Asian-American Cuisine's Rise, and Triumph
November 14, 2017 6:00 PM   Subscribe

Could we call it Asian-American cuisine? The term is problematic, subsuming countries across a vast region with no shared language or single unifying religion. It elides numerous divides: city and countryside, aristocrats and laborers, colonizers and colonized — “fancy Asian” and “jungle Asian,” as the comedian Ali Wong puts it. As a yoke of two origins, it can also be read as an impugning of loyalties and as a code for “less than fully American.” When I asked American chefs of Asian heritage whether their cooking could be considered Asian-American cuisine, there was always a pause, and sometimes a sigh. [SLNYT]
posted by destrius (25 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
“third culture kids,” heirs to both their parents’ culture and the one they were raised in, and thus forced to create their own.

I've never heard this term before and wow, I'm nodding my head so hard. As an Indian/Texan/Canadian, I've often felt like my identity has been fractured and broken in many ways. This idea of a "third culture" just hones in on that feeling.

A fascinating discussion. There's a lot to chew on here.
posted by Fizz at 7:15 PM on November 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm going to taste what you did there, with any luck.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 7:30 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I found an Asian American studies lecturer's blog entry, which mentions and critiques the Top Chef incident with the Vietnamese contestant.

NYTimes article somewhat lacking in photos of the food; here's the Honolulu chef's grilled cabbage caesar; this plated version looks stunning, and another closeup of the texture. Recipe!
posted by polymodus at 7:32 PM on November 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Third Culture Kid" somewhat previously in Ask if you're interested in chewing further, Fizz.
posted by bl1nk at 7:33 PM on November 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

Parts of this topic has been a bit on my mind lately partially, because in Boston, we're seeing a lot of these kinda vaguely Southeast Asian food trucks and fast casual places where you could get, say, banh mi with cilantro, shredded carrots and miso braised carnitas or a cong you bing (scallion pancake breakfast sandwich) riff with pesto, poached egg and bacon, and my shorthand for it has long been "Third Culture Cuisine" though I sometimes also call it "Lucky Peach Asian"

and honestly, I love it, because I've longed believe that we need to bring our food out of the ethnic ghetto, and part of that is no longer leaving ourselves beholden to having to make food exactly as how we would've made it back home. That's always loser's game anyway, because we don't live back home. We don't have the produce or the climate or the seasonings that we would have in Asia. Drop the shackles and let us make most of the ingredients that we have here.

Still, there's a part of me that's also nervous about that evolution. Because, as the article points out, this sort of evolution flattens the story and makes it so that you don't have to have grown up in an Asian household or lived in Asia to understand what a good nasi goreng is supposed to taste like. You can just do some other fried rice dish with a bunch of shallots and shrimp paste and call it your "riff" on a nasi goreng. Which then also means that you don't even have to be Asian to play this game.

I spent part of the aftermath of a camping trip in the 100 Mile Wilderness in northern Maine tucking in to some smoked pork and crab mee goreng at Honeypaw in Portland, Maine. It bills itself as "noodles without borders" and basically hawks a menu of Asian small plates and noodle dishes that borrow a bit from Thailand, China, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. And generally speaking it's good, legit, shit. But you know, you look at the staff, and it's all white dudes with beards. The original head chef was half Chinese/Irish but they're no longer around. And I kept wondering, at what point did this place cross the line? At what does it become appropriation or Columbusing?

And, I don't know. Would I be happier if the restaurant was contributing to the career of some Asian person? Sure. The place is still doing its part in introducing American hipsters to khao soi and widening their taste horizons in a place where they can still get craft cocktails and nod their head along to Wu-Tang, so yay for cultural exposure? At what point is it just edging into gentrification though? At what point should diners be interrogating the intentions and backgrounds of their cooks?

ugh, I'm kind of flailing here and need to walk away from this plate of beans. Maybe I should take this as a reminder to get into funding a local Filipino-American brother sister duo who are hustling to open their first brick and mortar, and have some legit delightful ideas in store. Less tearing down faceless white beards and more building up local PoC entrepreneurs.
posted by bl1nk at 8:00 PM on November 14, 2017 [23 favorites]

bl1nk, as part of a ChIn-Am (Chinese-Indian-American) family, I have mulled similar questions, but let me say that if you want us to part from our BonMe sandwiches, you will have to pry them from our cold dead hands. (Of course, this is Boston, so I guess you already knew the "cold" part.)
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 10:24 PM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

On season three of “Top Chef,” Hung Huynh, a Vietnamese-American contestant, was faulted for cooking that was technically dazzling but lacked explicit reference to his roots. “You were born in Vietnam,” Tom Colicchio, the head judge, said. “I don’t see any of that in your food.”

Just as Hung Huynh shouldn't have to have a personal story based in his race contained within his food, I don't think Hipster McFoodtruck should be prevented from slapping kimchi in a dosa. It's food, and if it tastes good, that's great. So I think David Chang is a little off base when he calls it "appropriation." (Using that term with what I have to assume is its narrower, pejorative connotation.)

This doesn't mean that there can't be appropriation with food, but I think that you have to do a lot more than just use an ingredient your grandparents didn't. From what I've seen, appropriation is harmful when it serves up racist caricatures, merely stereotypes, or when it is taken up by a majority culture to displace and "erase" a minority culture. If someone set themselves up as an "authentic" Korean restaurant, and merely served burgers with kimchi mayo, or bulgogi Cobb salads, that starts to edge a little closer, I think.

I think what Chang is getting at has less to do with appropriation and more to do with understanding how the foods work in context with other foods. In that sense, he's critiquing as a chef and not a cultural critic. 90's Burger King chicken sandwiches to the contrary, a dish doesn't become French just because you add ham, cheese, and bechamel to it. What makes a dish French has to do in part with the ingredients, in part with the technique, and in part with a certain sensibility in how those things can come together. I expect that someone trained or immersed in French cooking can use entirely non-French-based ingredients to create French food.

There's nothing wrong with Wolfgang Puck's "Chinois Chicken Salad;" it's yummy. It has debatable connections to Chinese food, but I don't think it claims to be any more Chinese than his fries claim to be French.

What the chefs profiled in the article are trying to do is something different from "Asian fusion" (American food with accents of Asian ingredients), and something different from Chinese-American food of sweet-and-sour, chop suey fame. They're doing something more interesting, that probably should have hit the American palate long ago. But it doesn't mean that those other types of food are bad or "Columbusing" per se.

Now, if Skinnyjeans Beardface start trying to claim greater authenticity or understanding than someone who's come from the country that SjB spent a few months in, he can go fork himself.
posted by pykrete jungle at 11:36 PM on November 14, 2017 [8 favorites]

But that's like a Scotsman fallacy, to think that it's appropriation only if it meets white hegemonic standards of harm. Just as many today accept that there's implicit forms of prejudice, there are non-overt types and variants of appropriative experiences. That's a simple parallel to follow. When Dave Chang is saying what he says, maybe he's on to something: we who are Asian Americans in this conversation are informed by our lived experience and shouldn't be dismissed as off-base again and again on these matters. Intellectually, I suggest the opposite reflex: broadening the notion of appropriation, because that allows for recognition and ultimately taking responsibility concomitant to the particular kind of harm or hurt that is done.
posted by polymodus at 12:39 AM on November 15, 2017 [12 favorites]

I am struggling with the definition of cultural appropriation in this context. I'm guessing there's no problem with bearded white dudes enjoying eating food from other cultures? Am I correct that the problem is when they start trying to make and sell the food? If that's the case, are they allowed to make it for their own consumption? Is the problem maybe that they are flooding a market and making it harder for Asian Americans to compete? These are genuine questions that i'd like to understand.

I live in Scotland and I love all things Tex Mex. The best option I have is a Scottish guy who's married to a woman from Denver. Apparently that makes him an expert in burritos, but it sure as hell sounds like appropriation. Tasty, though.

We're well stocked in Thai, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese etc restaurants staffed by Asian chefs but the food they serve hasn't matched my experiences of food in Asia. There is a definite warping of cuisine to cater to local tastes. I guess this is more of a cultural exchange than appropriation?
posted by trif at 3:37 AM on November 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Authenticity is an important component of many countries' agricultural export marketing strategies. Thailand, for example, has long had a goal of becoming a world leader in food exports (currently it's just outside the top 10 food exporting countries). Many government policies are directed towards this goal, including a series of promotional campaigns to persuade the rest of the world to eat authentic Thai food. Initiatives under the banners "Thai Kitchen of the World" and "Thai Cuisine of the World" included standardization of recipes, training and placement of chefs, promotion of restaurants abroad, and sponsoring of food festivals.

Authentic Thai food uses ingredients sourced from Thailand — jasmine rice (not American long grain rice), bird's eye chillis (not Anaheim chillies), green aubergines (not purple aubergines), long beans (not French beans) and so on — and so authenticity benefits Thai agricultural exporters.

(This is, of course, not intended to be a criticism of Thailand's highly successful agricultural export sector. Many countries mount similar campaigns, for example the French appellation d'origine controlée system helps protect and promote authentic French agricultural products.)
posted by cyanistes at 4:43 AM on November 15, 2017 [7 favorites]

I think part of what I'm considering here is that, at the personal level of cultural exchange, sharing foodways and adapting our recipes is not just ok, but essential. I love teaching my friends how to make a Filipino adobo. I love learning how to make chili. I love figuring out mashups of those two.

However, it feels like there's a bunch of inequality at the economic level, determining how restaurants start and thrive. You need a ton of startup capital to get a restaurant going, and it feels like access to that capital is limited to certain individuals of a socioeconomic niche. The typical story that we see is someone starting as a sous chef in the industry, they get lucky enough to work at a successful venue, learn the trade, work their way up, and develop a reputation for deliciousness, then parlay that nascent hype into getting a venture partner to back them on opening their own restaurant, potentially based on a foreign cuisine that they sampled and loved while on vacation. (The Cushmans of O Ya and Hojoko)

Or start with a traditional craft cocktail gastropub, then when that's successful, they open up other "concepts" that colonize the dishes of other cultures so as to reduce cannibalizing from your market. And it's in this level (Banyan, 2nd restaurant for an empire that started with craft cocktails and now includes fancy donuts, Painted Burro, 3rd for a group that started with craft Italian and cocktail diner, or the Honeypaw "noodles w/o borders" place I mentioned, which is the 3rd restaurant behind a successful oyster bar and an upscale European spot) that we also see a pushing of the borders and "just add pork belly and truffles to everything"

And given the number of people of color who work in the restaurant industry, and given how the industry boasts of itself as a meritocracy, it still feels ... odd that the individuals who've risen through that meritocracy to the partner/founder level are generally of a certain type with certain tastes.

The alternatives that I've seen to that career path where people of color have emerged with success stories are either people who built their roll in another industry and then switched to restaurants (Joanne Chang of Flour and Myers+Chang) or started as a less capital intensive food truck (Ali Fong of Bon Me, the Li's behind Mei Mei) or started as a supper club, then popup/catering and then used Kickstarter or friends & family loans to get the funds for a restaurant -- which is all nice to see but it feels like these scrappy upstart models are masking a systemic issue in the career ladders of restaurants where people of color only succeed by working around that ladder.

So, yes, at a personal level of cultural exchange of course, this sort of appropriation is prevalent and necessary and good, but it feels like it can be leveraged in unfair ways when many of the deep pockets that are needed for starting restaurants (and potentially the hype machine that covers and supports those restaurants) are only accessible to a select few.
posted by bl1nk at 5:19 AM on November 15, 2017 [23 favorites]

bl1nk, thank you for that explanation. It has filled out a lot of the empty space in my thoughts on the matter.
posted by trif at 5:35 AM on November 15, 2017

To clarify what I meant by "a narrow definition of appropriation," I meant that appropriation, in a broad sense, is a neutral thing. It includes aspects of remixing and reframing, and cultural exchange (neutral to good), as well as exploitation and erasure (bad). In a narrow sense, it's focused on the latter.

When David Chang himself makes a spaghetti with a red pepper sauce, he's appropriating Italian cuisine in the broad sense. But I can't imagine criticizing him for doing so, any more than I could criticize Carlos Llaguno Morales for being the chef of a French restaurant.

What sort of harms, other than erasure and displacement, result from using ingredients and techniques from other cuisines? I'm not trying to be glib--I honestly don't know what falls into the scope of harms, but outside the scope of "white hegemonic standards of harm." bl1nk points out one possible example--the common thread of minority restaurateurs and chefs having to circumvent an entrenched system--that certainly seems to qualify as harm, though more because of systemic bias in the system, rather than people cooking food from another culture.

I can see a "non-white," "non-hegemonic" harm in someone doing something insulting or offensive to a culture while appropriating that culture's cuisine, I guess--like serving Thai food in a bowl shaped like Buddha's head. But that harm doesn't come from the cooking of the food, but from the religious disrespect.

we who are Asian

Look, I don't like to do this too much on a mostly-pseudonymous platform, but I'm Asian. Asian-American, to be specific. And the reason the Hung Huynh episode speaks to me is because I'll be damned if I can't make a cacio e pepe. Or let someone from "the old country" tell me I can never cook the food I grew up with, or that it's even up to them to give me some dispensation to do so.
posted by pykrete jungle at 6:35 AM on November 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

I get that certain types of racism, particularly systemic ones, can only be applied by a dominant culture against a subaltern; I just don't think cooking with non-hegemonic ingredients is one of them.
posted by pykrete jungle at 6:37 AM on November 15, 2017

cyanistes points out that there's another aspect to "authenticity" in ingredients--not just a fidelity to the flavors of the original dish, but an economic push by countries' trade delegations and agricultural industries. But there, I think that faithfulness to a dish can be conflated too easily with faithfulness to a nation-state's products. Yes, Thai chiles will produce a more authentic flavor than substituting serranos. But for the sake of the dish's authenticity, it's the type of chile that matters, not where it was grown. (I will refrain from a lengthy rant about Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana here.)

And at the same time, faith to the dish ab origine isn't a universal goal. Phi Nguyen provides jalapenos, and not as a garnish for her pho at Pho Viet in DC. Whether that's because she's catering to local tastes (which seems unlikely), or simply because they're easier to get locally, she's still making pho. And it's not some half-assed, second-rate thing because of it.

If some non-Vietnamese hipster chef wants to make pho at a fancy new $20-per-bowl place in DC, and insists upon using Southeast Asian chiles in his garnish, that's *fine* from a culinary standpoint. His *cooking* isn't taking anything away from Ngyuen. The questions I would have would be based on what his *business* does in terms of displacing her business. I'd argue that her pho, being less fussy and more affordable, is truer to the idea of the original dish--an inexpensive, delicious meal--than this hypothetical new guy's, but maybe that's beside the point.
posted by pykrete jungle at 6:50 AM on November 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Ugh, and now I feel like I'm just spamming the post, but I feel the need to say that, going back and re-reading polymodus's post again, I think want I want to get at is not that David Chang is wrong to have a problem with the way certain foods are appropriated, but that he's describing a *different* problem from either cultural erasure or systemic economic racism. That his detailed criticism is a culinary criticism, and not one about social justice.
posted by pykrete jungle at 6:56 AM on November 15, 2017

it's culinary only in that it's qualitative and experiential. lived experiences and understandings are wholly part and parcel to issues of social justice not as theory but as evidence and nuance to the fact of being Othered

when we talk about social justice in activism and organizing, it's one part the practical, the economics, the sociocultural forces, the political impact, and so on. the other part to organizing is honoring the feelings of hurt for individuals who, like me, used to get made fun of for bringing food to school that's now a culinary hit but used to earn derision, who still gets Othered by a million small cuts on the regular

any conversation about appropriation that centers the feelings and needs of white dudes with beards over the feelings and needs of the perpetually Othered is a conversation steeped in white white supremacy

because until reparations are paid, until pay gaps are made equal, until historical and modern disenfranchisement and displacement are made right, until centuries worth of racism and colonialism is reckoned with, white people can deservedly go fuck themselves for claiming cultural parity as justification for 'borrowing' culture. social justice is a language that addresses power - and all discussions of appropriation need to happen in its context. when you see the empowered 'borrowing' from the oppressed, then the word 'borrowing' starts looking more and more absurd, a happy gloss for a reality that only exists for white people and not the rest of us

white dudes with beards - stick with your shitty mayo peppered with bacon ass-food and please stop stuffing cheeseburger filling into egg roll wrappers
posted by runt at 7:28 AM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

That's always loser's game anyway, because we don't live back home. We don't have the produce or the climate or the seasonings that we would have in Asia. Drop the shackles and let us make most of the ingredients that we have here.
The thing is, I think there is still a difference between, for example, "Taiwanese-inflected food as made by Taiwanese-American families for their own consumption" and "Taiwanese-inflected food as made by white chefs for the consumption of a white customer base". Take breakfast xifan for example -- there's a difference between, say, substituting bacon for xiangchang in the liao vs. what I once saw at a cafe owned and staffed primarily by white people, which was "rice cooked slightly wetter than usual, with grated ginger mixed in and no liao whatsoever". And offered under the "soup" section of the menu. Like, nobody is gonna tell me that's an ~immigrant adaptation~, right. There's a difference.
posted by inconstant at 8:19 AM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

As an asian-american having grown up in Hawaii eating cultural collisions like the Hawaiian plate lunch, these chef-level concerns about appropriation and authenticity are at a rarefied level for me. I do want to be able to go into an establishment that bills itself as a (specific asian ethnicity) restaurant and eat the expected food of (specific asian ethnicity). If they want to have some special experiments in addition, fine, I might even try them. And I do sympathize with the issue of not having the same ingredients as the old country, and adapting (sometimes with great success) to ingredients available here in the mainland USA or Hawaii.
Another angle - growing up eating common-man type of food, the fancier or more "authentic" dishes weren't something I'd eat as the usual restaurant unless I could decode the special menu or be a guest at a family party where there was home cooking by particularly gifted persons.
posted by King Sky Prawn at 9:23 AM on November 15, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is a really crazy beautiful and thoughtful article that I almost skipped because I thought it was another article about appropriation and authenticity and yawn. The prose gets a little purple but you can tell it's because the writer really loves the food she's writing about. I LOVE the narrative of how Asian American chefs are using food as a way to express and embody all the things that Asian Americans aren't imagined to be: cocky, flamboyant, provocative, spicy, salty, mischievous, humorous, creative, joie de vivre.

My brother is a chef, and a while back we were having lunch (at Hong Kong Lounge II) and he was telling me what he's been up to. He was just getting started at the time, and I asked if there was a certain type of cuisine he was particularly interested in, and he said "You're gonna laugh." I won't lie, I was pretty stunned when he said he wanted to experiment with Japanese food. Of the two of us, I was the one always trying to take Asian American studies classes and connect with my heritage and shit and he was always the one who kinda thought he was white. I don't know if he's done much with it yet (his restaurant is New American and he also went through a pasta phase) but just the fact that after a lifetime of trying to push away Asianness, that it was food that pulled him in, is amazing to me. Food is so powerful.
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:41 AM on November 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

And tomatoes and red peppers are both from the Americas. Really, spaghetti is an immensely problematic dish
posted by happyroach at 2:08 PM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Momofuku dish I'm talking about (created by one of Chang's chefs, as it turns out, not him directly) was directly inspired by a Bolognese pasta.

For instance, I inadvertently stumbled on a hit again in 2006, after I hired Joshua McFadden from the Italian restaurant Lupa. (He has since gone on to greatness in Portland, Oregon, at Ava Gene’s.) Joshua told me he wanted to make a version of a Bolognese, the Italian meat sauce. I told him that was fine, but he had to use only Korean ingredients.

My point is that Chang and his team are "appropriating"an Italian dish. Chang would say that the difference is that it's because he has studied and understands the context of the flavors and ingredients involved in Italian food. I don't think that study is at all necessary to ethically make food. It's necessary if you want to place that dish into the same tradition as its inspiration, or call it by that name.

And I'm not arguing that Chang, or anyone else this millennium invented noodles with red sauce. But the Italian peninsula almost certainly had noodles before Marco Polo. There were agrarian civilizations there for thousands of years before Polo's time. Literal empires literally rose and fell. Someone along the way definitely mixed some flour with water and the boiled the dang dough.
posted by pykrete jungle at 5:53 PM on November 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

Noodles of that sort were brought back to Italy from China by some dude named Marco Polo

I thought that was a popular story that's historically dubious, with other historical accounts of pasta being eaten in Italy long before Marco Polo.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:05 PM on November 15, 2017

I thought that was a popular story that's historically dubious

Yeah, the truth is Marco Polo brought back pizza from China.
posted by FJT at 12:41 AM on November 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

Jumping in here pretty late but just want to add that I think that broadening the definition of appropriation to include David Chang making pasta almost makes the term meaningless.

Without putting that in the context of power differences and hierarchy both historical and ongoing you end up glossing over how colonialism and imperialism shaped the world we live in today. It's related to the whole punching up/down thing; sure, you can argue on technical terms that PoC poking fun at white people is "racist" in the same way that the reverse is, but that ignores centuries of racial oppression and domination.

Going back to TFA, as an Asian/Pacific-Islander American (APIA) I did appreciate the examination of how code-switching/being able to move between cultures, which starts as a survival strategy, is now also an asset for these chefs. But I have to say that I got a little tired of the deployment of the some old tropes. Not every APIA person relates to classmates making fun of their food or parents exhorting them to fit in but to never forget one's roots.
posted by coolname at 3:56 PM on December 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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