Eating the West and Beating the Rest: Culinary Occidentalism and Urban Soft Power in Asia’s Global Food Cities

James Farrer



A new global culinary geography of high cuisine has developed centered on global cities. This essay traces this development by focusing on the interaction between transnational flows of people and resources and local cultural politics in two of Asia’s global cities, Shanghai and Tokyo. Although investments and increased wealth create the conditions for development of international restaurant scenes in cities, the advent of a cosmopolitan and lively urban food culture is not an inevitable outcome of economic globalization. Global city culinary culture is shown to be influenced both by local urban histories and by transnational cultural politics, as Asian global cities compete in terms of their attractiveness for investors, or their “urban soft power.” “Culinary soft power,” or the culinary reputation of a city, has become an important element of this “urban soft power.” To understand the similarities and considerable differences in the restaurant scenes of Shanghai and Tokyo, we must also consider historical contexts. In both Shanghai and Tokyo recently booming international restaurant scenes are shaped by decades of colonial and postcolonial encounters. Cosmopolitan foodscapes build upon colonial spatial legacies and postcolonial imaginaries. Despite the increasing diversities of urban foodways, “culinary Occidentalism” as well as “culinary nationalism” still strongly influence the meanings of consuming foreign foods in Asia’s global cities.


pdf iconFor full paper download, click here.



James FarrerJames Farrer is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and the Director of the Institute of Comparative Culture at Sophia University. His research has involved qualitative and ethnographic studies of youth sexuality, sexual politics, intercultural marriage, nightlife, urban spaces, expatriate subcultures, and now foodways. The fieldsites have been in Shanghai, with a comparative focus on Tokyo. He is author of the book Opening Up: Youth sex culture and market reform (University of Chicago Press 2002).  His research for this project focuses on the development of international cuisine in Shanghai during the reform and opening period.