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  • Writer's pictureMiranda Brown

ASIAN 258: Welcome to Asian Food and Drink

Updated: May 3, 2021

Shellfish in Xiamen (SE China, Nov 2019)

Ever wonder why Asians put tapioca pearls in milk tea? The origins of sushi, tempura, or ramen? Or whether it’s disrespectful to Chinese people to order Orange Chicken?

If so, you’re in the right place.

Welcome to ASIAN 258. If this were a regular semester, I would be congratulating you on making it into the class. After all, most of you are seniors; some of you have even been waiting years to take this introductory course. But to quote President Schlissel, this year is like no other. So I’ll skip the congratulations and cut to the chase. You won’t be watching a middle-aged woman deliver a PowerPoint twice a week or clicking for points with friends. Nor will you have an opportunity to crowd into a kitchen with me and the other member of the teaching team. Instead, we will have a different relationship, a virtual one. But never fear. I will spare you the looong pre-recorded lectures. Instead, I am going to reach you – much like a wellness guru – through the power of the written word. My blog: yes, the blog, delivered to your Inbox, for the rest of the term. If you want our relationship to continue indefinitely, you’ll have an option to subscribe to the blog at no additional cost.

Of course, this class will entail far more than Miranda Brown’s blog. Starting Wednesday, May 5th, you’ll go to section in real time and meet me and your GSI. You’ll play games, explore recipes, compete for bonus points, and make friends. In the process, you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of Asian food.

There will also be experiential activities this term. You'll also have a chance to cook Asian recipes with me and the Teaching Team -- on-line, of course. Some highlights: noodles, biryani, mochi, sushi, and, of course, pad Thai.

Uighur Naan in Zhangzhou, SE China (Nov 2019)

Most of these will be in real time, to give you a chance to interact with the class informally, but there will be also some experiments that you can pursue on your own time, offline.

There will also be assignments. My assignments will be enticing invitations to learn. As such, they will be fun, engaging, creative, even a little crazy. You will have opportunities to reflect on how my blogs, your discussion sections, and readings relate to your daily life. These assignments will assume a myriad of forms – and you’ll have choice as to where you put your effort. This is why we use GradeCraft: a software that allows you to tailor your course work to your interests and schedules. This term, you will have opportunities to post and respond in YellowDig, to blog about your meals, and reflect on your efforts to cook or master banquet etiquette. There will also be an opportunity to create your own Food-for-Thought Manifesto.

All of these activities will assist your journey through the world of Asian food. By the end of the term, you’ll have unraveled one of life’s great mysteries. That is, why is Asian food so darn yummy?

In other words, this is not just another class. ASIAN 258 will change your life and haunt you for the rest of your days.

After this term, you will never look at your food in the same way again, Asian or not. You’ll also have learned about a lot of food: food that you have never heard of, or tried. In the process, you’ll open up your palate, and hopefully, learn a few life skills about cooking and eating. Along the way, you will pick up a tremendous amount of knowledge about Asian culture and history – but in delectable bite-sized morsels and by watching plenty of the world’s funniest cooking videos.

How's this relevant? You'll see...

More practically, this class promises to help you become your best self. By best, I mean, your most polished and engaging self. Your assignments for the class will challenge you not only to demonstrate your mastery of Miranda Brown Thought, but also show that you can throw together a compelling and provocative argument: equal parts learned and titillating.

This class also offers a crash course in acquiring social and cultural capital. As you head off into your post-graduate life, you will discover the importance of relationships, and I mean not just romantic ones: colleagues, bosses, and clients. As you all know, it can be tough connecting with strangers. Most often, we don’t know exactly where to begin. Do you really want to ask a new client how he or she feels about the presidential election? Or about abortion, mask wearing, football? Obviously not. Even football is full of landmines.

Food is different, however. You can always count on it. As one savvy Ross student told me in the first iteration of this class in 2015, “Food is the safest way to connect with someone.” We all eat. And when we come together for a meal, we have in front of us a subject of common concern. That food will present you with an opportunity to demonstrate your smarts and cosmopolitan creds. In other words, you will come away from this class with a lot of cocktail talk.

Having introduced the broad goals of this class, let me answer a question that you must be burning to ask.

Who am I?

I am Miranda Brown, the wearer of many hats. Officially, I am the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Professor of Chinese Studies in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan. I have managed to hold down this job, albeit at various ranks, since September 2002. For the purposes of this term, you just need to know three things. One: I am obsessed with food, and you are welcome to talk with me about any food or drink, anytime. Two: I am also the mommy of domineering five-year old Sofía, who will invade our food labs. Three, I am half Chinese, but one hundred percent Californian. This last fact will acquire increasing relevance as this course progresses. My mixed parentage drives the way I see food. And if I were to ever write my own manifesto, it would be that good food is rarely pure (more on that later).

Miranda Brown

This term, I am not alone. The ASIAN 258 Teaching Team includes a high-powered GSI. Gou Wu (pronounced like the verb go)—who also goes by "Alexis" in English-speaking contexts, so pick whichever one you like!—is currently a master's student in the International and Regional Studies program (specializing in Chinese studies) after having majored in linguistics at UChicago. Alexis's specific research interests include historical linguistics, dialectology, and language contact, and you may soon be surprised to learn how these concepts will turn out quite relevant to the subjects of this class, too. Becoming a GSI for ASIAN 258 marks the first time Alexis's food-geek side and academic pursuits ever get to actually overlap, and this avid home cook (who has been one since high school) is still finding it a little bit surreal.

As this blog has gone on too long, we’ll stop here. I’ll lay out the major problems in studying Asian Food in our next blog, and highlight a pressing controversy: is it kosher to reduce the sugar or eliminate the nuts in recipes?

In the meantime, please scan the syllabus and explore our Canvas site. Have questions about course logistics? Go to the YellowDig Assignment in Canvas, click on it to register, and start posting your questions. I’ll be waiting.

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