Food Studies: An Immigrant Food Field Trip Food Studies: An Immigrant Food Field Trip

Food Studies: An Immigrant Food Field Trip

by Josh Evans

April 18, 2011

Lately in my "History of Food and Cuisine" class we have been talking about the culinary impact of immigrant communities on the American food landscape, from the 19th century to the present.

To further explore these and other questions, my class took a field trip last Wednesday to a couple of majority immigrant neighborhoods of New York to meet people, have discussions, and of course, eat great food.

After lunch, we went around Jackson Heights in search of pa'an—traditionally, a post-meal ritual involving the chewing of betel leaves, areca nuts, slaked lime, and sometimes tobacco.  Our version, however, was much tamer (and far less addictive): in sweet pa’an the betel leaf is stuffed with slaked lime paste, dried coconut and other fruits, candied fennel seeds, and then folded into a little pocket. It was a singular experience, and an incredible blend of flavors— sweet, sour, astringent, bitter, and herbaceous—and textures, from crunchy to chewy to crispy: much more potent and complex than your average breath mint. The taste lingered in my mouth for hours.

From there we took the 7 to the end of the line for the second half of the day. When we exited the metro station in Flushing, it felt like we had walked straight into Hong Kong: The air was full of exotic smells and sounds, there were people everywhere going about their business, and delectable morsels beckoned from every storefront. We tried Peking Duck buns, watched cooks make hand-pulled noodles in the Golden Mall, visited different Korean and Chinese grocers, and went to a Korean-French fusion bakery.

We finished the day with a multi-course Chinese meal, where we discussed our various impressions of "authenticity" and what it means to search for an experience of "the other" (our understanding of the "ethnic") as an "outsider."

That last sentence involved a lot of scare quotes, and our conversation was definitely pretty academic, but the day's eating and visiting really did help to ground all the theoretical issues we've been discussing in class. It could have hardly been more valuable—or delicious.

To be continued.

Josh is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub. If you enjoyed this, you should check out the rest of the Food Studies blogger gang here, including recent posts on food labelspapaya pollination, and farmer-activism.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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Food Studies: An Immigrant Food Field Trip