Food Anthropology: Chitalian Cuisine

Last week, as part of a class on food anthropology, we all had to conduct an ethnographic study of a food production place in town using participant-observation methods (read: hanging out and discreetly taking notes). Rather than choosing one of the town’s many pizzerias or gelato shops, I decided to investigate the one place that has elicited a sort of morbid fascination for me for the last month: The Chinese restaurant in Bra. That’s right, there’s only one, and there isn’t too much other ethnic food in town to speak of, aside from a couple small kebab shops.

After enlisting the help of some comrades who claimed to be strong of stomach, we ventured toward Nin Hao Ristorante on the northern outskirts of town. It was 8 pm on a Monday night, and the restaurant was ostensibly open, but the dining room looked dark from the outside, and there were no signs of life, other than a Chinese man who was sitting on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. I hesitated and gave a cautious tug on the door. The restaurant was desolate and the lights were even off. At that point, a server marched out, then turned to us with a smile as she flicked the light switch. We turned to each other apprehensively. I don’t know if I have ever dined at an entirely empty restaurant before.

Unfortunately, the night did not get much better from there. The meal turned out to be fairly bland and uninspired, and much of the food had been frozen or was otherwise not fresh. Though I was excited to see €7 Peking duck on the menu, you do get what you pay for, and it seemed like they had bought the duck elsewhere and reheated it. Many thanks to my hapless dinner companions for their bravery in the face of possibly off tofu.

Bad food aside, we had a great time chatting with the waitress, who had been living in Italy for 9 years and hailed from the province of Zhejiang. We asked her how she liked Bra, and she replied “it’s all right,” which pretty much means she hates it. On the other hand, we asked her about Chinese enclaves in major cities, and she said that she thought the Chinese section of Turin was sketchy.

As it turns out, there was a second Chinese take-out place that I didn’t know about previously, so in the name of (social) science, we went there too. This one was directly in the center of town, and while we were there, we saw double the number of customers (2) as the previous night. The food here turned out to be much better too, though I hasten to say that after a week eating cheese in Puglia, combined with the disappointing fare of the other restaurant, I was in an emotionally vulnerable spot and would have been ecstatic about almost anything recognizably Chinese. I recommend the steamed pork & peanut buns (they called them “pane cinese” or “mantou,” though the resultant buns were what I would call “baozi”).

For more information and pictures, you can check out the paper, Chitalian Cuisine and Its Discontents, and the presentation slides.

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