Wednesday, 2 March 2016

From Student Laksa to Pho with Free-range Chicken

A few days ago, I cooked laksa for some friends at my new apartment in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner west. This was the 8th time I had moved house since arriving in Australia as an international student in 2003. For reasons both economic and emotional, it was probably also the most worry-free of all my previous changes of residence. I recall the more troublesome of these as being uprootings that took a while to turn into everyday rituals around a home and a neigbourhood.

The first time I tasted laska at a stall in Chinatown in Adelaide, I was hooked. As someone of Indian heritage who could not digest chili, this was a soup that packed a range of tangy and deep flavours without the need to up the ante on heat. My forays into the foods of south-east Asia at the time had less to do with trying to be a cosmopolitan foodie, and were more about the migration history of inner city Adelaide, the composition of its international student body in the early 2000s, and my enrolment in courses where I socialised with ‘internationals’ from ethnicities other than my own.

I recall saving money from my causal hospitality jobs to go out for lunch with my friend Kasumi about once a week, right after our comparative politics class. We would pass notes to decide where we were going to eat, and what. I looked forward to these outings, which later became a more regular phenomenon as life became easier. If it wasn’t a catch up with a friend at Penang Hawker’s Corner in Renaissance Arcade just before I took my next tutorial as a PhD student, it would be a pit stop at K-Noodle on Pulteney Street so I could write in my office until sundown. These foodscapes of Asian food in Adelaide became so familiar and nourishing as to entirely replace my original diasporic craving for Indian roti. But I still wasn’t doing the adventurous cosmopolitan thing. Perhaps I wasn’t in the correct tax bracket to be a connoisseur of the world.

Researching these affective food geographies now, as a more sure-footed scholar, I realise that laksa is an inherently hybrid Pernakan (or amalgamation of Chinese and Malay elements) dish. In its Adelaide context, it is also the perfect food metaphor for migrant journeying that occurs outside of the traditional paradigms of ‘host’ and ‘home’ nation. As Adelaide-based cultural studies academic Jean Duruz writes, ‘While I am not an “authentic” member of the Singaporean/Malaysian community in Adelaide, this dish is, though differently, “embedded” here in my own culinary history. “Do you remember your first taste of laksa?”, Adelaide people ritually ask’ (2011: 62).

In Sydney though, I think the question might be, “Do you remember your first taste of pho?”, with most pronouncing the name of this ubiquitous Vietnamese broth phonetically. So while I cook laksa for my friends at home, I realise that I tend to gravitate towards pho when eating out in Marrickville. This is largely because it once had a large Vietnamese migrant community, and now has both hole-in-wall places as well as fancier establishments selling somewhat traditional pho (including, as I discovered recently with a friend, pho with free-range chicken).

It is perhaps this newly-acquired enchantment with Vietnamese flavours, and coffee that led me to plan one of the few non-work, non-family trips of my adult life. While on a city tour of Ho Chi Minh City that took us to an air-conditioned establishment selling pho, with fresh basil and bean sprouts on the side to boot, I was surprised to discover that my fellow Australian tour mates from Canberra had never tried it before. I was reminded of a young Anglo-Australian friend in Adelaide who was similarly well-travelled, but not acquainted with the Adelaidean love affair with laksa.

On a street food tour in Hanoi, Vietnam
While I am thus tempted to jump to a conclusion about white, middle class travellers who are culinary adventurers looking for difference, I will refrain from doing so. Referring to seminal work on culinary tourism by Lucy M Long and Lisa Heldke, Molz comes to the conclusion that those of non-white backgrounds can also engage in practices of culinary tourism, both in their cities of residence, and overseas. However, she also cautions us to consider food practices within a ‘power-geometry’, and ask the following questions: ‘Whose foods and foodways are able to travel and under what conditions? Whose food encounters count as cosmopolitan, and whose culinary practices are denied such status?’ (2007: 82).

So, how can those of us with one or another kind of privilege be engaged in culinary practices that acknowledge similarities and differences, are mobilized locally as well as globally, and stretch to allow cultural openness? The answer may lie in opening conversations with those serving us pho, as well as those eating laksa on a budget.