Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Urban Brokers of Rural Cuisine: Assembling National Cuisine at Cambodian Soup-Pot Restaurants

Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Urban Brokers of Rural Cuisine: Assembling National Cuisine at Cambodian Soup-Pot Restaurants

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: THE RURAL-URBAN FOOD NEXUS

It is a truism that cuisines worldwide originate in the diffuse rural sphere, typically in tandem with local agriculture. Rural areas provide a constant agriculturallybased influx of culinary habits to the cities through a combination of the dynamics of migration and the types of food delivered. In turn, these habits are gradually integrated into the prevailing - more cosmopolitan - contexts. While modern trade and logistics have made it possible for some of the produce of more distant rural areas (i.e. from other continents) to become accessible in urban markets, agricultural and also social inputs that are geographically closer (typically deriving from domestic agriculture) remain a powerful reference point for most culinary systems. Indeed, despite increasing disjuncture in the cultural economy of food and agriculture through globalization (Appadurai, 1990, p. 301), the material basis of many cuisines remains anchored, if sometimes only symbolically, to the food products and habits of the nearby rural sphere (Nützenadel & Trentmann, 2008, pp. 5-6). This is largely still the case in Cambodia, the focus of this paper. It should be noted that in highlighting this, I do not argue away the significance of the ongoing 'de-localization' of nutrition through trade, nor the increasing importance of ideological dimensions of cuisine, such as national identity (see Ferguson, 2010; Montanari, 2006) and commoditization (i.e. tourism and trade promotion) (see Chuang, 2009; Firat, 1995; Henderson, 2004). Indeed, these aspects are very much on parade in heavily urbanized and food-import dependent countries in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore and Brunei. In these countries, the competitive sensibilities of 'culinary nationalism' (i.e. Ferguson, 2010)1 figure prominently (see Henderson, 2014; Ikhwan, 2014) and are even championed by the government (see Henderson, 2004; "Local Cuisine", 2012; Saunders, 2004).

With its grounding in Cambodia, a less globally dominant food player, this paper circumscribes many of the dominant trends in the research described above. It is oriented instead on understanding why the factual existence and/or imaginary of nearby agriculture and rural culinary habits exert such a considerable sway in spite of the increasing availability of imported food and culinary cultural models. In other contexts, this 'stubbornness' has been ascribed to the rise of food movements, the resistance to globalization (Friedland, 2010), or the efforts to protect biodiversity (Burlingame, 2012). In seeking explanations that more accurately characterize ruraldominated developing countries such as Cambodia, this paper takes a closer look into how the cumulative impact of the routinized transformation and consolidation of rural food habits in the rural-urban nexus contributes to a generalized popular knowledge and the awareness of 'national cuisine'. This paper stops short, however, of projecting the future of Khmer national cuisine.

In the sense that it is used in this paper, national cuisine is not represented by flagship dishes accessible to tourists (such as Phat Thai, Vietnamese Ph?, Cambodian Amok curry, or Laotian Larb), what is inscribed in cookbooks (see Appadurai, 1988), nor by the foods named after a modern state such as Singaporean fish-head curry (these anyway being regularly contested). For the purposes of this paper, I define national cuisine as the range of foods that are widely known, qualitatively understood, and regularly consumed by urban people of a collective ethnic background. Cambodia, and more specifically its capital Phnom Penh, is a model case in this respect as it is fairly homogeneous in terms of ethnicity (98 percent Khmer)2 and is still in the early stages of urbanization following a period of forced ruralization in the 1970's (described more thoroughly in Fallavier, 2003; Simone, 2008). The country is still 73 percent rural/agriculturally-based, yet it is experiencing rapid rural-to-urban migration,3 with the consequence that the nexus between agrarian change and urbanization presents a particularly active arena in which national cuisine is being negotiated and forged. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.