2014. The Philippine Star, July 21. http://www.philstar.com/business/2015/07/21/1479399/tourism-contributes-7.8-gdp-2014
Allison, Anne (2013 ) Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus. In Food and Culture. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, eds. Pp. 154-172. New York, NY: Routledge
Avieli, Nir (2007) Feasting with the Living and the Dead: Food and Eating in Ancestor Worship Rituals in Hoi An. In Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-revolutionary Vietnam. Philip Taylor, ed. Pp. 121-160. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
Mankekar, Purmina (2002) ‘India Shopping’: Indian Grocery Stores and Transnational Configurations of Belonging. Ethnos 67(1): 75-98.
Mintz, Sidney W. (1985) Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Penguin
Yan, Yunxiang (2013)  Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing. In Food and Culture. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, eds. Pp. 449-471. New York, NY: Routledge.
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Glenda Orila is a third-year student at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), with a specialist in International Development Studies and major in Socio-cultural Anthropology.