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U of T students spend four days munching on 200 year old diets from Southeast Asia

Taking “you are what you eat” to a whole new level

A group of University of Toronto students recently took the old adage that you are what you eat to a whole new level, assuming the identities of diverse individuals from Southeast Asia’s past.

spices-rice-inside

The experiential learning project was part of a course called “Rice, Sugar and Spice in Southeast Asia: A Regional Food History.” Photo: ©iStock.com | tthemacx.

The students chose from a list of the types of people living in the region between the 17th and 19th centuries and constructed a diet based on factors such as the person’s socio-economic position and the factors that stabilize that position relative to others.

The experiential learning project was part of a course called “Rice, Sugar and Spice in Southeast Asia: A Regional Food History” taught by Professor Nhung Tuyet Tran of the Faculty of Arts & Science. Tran holds a Canada Research Chair in Southeast Asian History.

From fast food to rice, sweet potatoes and soggy fish

On four consecutive days, fast food, sugary snacks and caffeine gave way to rice, sweet potatoes and soggy fish as the students slipped into the roles of their alter egos from history.

“You don’t realize until you experience it how much your life changes just by taking on another person’s diet for four days,” said Amal Ismail-Ladak, a second-year student studying international relations, health studies and history.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this. It generated so much intellectual curiosity,” added Ismail-Ladak, who took on the persona of a 19th-century, female, South Asian indentured servant on a rubber plantation in colonial Malaya.

Some students were even able to pass the lessons on to their own families. Eda Martinovic adopted the role of a mixed race Chinese female in the 17th-century Spanish Philippines, and her husband and two young daughters joined in the rice-laden diet.

“Actually living it makes you think much more deeply about not only the lives of the mestizos, but your own position in life today”

“I’m lucky to have done this with my family because I got to see their perspective,” Martinovic said. “Actually living it makes you think much more deeply about not only the lives of the mestizos, but your own position in life today.”

Caffeine jitters and sugar cravings sometimes got the best of the students, but the exercise allowed them to confess their dietary transgressions in a journal entry and to explain what they learned.

Fourth-year political science student Ben Murchison absent-mindedly gobbled down a candy bar during Halloween, then cursed himself for forgetting what life was like for the 19th-century Javanese sugar factory worker he was impersonating.

A morning meal of rice and fish before a hard day’s work

“My character was a person who woke up early every morning to a basic meal of rice and fish and then worked for 13 hours,” said Murchison. “It’s one thing to hear about that from a professor, and another to feel yourself hungry in the middle of the day.”

Like some of his other classmates, Bryan Goh chose to experience the diet of a Chinese mestizo in the Philippines, and soon was drawing parallels between today’s caviar and champagne-binging celebrities and his character, a relatively well-off person for the times, but someone who was forced to eat copious amounts of expensive white rice as a status symbol.

“Those celebrities today and the mestizos are both really boxed in by who they are and how they choose to portray themselves,” said Goh, a fourth-year human biology and history student. “It brought new meaning to food I had never thought of before.”

Not only about food, but also about identity

The students said they came to realize that the project was not only about food, but also about identity — both aspirational and imposed – and they were profoundly affected by the experience.

Farhan Mahmood was able to reconnect with his heritage by adopting the character of a well-born Javanese Muslim in 19th-century Batavia (Jakarta) observing the fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Mahmood, a third-year physiology and human biology student, said he began to understand that the tradition of fasting from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan made everybody’s shared hunger a reminder they are all equal in God’s eyes.

On the third day of fasting, he saw the same homeless man in his neighbourhood he’d been walking past for four years. This time he stopped and offered to buy him something to eat.

“For me, it was a few dollars. For him, it probably gave him hope,” said Mahmood. “The feeling was so pure.”