- Rice Talks: Food and Community in a Vietnamese Town by Nir Avieli
Rice Talks explores the culinary sphere of Hội An in central Vietnam. It is both an ethnography and a theoretical project, as it aims to show that the culinary sphere can be an important arena for gaining insight into what it means to be Vietnamese. How different such facets of identity as gender, class, ethnicity and religious affiliation are constructed, maintained, negotiated, challenged and changed within this sphere is discussed in the book.
In addition to writing about the history of Hội An in the introduction, Avieli offers a brief discussion of theoretical perspectives used by anthropologists in the study of food. In analysing the culinary sphere of Hội An, he found Handelman’s scheme of mirrors, models and re-presentation useful for its attention to cultural production and reproduction. Avieli focuses on two research questions: (1) how do food and foodways reflect the social order and cultural arrangements of the Hoianese? and (2) how do the Hoianese reproduce, help negotiate or alter food and foodways?
The detailed ethnography captures the particular texture of everyday home meals as well as different types of festive meals. Its style of introducing a food event begins with a social interaction with an informant who invites or tells the author about a particular meal. The conversation between him and the informant is presented in the form of a narrative. The reader feels as if she or he is present at the field site. [End Page 504]
Avieli organizes his findings into seven chapters. The first chapter examines the mutually reinforcing Vietnamese cosmological principles of âm and dương (yin and yang) of the Hoianese home meal. Although most Vietnamese may not have this binary concept in mind as they prepare dishes, they do pay attention to maintaining harmonious balance in physical and emotional health. In both food and social relations, harmony remains an important goal.
The second chapter, on “The Social Dynamics of the Home Meal”, focuses on the ways in which the meal mirrors the social structure and priorities of the collective, and in which social relationships and stratifications are evident in its manner of consumption. The role of women is also highlighted in this chapter. Avieli challenges those who relegate Vietnamese women to an inferior status. He points out that the legacy of formerly matriarchal Vietnam, egalitarian communist ideology, women’s responsibility for nurturing the family and their pioneering role in opening eating venues for tourists have enhanced women’s status. However, they continue to spend long hours in the kitchen and to eat after men. In this context, Avieli considers women’s status ambiguous and shifting.
The third chapter deals with underlying meanings of local specialties and their relationships to different aspects of Hoianese identity. The origin of cao lầu, a local dish of rice noodles, is mired in controversy: is it Vietnamese, Chinese or Japanese? Avieli rightly points out that the “relationship between food and space is much more complex and dynamic” (p. 67) than one might assume and that no local dish can be considered truly local in a place like Hội An, which has a long history of immigration and cultural exchange. In doing research on food in Bangladesh, I found the same thing to be true.
What Avieli tries to emphasize is that the culinary sphere is not simply a mirror image of existing social and cultural orders, and that it is always possible for Hoianese to actively shape and reshape their identities through that sphere. For example, he illustrates the ways in which tensions between Kinh people (ethnic Vietnamese) and descendants of various Chinese groups are ameliorated through the culinary sphere. Trying to distance themselves from China, Chinese [End Page 505] communities modify their dishes, which come out as Chinese but unique to Hội An. The modifications sometimes reach a point at which Chinese roots are no longer recognized and a dish is considered a local Hoianese dish. The culinary sphere reflects not only ethnic...