Asian is America’s takeout food, the stained box of kung pao in the nation’s culinary fridge. It was that way in the 1960s; it’s like that today, still, despite huge demographic shifts. Why, in 2012, don’t we take Asian food more seriously in this country?
Some do. Certainly Chowhounds (that’s a lasting legacy of Chowhound, which just turned 15: teaching America—via the professional food writers who mine it for content—all about pho bo and xiao long bao). But most paid food critics, save mostly for the Jonathans (Kauffman and Gold), just don’t know how to talk about Asian cuisines. (Believe me, an ex–food critic: It’s hard out there for a white boy. Writing with conviction about some carrot emulsion is one thing, but jaew bong?) And except for Saveur, mainstream food publications have relegated Asian food coverage to cheap-eats columns and front-of-book blurbs.
Asian food has been, in a word, marginalized—literally.
That’s true even now, in the post–David Chang era, after the man at the center of the Momofuku franchise became the biggest restaurant impresario in New York. Fresh evidence surfaced earlier this week, via Grub Street’s “The Year of Asian Hipster Cuisine.” It’s a trend piece—with portraits of chefs styled like in some Uniqlo catalog spread, shot at awkward crotch level—about New York City’s recent wave of casual restaurants, eight newish places where fish sauce and Sichuan peppercorns rule: Mission Chinese Food, Pok Pok Ny, Talde, more.
But seriously? “Asian hipster cuisine”?
The opening of a bunch of restaurants where Sichuan, Korean, or Filipino is crossing over to the mainstream marks a legitimate trend, sure. But to dress it up in the equivalent of the pink plaid summer scarf of the urban hipster, when—clearly—none of the eight chefs profiled think they’re making anything other than serious food? (Besides, not one of Grub Street’s Asian Eight is rocking superskinny jeans, a visible neck tattoo, or a '70s porn-star mustache, so how, exactly, are they reppin' for hipsters?)
After the story went live, one of the eight, Dale Talde, tweeted that, “for the record,” he is not a hipster, an assertion Mission Chinese’s Danny Bowien retweeted, with what I could only imagine to be no small amount of what-the-fuck? peeve.
Grub Street’s Hipster Eight aren’t even uniformly Asian, a fact the story's author, Mary Jane Weedman, explains by calling them “American cooks who found their calling through passion, not ancestry.” Clearly, Weedman positions this new Asian food as an exotic, “quirky” cuisine. Just like egg rolls and broccoli beef were totally foreign (and really sort of scary) to my parents in our white suburb, Mission Chinese’s tingly lamb and mapo tofu exist in some hipster world roped off from Establishment America. Grub Street’s story is merely a Febreze freshen-up of the well-worn notion in America that “Asian” means “alien.” Novelty food, Weedman implies, the crazy shit New Yorkers used to have to fly to Portland or San Francisco to taste, same as single-origin, shade-grown Burundi pour-over coffee and massive, foil-wrapped burritos.
If we can’t seem to take Asian food seriously in this country, at least we owe ourselves a more nuanced discussion of its meaning. Here’s one place to start: “Riding Shotgun with Roy Choi,” a new video on NOWNESS.com. The chef behind Kogi and Chego has some deep things to say about the way his Korean food is calibrated to life in modern LA, and even about the difficulties of Asian-American kids doing the work they want to:
A lot of Asians growing up, sometimes we get caught in the belief and the guilt of having to live our life for our parents. To live for yourself is a big valley, you know? Slinging tacos on the street and expressing ourselves, feeding the city of Los Angeles, feeding the imagination of America: It’s a big thing for an Asian kid.
He says this while wearing a flat fitty that reads “High,” talking about his food trucks like they’re his kids. You could easily dismiss Choi as an aging LA hipster who smokes too much weed. Or you could look deeper, and see Choi’s talk about having a spiritual connection to cooking and place simply as part of tradition in Korea, where food has a meaning far beyond taste or sustenance. There, it's a basic expression of what it means to be human, the thing that binds us to each other (for better or worse—check out the Korean dramas Pasta, Le Grand Chef 2: Kimchi Battle, and Dae Jang Geum to see that play out on 21st-century TV).
Maybe it's time to talk smarter about the ways Asian traditions are changing American culture. A bunch of hipster shit? Only if you can't see the metaphysics for the mapo.
Image source: Still from "Riding Shotgun with Roy Choi" courtesy of NOWNESS.com