I’ve talked a lot on Instagram about the perception of Asian and Asian American food in “mainstream” America. Lately, the topic keeps coming up about why isn’t Asian or Asian American food valued as much as other, say, Euro-centric food. From a non-Asian point of view, it makes sense since the definition of good/expensive food in the United States has been dominated by a majority perspective (Michelin, etc..). Whether it has to do with socioeconomic status or discriminatory laws, Asian and Asian American food is perceived as inferior no matter the lens: price, technique, ingredients, or creativity. But, while, I’m not surprised that non-Asians believe this, it is a bit alarming that Asians themselves feel this way.
If you’re Asian, I’m sure you’ve found yourself in an Asian restaurant (particularly one that is food from your country) and you’ve said or had a family member say, “I would never pay that much for [INSERT ASIAN FOOD NAME]! My mom/tita/lola make it much better than that.” I’m pretty sure that this is a rite of passage growing up as an Asian kid in North America, like there is some collusion across all Asian parents to make sure you are aware whose cooking is supreme. Sometimes, it’s subtle too: “oh, this lumpia will do in a pinch, it’s too bad mom doesn’t have any ready at home” or “this kare kare is great but there isn’t enough peanut butter”.
On the surface, it seems like a pretty reasonable reason as to why this occurs. Of course your family cooks better food because that’s what you’ve grown up with and food from elsewhere isn’t only fighting against ingrained tastes but also fighting against ingrained memories. You can’t ever replace the time spent rolling lumpia for hours with your family and then eating it shortly thereafter. It’s going to better but more so because of the experience rather than the flavor or the technique. However, it is a little bit of a strange phenomenon that Asian cultures, whose food hasn’t quite hit the mainstream like Filipino food, predicate their idea of their culture’s food on such a small sample size confined to their own particular family’s cooking. It’s as if they’ve closed themselves to possibilities before they even know that possibilities exist.
I also believe there is another element to this argument that why won’t some Asian cultures pay for and/or value their food? Furthermore, why would they be more than willing to pay for a fine dining experience from another, usually Euro-centric, culture? Yes, there are some Asians who simply won’t pay for any type expensive food but that’s a different topic to discuss later. Yes, I do think it has something to do with the mindset in the previous paragraph where the food simply doesn’t measure up to your family’s food. I also think it has something to do with what this quote describes from the play, King of the Yees:
“i am rich but poor, bitter but sweet.
i am hard to know, but easy to meet.
i’ve been a jailor, a protector, a stranger, a friend.
a lie, an illusion, a means to an end.
i shrink and i die in all but few cases,
yet, seem to grow in the most unusual places.
and if you are lucky, if you scale that wall,
then one day your children will not know me at all.”
I’ve probably quoted this line a million times, wrote it in several social media posts and it still resonates with me in the same way as the first time I saw it performed during the play. The answer to the riddle is Chinatown and Chinatown serves as a metaphor for what every ensuing Asian American generation faces when they grow up in North America especially the last line of the riddle. It’s because we grow up in an non-Asian world that success is increasingly defined by leaving our Asian cultures and traditions behind and “scaling that wall” into the mainstream.
How does this pertain to food? As Asians, I don’t think we’ll ever lose the love and comfort that our own food provides but I also think that, intentionally or subconsciously, we don’t value our food as much when we go out to eat because it’s a sign of success, or our acceptance into the mainstream, of our assimilation that we’re able to eat at expensive and fancy French, Italian, Euro-centric restaurants. It isn’t a sign of success, however, when we go out to eat our food, regardless of how great it may be, in any restaurant but especially in a fine dining setting. In this way, leaving our food behind means we’ve “scaled the wall” and reveling in it means we’ll never leave Chinatown behind.
A correlation or maybe a contradiction to this is that we still love eating at out of the way, hole in the wall places that reminds us of our family’s food. My guess is that it gives us a semblance of comfort that’s akin to Tita’s house on Sundays. We just don’t love paying too much for it. It’s ironic because that the connective tissue that binds food across the world is so familiar no matter what culture or tradition you come from. I stole this from John Floresca (one of the producers of ULAM) but I love the way he describes it: “when does arroz caldo become risotto, when does pancit become spaghetti, when does kare kare become osso buco?”. The dish changes when each culture makes it their own but should not devalue the dish in any way and especially if it’s served on an Asian table versus a European one.
Thankfully, more and more Asian cuisine is becoming more mainstream and hence more acceptable in a fine dining setting. The cuisine seems to be driven by a whole host of chefs that want to put their signature on our food while still holding on to our traditions. It’s almost the best of both worlds and rather than escape from Chinatown, they want to celebrate and rebuild it. So, instead of approaching this type of food with suspicion first, we should be proud of it. We should take pride that there is a generation of chefs that want to elevate our food again. To elevate it with better ingredients, to show that the techniques and possibilities are just as intricate, creative and complex as we would find in any mainstream fine dining establishment. So, next time you find yourself eating our food in a restaurant, instead of thinking, “my mom can make that better”, try saying, “my mom would be proud to eat that.”