The Politics of ma la dofu

January 10, 2009

30/11/08 Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

During my first visit to China a year ago, I developed quite a taste for Chinese food. But to say this to people who have never visited China is misleading, because often their only exposure to Chinese cuisine has been the greasy, MSG-saturated stuff that gets ordered for take-out in those quaint little white cardboard containers. And although Chinese food in China is, admittedly, both greasy and coated in a fine layer of MSG crystals, it is worlds away from the stereotypical, bright orange sweet and sour dishes with a side of egg fried rice.

The majority of Chinese restaurants in the West are Cantonese, which is only one of the many types of cuisine present in this vast country that encompasses over 50 different ethnic minorities and with each region boasting its own unique speciality. From the classics including Peking duck and steamed dumplings, to more obscure dishes such as Nanning dog; from fiery Chonqing hotpot and spicy Sichuanese dishes laced with taste bud-tingling Chinese prickly ash (’ma’), to the fresh fish fare of the Bai and the goat cheese of the Naxi in Yunan; from the barley- and yak product-based staples of the agriculturally-poor Tibetan plateau, to the laghman (pulled noodles) and pollo (similar to central Asian plov) of the Uighur in Xinjiang; the diversity of the Chinese empire is reflected in the proliferation of palates of which those who have not visited the Middle Kingdom are seldom aware.

When I visited China last year, I had not yet deviated from my 6-year-long stint as a vegetarian (which has since been forfeited with the introduction of lamb into my diet during my travels through central Asia: see here). Being a vegetarian in eastern China was a real thrill: with an abundance of vegetable- and tofu-based dishes almost always on offer, there was always something to satisfy my backpacker’s hunger. Even in the cities of Xinjiang, where the central Asian influence renders the local food heavily meat-based, there was always a Sichuanese restaurant to which we could flock in order to get our fill of our veggie favourites , including ‘fish-like aubergine’ and ma la dofu (hot and spicy tofu). It was only occasionally, when we ventured from the beaten-track, such as when we travelled into the more remote mountain areas of Xinjiang and stayed with both Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in yurts and went hiking southern Xishuanbanna near the Burmese border, that our dietary particularities were more difficult to abide by. But, like I believe every good traveller should, our sense of gratefulness in response to hospitality outweighed our principles, and we politely stomached the yak, lamb and wild boar that appeared on our plates.

This time round in Xinjiang, however, in the context of our desire to observe the various means by which the Han Chinese-dominated government maintains a tight control of the region and the implications of this on the livelihoods and culture of the Uighur people, we have found some ethical problems with our penchant for ma la dofu. More precisely, if we are morally opposed to Han Chinese control of and migration to Xinjiang, on the grounds that it represents an act of cultural imperialism that systematically disempowers the Uighur and seeks to undermine their culture in the name of national assimilation, then is it not morally objectionable for us to support Han businesses in the region?

By posing the polemic in this way, I am not implying that my personal choice to not support certain patrons will in any way threaten their business, or, for that matter, have any significant impact on them whatsoever. However, I do feel that consumption is an inherently political act, seeing as it has as its corollary production, and that those two together constitute a whole system in which undeniable power relations are present. Along these lines, the theory of ethical consumption goes that not only is hitting someone in their pocket is where it hurts most, but that it is an opportunity to use one’s economic power to draw attention to objectionable practices. To purchase something is to partake in that system, to have a degree of agency in its perpetuation. Conversely, to choose to not to place one’s purchasing power in a given system because one opposes certain methods used within it (in terms of production, advertising, transportation etc) is a means of expressing one’s dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The ethics of consumption have come to the forefront of popular discourse and debate in many ways over the past twenty years. These have taken various forms, most prominently academic boycotts as a means of criticising repressive regimes, such as in the cases of apartheid South Africa and Israel; divestment from certain banks or companies that have shares in arms companies and hence have vested interests in the continuation of certain conflicts, for example Sudan; and trends discouraging the purchase of goods produced using unsound methods (including those which use child or sweatshop labour, destroy ecosystems, or monopolise certain retail areas of geographic spaces) while encouraging alternative, more ethical products (organic, fair trade, low carbon-footprint etc).

Taking these sorts of arguments seriously, during these past couple weeks in Xinjiang, we have made concerted efforts to purchase from Uighurs, whether at in small shops or market stalls. In some places it has been easier than others: in the Han-dominated city of Gulja, outside the bazaar, it was nearly impossible to find shops owned/run by Uighur people to buy groceries from, whereas here in Kashgar, there are many more centres of Uighur commercial activity.

Nevertheless, there are some realms where we have no choice but to buy into Han business because there are no other options, most notably in terms of accommodation: all the hotels are run by Han Chinese. We got our hopes up yesterday when we heard about a guesthouse in the old Uighur quarter of Kasghar, thinking that we could finally stay with and economically support an Uighur family, only to be disappointed by learning that it was run by a Han Chinese. When questioned about why there were no Uighur guesthouses in the charming old town, with its obvious appeal to travellers, our interlocutor said that it was very difficult for Uighurs to get permits to house foreigners.

When it comes to eating a hot meal, we try to go to Uighur restaurants as often as possible. The problem is that even with our newly-nurtured lamb tolerance, neither J nor I find a bowl of lakhman noodles, or even the occasional shwar (kebab), to be as gastronomically pleasing as a Sichuanese spread, encompassing salads, stir fried veggies, the obligatory ma la dofu and some steamed rice. Compared to the explosion of colours and flavours offered by the latter, the appeal of the former fades. But every time we chose to eat in a Sichuan restaurant, are we not savouring a cuisine whose very presence in every town of Xinjiang betrays the extent of the Han conquest, and therefore implicitly condoning it? Isn’t eating in a Han restaurant in Xinjiang antithetical to our opinions about the region? Isn’t it hypocritical?

I suppose, on one hand, that Kashgar, being a key city on Silk Road, has a past of ethnic and cultural plurality. Its history as a cosmopolitan centre where different peoples met and merged has existed for a much longer period of time than its more recent statute of ‘traditional’ Uighur town. Therefore, to reject that history of diversity in favour of positing the Uighur as being in some way the most ‘authentic’ inhabitants of the region is inaccurate and misplaced. Consequently, my reservations about eating in Han restaurants could be accused of romanticising the position of the Uighur in Kashgar.

However, on the other hand, this analysis does not hold so true for some other cities that we have visited in Xinjiang, which really do fit the term ‘Uighur towns’, and that are being transformed into Han super cities. In those places, and within the broader context of Han migration and the unequal distribution of employment amongst the ethnic groups of the region, I think it is pertinent to be critically aware of where we place our purchasing power.

* * *

As the sun sets and we begin to contemplate what to have for dinner, I really do feel like I shouldn’t give in to that little voice inside me that proclaims its desire for ma la dofu. But today, I think I may have less of an internal debate with myself: I have a chest infection and have been moping around coughing up phlegm all day. In this condition, I don’t particularly feel like eating spicy stir fry, but nor does a steaming bowl of laghman seem appealing as that was my breakfast… So tonight, I think I’ll take the middle road and mosey on down to the Pakistan Cafe round the corner for some dahl and saag aloo… Kashgar must have the best South Asian food in all of China, and as long as it isn’t annexed by Pakistan anytime soon, I have no moral dilemmas in enjoying it!


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