Monday, January 07, 2008

Globalization and food 

My colleague Ming Lo has been posting while traveling to Hong Kong and Macau, and reports on a food court in HK:
Culture that represents modernity inspires people in the rest of the world to follow its path. Sadly, these disciples have often chosen to copy the superficial quality of the modern leaders. There may be twenty factors that contributed to the success of the United States. MTV and baggy pants are not one of them. To understand and to learn the true ingredients of success is hard. To buy the lifestyle of citizens of the modern world is relatively easy. Such is the unification of the low culture, an unnessary yet inevitable product of economic globalization.

The last frontier that is resisting this process is cuisine. History and geography has dictated what we prefer to put into our mouth. True, MacDonald and Pizza Hut have evaded much of the space in the second world (Europe) and the third world (the rest). But in most cases, they only add to the existing heterogeneity.

Today, in a upscaled mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, I ate in a food court that featured Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Italian cuisine. And mind you, this is not a unique phenomenon, not a single observation point. No matter how alike we dress, food is where people disagree.
I think there's less disagreement than Ming believes. As I mentioned in a comment, there are many kinds of such places around the world, often placed by emigres to these places (my favorite being the Vietnamese family who had fled to America, and then were lured by their daughter to set up a Viet-Thai restaurant in Budapest because they loved that city.) People don't disagree about food, they value heterogeneity.

Indeed, in travel and at home what we value is what we are served. Sometimes we want food fast, or we want to experience "typical American life". When I ate at a Pizza Hut in Cairo I would see many average Egyptians there. When I ate in the food court at the Hyatt, the Egyptians there were mostly of upper income levels. Prices matched this. When I travel in business or first class, the type of service I get from international airlines differs greatly from that which I get from local. American business flyers want space for their laptops; they work on the plane. So perhaps the quality of the service isn't that big a deal. When in Europe or particularly Asia, the travelers more often read and relax, so service quality has a higher value.
Markets are efficient at providing to each group that which they value more. Prices adjust -- I have always wanted to know on what price scale they measured these bundles of food eaten around the world -- and diets adapt. But we value means to extremes, and we value both heterogeneity and consistency. These are improved as we trade more.

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