Food, as a symbol, can be associated to any aspect of a culture. It encompasses ethnicity, religion, ethos, social standing and relationships. Foods related to ethnicity become representational to a community as it stands in contrast to other ethnic groups. This somehow projects a negative view toward a particular group since it underscores cultural disparity through isolation. The specific cultural context of an ethnic group characterizes the function of a particular food item, which is a staple to the community. Food is symbolic of communal relationships that include the status and place within a social group, as well as relationships between individuals. Before the principles of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity took root in Asia, the predominant religions revolved around rice and nature. Rice is usually considered sacred throughout Asian cultures and the ritual of harvesting rice has shaped its traditions for centuries.
In ancient times, rice was believed to be a gift from heaven. It signified blessings from the gods to mankind. In Japan, rice corresponds to a ritual food in the Shinto religion. The emperor of Japan is said to distribute rice with the sun goddess during great ceremonials as it pertains to life. Rice is also related with the notions of enlightenment, regeneration, knowledge, happiness and abundance, which is why it is part of wedding rituals (Ohnuki-Tierney 23).
Food can also be used to mark one’s socioeconomic standing as well, since certain items are associated with particular classes. In Gosden’s book, he had described the way rice has molded many aspects of Southeast Asian village traditions such as religion and societal order. In many parts of Southeast Asia, there exists a three-class system hierarchy that maintains order in the society. Individuals who owned land for cultivating rice were considered to be powerful. Gosden further explained that rank was determined by the size and quantity of the rice. Also, the size of an individual’s house and rice granaries influenced his or her status from the commoners. In many places, rice granaries are amicably designed to resemble human houses, indicating the close connection between people and nature (Gosden 88-100).
Gosden noted in his book that a great deal of time and detail has been exerted to set up elaborate storage facilities and containers for rice, which are considered sacred spaces. Special ceremonies will take place when rice is brought in from the fields and installed into the granary. The Toraja tribe in Indonesia often practices rice rituals in the morning when the sun is just about to rise since like the Japanese, rice is often associated with the sun. Many of the Toraja granaries are decorated with bright gold sunburst designs that depict reverence to the granary. The granaries also served as art spaces for the community as artisans are fed and paid for their full time while they work on constructing the containers (Gosden 115).
Generally, rice is believed to be strongly connected to women and fertility. Most Asian cultures practice religious ceremonies to ensure rice productivity, animal domestication and population growth. Throughout Southeast Asia, specifically in Indonesia and the Philippines, people harvest rice using small finger knives so as to not infuriate the rice goddess. Elderly skilled women have traditionally utilized fine hand knives to cautiously select the seed rice for potential harvests. Many Southeast Asian cultures believe in a female rice deity and still make offerings in her honor today (Civitello 138).
Civitello, Linda. Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People. New Jersey: Wiley, 2007. 135-144.
Gosden, Chris. The Prehistory of Food: Appetites for Change (One World Archaeology). New York: Routledge, 1999. 88-123.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994. 5-198.
Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne and Anthea Bell. A History of Food. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993. 164.