Who Says Asian Food Has to Be Cheap?

The website for Red Boat artisanal fish sauces describes its nước mắm in lofty language, with phrases that include “extra virgin,” “slow aged,” and “first press.” But in a product review at Amazon.com, where Red Boat is on sale for $24 for two 500-milliliter bottles, shopper Q. Tran sounds unimpressed: "Not any different from the 3 dollar fish sauce at your local Asian supermarket."

Consumers like Q. Tran have to be Red Boat owner Cuong Pham’s worst nightmare. A lot of serious cooks who wouldn't balk at paying $23 a pound for Parmigiano-Reggiano assume that even high-quality Asian ingredients should be priced low. When they’re not, they feel ripped off.

"Many consumers assume that food products coming from Asia have to be cheap," Pham explains via email. "Most Asians are price-sensitive and products are evaluated on price, not quality of ingredients. With that mindset, it's hard for manufacturers to put higher-priced artisanal products on the shelf."

Viet World Kitchen blogger Andrea Nguyen agrees. "Historically, people pay less for Asian products," says Nguyen, who's also the author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen and the forthcoming Asian Tofu. "People say to me, ‘It's not good Asian if it's not cheap Asian.’ But if I'm willing to pay a ton for premium ingredients like balsamic vinegar and olive oil, why wouldn't I pay more for comparable Asian products?"

The assumption that Asian equals cheap is an old one, according to Andrew Coe in his 2009 book, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. It dates at least to the late 19th century, when Euro Americans were first venturing into Chinese restaurants in New York and San Francisco. Those early restaurants had a lot of atmosphere, thanks to things like red lanterns, and were also dead cheap—you could get a filling bowl of something called “chop suey” for 25 cents. Compare that to the 50-cent bowl of consomme at Delmonico's in 1899.

By the 1950s, most American Chinese restaurants pushed a standard set of "family dinners," where a table of four could get an entire meal (with soup and egg roll) for a dollar or two each. Food that cheap could only exist in a system where people worked illegally and kitchens took shortcuts with the food, conditions that still exist today.

"If we're willing to pay more, people at these so-called takeout joints will make more, and the food will be better," Nguyen says.

That shift is already well under way, with second-generation Asian chefs like Charles Phan and James Syhabout in the Bay Area and David Chang in New York. Will a market emerge for artisan Asian ingredients as well?

Matt Jamie hopes so. The owner of Bourbon Barrel Foods, which calls its Bluegrass Soy Sauce the only microbrewed soy in America, says he gets a lot of grief from customers over the price: $6 for 5 ounces. (A comparably sized bottle of Kikkoman is less than $3.)

"But it's like comparing Budweiser to a wine from Napa," says Jamie. "Kikkoman brews 200,000 gallons a day in the United States alone."

At least Bluegrass has heritage on its side. Nguyen notes that Japanese food has generally escaped the must-be-cheap mind-set. Red Boat's Southeast Asian fish sauce, on the other hand, faces a tougher battle.

Based on Red Boat's manufacturing process, its fish sauces are hardly overpriced. The company estimates that five pounds of anchovies go into each bottle of 40N (sauces are rated by N, indicating the amount of nitrogen; higher numbers mean less water), and the fish must be aged for 12 to 14 months before being pressed, labeled, packed, and shipped. In addition, Red Boat is made n Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island archipelago well known for its high-quality anchovy population.

Consider that a 100-milliliter bottle of garum colatura, a similarly made Italian fish sauce, is $16 at Zingerman's. That'd be $80 for a bottle the size of Red Boat. Is an Italian name really worth that much?

Image source: Flickr member Cloudywind under Creative Commons