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Letting Your Tastebuds Talk: The Emotion and Experience of Food

July 20, 2020

Portrait of Martin Manalansan.

Portrait of Martin Manalansan.
Portrait of Martin Manalansan.

American studies Professor Martin Manalansan began thinking about researching food after a visit to his sister. “My sister was scrubbing her walls in her apartment in New York City,” Manalansan recounts. “And I asked why she was scrubbing her walls, which I found kind of odd. She said she was trying to scrub away the smell of fried fish.”

He was struck by how the simple smell of fried fish had elicited such an emotional response from his sister—strong enough for her to clean the walls. "There's something about fish smell and fried food, that marks an in-depth space in racial-ethnic classrooms," Manalansan explains. 

Manalansan specializes in gender and sexuality, immigration, Asian Americans, the Philippines, and more. He has written about subjects from queer theory to aspects of the Filipino diaspora, but for his most recent project, Manalansan returns to a topic that requires only our senses: food. 

Focusing on Food

Manalansan is researching how Asian American immigrants’ experience and communicate about food. He is taking a particularly close look at Filipino-American cuisine, exploring how feelings about food affect the role it plays in someone’s life. 

“The focus really is the way in which food is talked about,” says Manalansan. “So I'm not really doing restaurant ethnographies [and] I'm not tasting food, per se, and talking about whether things taste good or bad, but the ways in which food is talked about in terms of authenticity, originality, and identity.”

Through interviews and ethnographic observation, he looks at different ways immigrants perceive their food. Does their cuisine give them a sense of pride or do they say they feel ashamed of it? How do Asian American immigrants’ feelings about food communicate ideas about identity, originality, and authenticity?

Exploring the Senses

Another aspect of Manalansan’s research on Filipino-American food is how our physical senses are linked to emotional responses. Something that Manalansan previously researched is the way that various cultures rely on sense differently when it comes to food. Asian cultures emphasize experiencing food not just by its flavor, but also by its mouthfeel—the textures of the dish. Manalansan says that the differences in how individuals perceive these sensations can reveal the ways that food delineates racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.

Manalansan believes that an individual’s emotional and sensory experience with food is enough to appreciate on its own. “While people might see my focus on the ordinary as a way station towards bigger, more important things, I'm saying at a certain point—and I emphasize this—that the small is important in and of itself,” he explains. Though Manalansan thinks about the broader, societal role that perceptions of food play, his approach to research acknowledges the importance of a singular experience.

The Importance of Adobo

One story that Manalansan tells about his research is about adobo, a Filipino cuisine that has gained popularity in the United States. Here, adobo is prepared with vinegar, garlic, onions, and soy sauce; however, in the Philippines, there are regional varieties of adobo. 

While in Queens, Manalansan spoke about the popular dish with a man who had immigrated to the US 15 years ago. The two stopped by a small restaurant that served adobo. They shared a common dissatisfaction with the type of adobo typically served in the US because they were both from a region of the Philippines that prepared a variety of adobo without soy sauce, called white adobo. 

However, this restaurant in Queens happened to prepare the white adobo that they both loved. Manalansan’s companion ordered the white adobo because he preferred the taste, but the flavors also carried a different type of importance. “He was all excited about that, and I could see tears,” says Manalansan. Nostalgia permeated his experience.

This shows how immigrant food can be understood and appreciated as more than just sustenance. “It’s a foundational vehicle for sociality, for creating affinities, attachments, and sometimes detachments or differences,” says Manalansan.

The preparation, presentation, and cooking style of food changes with time and varies according to regions. Manalansan argues that there is no authentic adobo because authenticity is fictional and assumes a single origin; however, food and culture is always changing. Manalansan adds, “While emotional reactions to adobo of people’s childhood or the kind that they grew up with is significant, it should not be the basis for an assertion of authenticity.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student in Backpack. Meet the team.