Home - T Singapore

The Rise and Triumph of Asian-American Cuisine

By Ligaya Mishan

Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which claims to be New York City’s first dim sum restaurant, opened on Doyers Street in 1920.
 
Anthony Cotsifas
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which claims to be New York City’s first dim sum restaurant, opened on Doyers Street in 1920.

So begins the US$285, 19-course tasting menu at Benu in San Francisco. The egg is a traditional Chinese snack, often called (poetically, if inaccurately) a 1,000-year-old egg, preserved for a few weeks or months in lye or slaked lime, salt and tea. It’s sold by street vendors, tossed into stir-fries and scattered over congee throughout China, parts of Southeast Asia and the world’s Chinatowns. To more than a billion people, it is an utterly commonplace food. 

But to present it as an amuse-bouche at one of the most acclaimed fine-dining restaurants in the United States, to a predominantly non-Asian clientele, is radical. For despite America’s long, complicated love affair with Asian cooking, it is hard to imagine such a food, so alien to Western culinary ideals in appearance, aroma, flavour and texture, being served in this kind of setting, let alone embraced, a decade ago. 

This, though, is the new American palate. As a nation we were once beholden to the Old World traditions of early settlers; we now crave ingredients from farther shores. The briny rush of soya; ginger’s low burn; pickled cabbage with that heady funk so close to rot. Vinegar applied to everything. Fish sauce like the underbelly of the sea. Palm sugar, velvet to cane sugar’s silk. Coconut milk slowing the tongue. Smoky black cardamom with its menthol aftermath. Sichuan peppercorns that paralyse the lips and turn speech to a burr, and Thai bird chilies that immolate everything they touch. Fat rice grains that cling, that you can scoop up with your hands. (As a child raised in a Filipino-American household, I was bewildered by commercials for Uncle Ben’s rice that promised grains that were ‘‘separate, not sticky’’, as if that were a good thing.) 

These are American ingredients now, part of a movement in cooking that often gets filed under the melting-pot, free-for-all category of New American cuisine. But it’s more specific than that: This is food borne of a particular diaspora, made by chefs who are ‘‘third culture kids’’, heirs to both their parents’ culture and the one they were raised in, and thus forced to create their own. 

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 labourers, colonisers and colonised — ‘‘fancy Asian’’ and ‘‘jungle Asian’’, as the comedian Ali Wong puts it. (She’s speaking specifically of East and Southeast Asians, who followed similar patterns of immigration to the U.S. and who are the primary focus of this piece.) 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. 

Anthony CotsifasThe Cantonese dim sum parlor Golden Unicorn, which has been operating for 28 years in New York City’s Chinatown.
The Cantonese dim sum parlor Golden Unicorn, which has been operating for 28 years in New York City’s Chinatown.

But this is what happens in America: Borders blur. When there aren’t many of you — Americans of Asian descent are only 6 per cent of the population, a legacy of decades of immigration quotas and denial of citizenship — you find common cause with your neighbours. The term Asian-American was not imposed on us, like ‘‘Yellow Peril’’ in the late 19th century or ‘‘Oriental’’; it was coined in the 1960s by Yuji Ichioka, a California-born historian and civil rights activist, to give us a political voice. If we call this kind of cooking just American, something is lost. 

The rise of contemporary Asian-American cuisine began with Korean-American chef David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, which opened in New York in 2004 and was followed four years later by fellow Korean-American chef Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck in Los Angeles. Their approach to cooking is typically, reductively, framed as an East-meets-West marriage of big flavours and elevated (i.e., French) technique — as if every Asian cuisine were hell-bent on storming the palate (some, like Cantonese, are, in fact, renowned for their subtlety); as if culinary refinement were proprietary to the West. 

But the history of Asian-American cuisine goes further back than that, to the first tearooms and banquet halls set up by Chinese immigrants who came to seek their fortune in Gold Rush California in the 1850s. By the end of the 19th century, despite Congress’s passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and attempts to condemn San Francisco’s Chinatown as a threat to the American way of life — ‘‘in their quarters all civilisation of the white race ceases’’, declared a pamphlet published by the Workingmen’s Party of California in 1880 — Cantonese restaurants were all the rage in New York. The food was cheap and fast, swiftly stir-fried in woks, a technique that remained a mystery for decades to most in the West. (One journalist, touring a Chinatown kitchen in 1880, did wonder if ‘‘the funny little things we saw at the bottom of a deep earthen jar were rat’s-tails skinned.’’) 

When outsiders came flocking in the 1890s, Chinese chefs altered and in- vented dishes to please them. This was less concession than calculation, capitalising on opportunity. The work of immigrants — in food as in the arts — has always been dogged by accusations of impurity and inauthenticity, suggesting that there is one standard, preserved in amber, for what a dish should be or what a writer or artist with roots in another country should have to say. It’s a specious argument, as if being born into a culture were insufficient bona fides to speak of it. (Immigrants are always being asked to show their papers, in more ways than one.) The history of food, like the history of man, is a series of adaptations, to environment and circumstance. Recipes aren’t static. Immigrant cooks, often living in poverty, have always made do with what’s on hand, like the Japanese-Americans rounded up and shipped to internment camps during the Second World War, who improvised rice balls with rations of Spam, and the Korean and Filipino-Americans who, having survived on canned goods in the aftermath of war, eked out household budgets by deploying hot dogs in kimbap and banana-ketch- up spaghetti. 

Sometimes the nostalgia for this kind of food can be difficult to convey to those who don’t share the same history. At Bad Saint, a Filipino restaurant in Washington, D.C., the chef Tom Cunanan makes adobo with pig tails, a cheap, snubbed part of the animal that was treasured by Depression-era Filipino immigrants working in California labour camps. Diep Tran, the Vietnamese-American chef of Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, told me that she wishes she could serve a breakfast of nothing but baguette accompanied by condensed milk diluted with hot water, for dipping. ‘‘It’s refugee food,’’ she said. ‘‘Proustian, kind of like Spam. But people get upset; they think they’re being ripped off.’’ 

Almost every Asian-American chef I spoke to — most of whom are in their late 20s to early 40s — came to the U.S. as children or were born to parents who were immigrants. (In 1952, the last racial barriers to naturalisation were lifted, and in 1965, immigration quotas based on national origin — for Asia, 100 visas per country per year — were abolished.) Almost all had stories of neighbours alarmed by the smells from their families’ kitchens or classmates recoiling from their lunch boxes. ‘‘I was that kid, with farty-smelling food,’’ said Jonathan Wu, the Chinese-American chef at Nom Wah Tu in New York. ‘‘I still feel that, if I’m taking the train with garlic chives in my bag.’’ 

Anthony CotsifasThe interior of White Bear, which opened in 1989 in Flushing, Queens, and is known for its exceptional dumplings.
The interior of White Bear, which opened in 1989 in Flushing, Queens, and is known for its exceptional dumplings.

So these chefs’ cooking, born of shame, rebellion and reconciliation, is not some wistful ode to an imperfectly remembered or never-known, idealised country. It’s a mixture of nostalgia and resilience. It wasn’t taught — certainly not in the way other cuisines have been traditionally taught. Graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., recalled that little time was devoted to Asian cooking; at Le Cordon Bleu in London and in Paris, none. One instructor took offence when Preeti Mistry, whose Indian-inflected restaurants include Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, Calif., likened a French stew to curry. Another told David Chang that pork stock, essential to tonkotsu ramen, was ‘‘disgusting’’. 

Neither does their cooking have much kinship with the ‘‘fusion’’ cuisine of the early 1990s, when non-Asian chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz began folding Eastern ingredients into otherwise Western dishes. (‘‘Fusion’’ is another term that sits uneasily with Asian-American chefs. ‘‘I wouldn’t call myself ‘fusion’,’’ said Maiko Kyogoku, the owner of the idiosyncratic Bessou in New York. ‘‘To describe food that way? It’s an extension of myself.’’) In spirit, Asian-American cooking is closer to other American-born cuisines with tangled roots: the Lowcountry cooking of coastal South Carolina, which owes a debt to slaves from West Africa who brought over one-pot stews and ingredients like okra, peanuts and black-eyed peas; and Tex-Mex, which is not a bastardisation of Mexican food but a regional variant of it, cultivated by Tejanos, descendants of Hispanics who lived in Texas when it was part of Mexico and, before that, New Spain. 

There’s also no one cultural touchstone or trauma that binds Asian immigrants: no event on a national scale that has brought us together. But part of what distinguishes our experience from that of other immigrants and people of colour is the fraught, intimate relationship between our countries of origin and the U.S., which has been foe and protector, oppressor and liberator, feared and adored. In 1899, the British writer Rudyard Kipling urged the U.S. to ‘‘take up the White Man’s burden’’ in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War: 

Go send your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need

[. . .] Your new-caught, sullen peoples, 

Half devil and half child. 

This begot more than a century of American military intervention in East and Southeast Asia, and a history of conflicting images: Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima; the Vietcong in black pyjamas and the American atrocities at My Lai; teeming refugee camps and smiling American G.I.s handing out candy, decade after decade, to throngs of dark-haired, starving children. 

Any immigrant is an outsider at first. But for Asians in America, there is a starker sense of otherness. We don’t fit in to the American binary of white and black. We have been the enemy; the subjugated; the ‘‘lesser’’ peoples whose scramble for a foothold in society was historically seen as a menace to the American order. And yet we’ve also been the ‘‘good’’ immigrants, proving ourselves worthy of American beneficence — polite, humble, grateful, willing to work 20-hour days running a grocery store or a laundry or a restaurant that will never be ‘‘authentic’’ enough, to spend every dime on our children’s test prep so that they get into the best schools, because we believe in the promise of America, that if you work hard, you can become anyone. If you try hard enough, you might even be mistaken for white. 

Among the children of immigrants, Asians in America seem most caught in a state of limbo: no longer beholden to their parents’ countries of origin but still grasping for a role in the American narrative. There is a unique foreignness that persists, despite the presence of Asians on American soil for more than two centuries; none of us, no matter how bald our American accent, has gone through life without being asked, ‘‘Where are you from? I mean, originally?’’ But while this can lead to alienation, it can also have a liberating effect. When you are raised in two cultures at once — when people see in you two heritages at odds, unresolved, in abeyance — you learn to shift at will between them. You may never feel like you quite belong in either, but neither are you fully constrained. The acute awareness of borders (culinary as well as cultural) that both enclose and exclude, allows, paradoxically, a claim to borderlessness, taking freely from both sides to forge something new. For Asian-American chefs, this seesaw between the obligations of inheritance and the thrill of go-it-aloneness, between respecting your ancestors and lighting out for the hills, manifests in dishes that arguably could come only from minds fluent in two ways of life. 

Thus the kaiseki at Niki Nakayama’s n/naka, in Los Angeles, always includes a pasta course. Her slyly voluptuous ‘‘carbonara’’ of abalone livers and egg yolks is an homage to Tokyo-style wafu spaghetti with briny pickled cod roe — only here it’s capped with shaved truffles. At Tao Yuan, in Brunswick, Me., Cara Stadler takes tiles of goat cheese made by a local creamery and sears them, as is done in Yunnan, to approximate rubing, a sturdy farmer’s cheese. But instead of merely sprinkling the cheese with sugar or salt, she counters its meatiness with a bright grace note of mint and watermelon from summer’s height. A Caesar salad might be supplanted by a canoe of romaine, grilled for a hint of smoke and loaded with dainty jako (dried baby sardines) and quail eggs as anchors, as at Bessou in New York. Or, as re-envisioned by Chris Kajioka at Senia, in Honolulu, it might be a mossy cliff of charred cabbage — a wink at an iceberg wedge — dusted with shio kombu (shredded kelp boiled in soy and mirin), soaked through with dashi and ginger, and surrounded by daubs of heady green goddess dressing and butter- milk turned to gel. It’s not so much a salad as a cheeky biography of it by the barbarian at the gates, achieving the quintessence of an American classic through Asian ingredients. 

And while Asian-American cooking may not be expressed in or identified by a single set of flavours, one thing that does unite such disparate traditions is an emphasis on textures. Indeed, if the cuisine can be said to have revolutionised American food, it’s by introducing unfamiliar mouth feels — crackle where one doesn’t expect it, slime in a country that’s always shied away from that sensation — into our culinary vocabulary. Justin Yu, who recently opened Theodore Rex in Houston, rhapsodises about ‘‘the crunch that you can hear in the back of your head’’; unrendered, gelatinous animal skin, ‘‘a fun burst of fat and softness’’; broths barely skimmed, or with a spoonful of fat added ‘‘to coat the lips’’ The maverick Katsuya Fukushima, of Daikaya in Washington, D.C., once turned natto — a gooey, slippery skein of fermented soybeans, with the perfume of cast-off socks — into an earthy caramel over soft-serve. Like Latin-American food, which made Americans crave heat, Asian-American cuisine has made ‘‘difficult’’ textures not only desirable but as integral to food as flavour itself. That certain ingredients still make some Western diners squeamish is part of its provocative fun. 

But the question remains: Does calling this kind of cooking Asian-American cuisine deepen and contextualise our under- standing of it, or is it just a label, like speaking of Asian-American art or fiction — a way of simplifying a complex story and making it a marketable cliché? The danger is fetishising Asian features, a tendency that diminishes: If you are an exotic object or phenomenon, you may never become recognised or acknowledged as more. ‘‘White chefs are using these ingredients and saying, ‘Oh, it’s so strange’,’’ Tin Vuong, of Little Sister in Los Angeles, said. ‘‘It isn’t.’’ Instead of a historical matrix of Asian culinary traditions, ‘‘young cooks just see a big pantry,’’ Fukushima said. ‘‘Take a little bit of this, a little bit of that — there’s no soul to it.’’ 

Chang believes that food ‘‘has the potential to sort of show that we’re all the same.’’ But even he isn’t entirely comfortable with the ubiquity of kimchi. ‘‘Let’s say you spent no time in Asia, you just found a recipe on YouTube,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s appropriation. It’s not about skin colour. You have to have a story, pay respect to what it was and what it means.’’ At the same time, it seems reductive to expect Asian-American chefs to make food that somehow reflects their personal ‘‘story’’. 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.’’ (It’s hard not to hear an echo of the trope of the inscrutable Oriental, whose motives can’t be deciphered, and the common criticism of Asian-Americans at school and at work as being overly cerebral and lacking feeling.) The strictures of reality TV do demand a baring of the soul, but not all Asian-American chefs want to work with Asian flavours — and when they do, it’s not always in expected ways. 

Must every Italian chef make lasagna, every French chef coq au vin? Ani- ta Lo, who closed her fine-dining restaurant Annisa in New York earlier this year, cooked there for 17 years without fealty to one region or cultural tradition. This puzzled some diners. ‘‘I had someone come in and say, ‘Where’s the big Buddha head?’’’ she said. When publications request recipes and she submits one without Asian ingredients, the response is often, ‘‘We were really hoping for something Asian’’ — or Asian-ish: Anything with soya, apparently, will do. ‘‘I send in Japanese, which isn’t even my background, but that works,’’ she said. 

Corey Lee’s ‘‘Benu’’ cookbook is filled with stories: of his grandmother foraging for acorns; of his mother forcing him to drink a tonic of brewed deer’s antlers; of his father bringing home live lobster for his son’s birthday, and of the joys of eating tomalley (the wet grey-green paste that acts as a lobster’s liver and pancreas) on buttered bread. All suggest that Lee’s dishes, however rarefied, are also deeply autobiographical. But Lee demurs, the way a novelist might, fending off a critic’s attempt to find in his books correlations to actual events, wanting them to stand alone as fully imagined works of art. ‘‘There’s great pressure for chefs to have a story,’’ he said. ‘‘Maybe there’s no story beyond, ‘I want to serve this food and it tastes good.’’’

It’s the eternal plea of the minority, to ask to be judged not by one’s appearance or the rituals of one’s forbears but for the quality of one’s mind and powers of invention. Certainly our country was predicated on the right to shed one’s past and be re- born, to come from nothing and work your way up; in this, Asians may be among the most American of Americans. But why is the choice always be- tween exotic caricature or rootlessness? The philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the embrace of ‘‘ethnic’’ restaurants is merely ‘‘tolerance’’ of a ‘‘folklorist Other deprived of its substance’’: ‘‘The ‘real Other’ is by definition ‘patriarchal’, ‘violent’, never the Other of ethereal wisdom and charming customs.’’ Too often Asian-American chefs are presumed to double as educators or ambassadors, representing an entire race, culture or cuisine.

In the end, doesn’t it matter — not to others, but to ourselves — where we are from? And no, I don’t mean ‘‘originally’’. I mean the forces that made us: the immigrants who raised us, with all their burdens and expectations, their exhortations to fit in but never forget who we are; and the country we grew up in, that is our only home, that taught us we are ‘‘other’’ but also seems, in some confused, tentative way, to want to learn something from us.


For Asian-American chefs, this is the conundrum, and the opportunity. The foods of their childhoods were once mocked and rejected by their non- Asian peers (and by their ashamed or rebellious younger selves); then accepted in dilute, placating form; and now are able to command audiences who clamour for their sensations and aggressive flavours, and who might be unnerved if they knew exactly what they were putting in their mouths. What may be most radical about Asian-American cuisine is the attitude that in- forms and powers it, reflecting a new cockiness in a population that has historically kept quiet and encouraged to lay low. It’s food that celebrates crunchy cartilage and gelatinous ooze, that openly stinks, that declares: This is what I like to eat. What about you? Do you dare?

T magazine

T: The New York Times Style Magazine Singapore's best videos: digital house tours from around the world, behind-the-scenes looks at cover shoots and more.