Connecting With Cultures Through Food – Reflection

For my Digital Asia body of work, I felt drawn to explore the topic of food through cooking. I had recently found and tested a laksa recipe online. While cooking it, and during the meal itself, I felt so at home. See, I spent my formative years in Singapore and Malaysia, and travelling across South East Asia. I’m originally South African, but moved to South East Asia when I was about 6 or 7. Growing up across cultures, my parents cooked South African dishes like babotie and bunny chow at home as a way to remember and share the culture they grew up in. After moving to Australia for high school, stir fries and curries remained a big part of our diets, and an important way to connect with the culture we’d left behind. Food and its connection to memory is an important aspect of the ways in which immigrants try to “maintain a historically validated ethnic identity” (Holtzman 2006: 366).


I decided to interview international students about what foods were culturally or mnemonically important to them. I posted on Facebook for volunteers, and explained to those who reached out what my projects involved, who would be likely to read and view them, and that I would be attempting to cook the foods they told me about. I felt it was really important that the participants were comfortable with me engaging with their stories and cultures in that way. I was careful to obtain consent to use their stories and names and emphasised that it could be withdrawn at any time. I felt these negotiations and agreements were critical in the ethical production of the research, and was careful to “address guidelines for respectful engagement… ethics of authorship… and how the data can be used by the collaborators” (Lapadat 2017: 600).


I met with Shayan, Gracie, Thu, and Charlene over coffee or beer and had casual, unstructured conversations, with participants leading the way, rather than being questioned. I was interested in hearing their stories, and the practice of interactive interviews described by Ellis et. al. (2011), wherein researchers and participants explore cultural themes through conversation, was most appropriate for exploring emotional connections to food. The experiences with Shayan and Thu were shared to the Digital Asia blog. Myself and my coresearcher realised too late that we could only produce two pieces within the word limit for that assessment. I published a brief account of my encounter with Gracie on my personal blog, knowing from our conversation that I really wanted to cook the food she told me about. In the blogs and the videos, I was careful to acknowledge the contributions of Shayan and Gracie, without whom the research could not have been, nor been what it was.


After the first phase of the project, the blogs, I attempted to cook some of the foods that we’d talked about in the interviews; pancit from the Philippines, from Gracie’s childhood, and Sindhi biryani, a Pakistani dish that Shayan described as the ‘national dish of Pakistan’. I felt that finding ingredients and recipes, cooking them myself, and sampling the foods would provide more of an immersive experience than ordering at a restaurant.


My first filmed cooking experience yielded two hours of footage. I filmed my entire afternoon in the kitchen, start to finish, hoping to capture my impressions, reactions, and experience of interacting with another culture. I quickly realised I had instead captured 20 minutes of silent chopping, or simmering, or cleaning. When I filmed my second video, I began recording only when I wanted to speak about the experience or share my thoughts, producing significantly less raw data to filter through. A few weeks later, when it came time to edit each video down to five minute YouTube videos, I was faced with the challenge of deciding which parts of the video were relevant, forcing me to consider what kind of research and work I wanted to produce. Ultimately I decided to focus on my reactions and musings, rather than on the cooking process, being mindful of the goal of autoethnographic research to “analyse personal experience to gain an understanding of the cultural experience” (Ellis et al cited in Pitard 2017: 109).


In the final videos, there were two common themes that really struck me and stuck with me – for each dish, I found a range of recipes with plenty of variation and without explicit instructions; and both yielded enough food to feed 8-10 people. On the first theme, I put forth the theory that these are recipes which would be passed along generationally within families, rather than formalised in recipes – my own mother swears I’ll only get her recipes, which exist in her head only, once I’m married. On the second, drawing on my own experience of South East Asian cultures which are neighbours to the cultures I explored, I mused that this was likely a result of children and grandparents living at home for longer, and extended family living together or nearby. Intrigued by these epiphanies, I was compelled to look into the cultural structures that influenced the recipes I found.


On a different note, I was really curious about the superstition around birthdays and noodles mentioned in the pancit recipe I used, and found an interesting explanation, which I shared with my YouTube video.


Intrigued by the quantity of food produced, I researched intergenerational living and kinship ties in South Asia. I found that more than 70% of elderly parents live with their children in the Philippines (Milagros et. al. 1995: 145), and that coresidence among extended family, or living very closeby, is also extremely common due to strong traditions of kinship and family reliance (Peterson 1993). This research corresponds with and complements the experience described by Gracie of large family dinners, and my own experiences growing up.


On my theory regarding recipe variation, I found the work of Sutton very informative – he describes the act of cooking as cultural reproduction, and describes the “traditional transmission of cooking knowledge from mothers and grandmothers to daughters and granddaughters” through “a visit to the person’s kitchen to observe and participate” (2001: 125-6). Other researchers have noted that recipes cannot replace the apprenticeship of a relative, but should instead “serve as memory-johs for previous learning that has been acquired through experience” (Heldke, cited in Sutton 2001: 134). Shayan, talking of the women gathering in the kitchen together to cook the biriyani for family gatherings, alluded to these practices of intergenerational teaching. Like my mother, his mother didn’t have a written recipe that I could borrow for this assessment.


Both Gracie and Shayan have read the published blogs from our interviews. Both were happy with how their experience and conversation had been represented, and both consented to me continuing with the project. Gracie requested a few minor changes, which I made immediately. As a coresearcher, giving her the power to adjust, improve, or change in any way the product of our research is important to address the ethical issues inherent in representing or speaking for others (Lapadat 2017: 589). Shayan’s response to the blog I wrote, which was much more in-depth, was “thank you for portraying my culture and religion in such a positive way by backing it with good research and evidence. I appreciate it. 🙂” Consent was sought to include our personal interactions.


The videos will go live at the time of submitting this assessment, and both Shayan and Gracie will be invited to give their feedback.


Ellis, C., Adams, T.E., and Bochner, A.P. (2011) ‘Autoethnography: An Overview‘, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12:1. Available at:

Holtzmann, J 2006, Food and Memory, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 35, pp. 361-78

Lapadat, JC 2017, ‘Ethics in Autoethnography and Collaborative Autoethnography’, Qualitative Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 8, pp. 589-603

Asis, M.M.B., Domingo, L., Knodel, J, Mehta, K 1995, Living arrangements in four Asian countries: a comparative perspective, Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, vol. 10, no. 1-2, pp. 145-162

Parker, S, & Amilbangsa, G 2017, Connecting with Cultures Through Food – Philippines, I Just Woke Up Like This, blog, October 3,

Parker, S, & Chawla, S 2017, Connecting with Cultures Through Food – Pakistan, I Just Woke Up Like This, blog, October 17,

Parker, S 2017, Connecting With Cultures Through Food – Biryani, 2 November,

Parker, S 2017, Connecting With Cultures Through Food – Pancit, 2 November,

Peterson, JT 1993, ‘Generalized extended family exchange: A case from the Philippines’, Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 55, no. 3, pp. 570-584

Pitard, J 2017, ‘A Journey to the Centre of Self: Positioning the Researcher in Autoethnography’, Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 108-127

Sutton, DE 2001, Remembrance Of Repasts : An Anthropology Of Food And Memory / David E. Sutton, n.p.: Oxford : Berg, 2001

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