"Asian-American cuisine." What comes to mind? Chinese takeout? Experimental New American food with dashes of soy sauce? Kimchi? Pad Thai? Vietnamese food?
Contemporary Asian-American chefs are making a big splash on the international food scene, but Asian cuisine in America dates back to the late 1800s when Chinese immigrants began setting up tearooms and banquet halls, Cantonese restaurants and run-down Chinatown stalls. Often reviled both on the streets and in schoolrooms, where cooking methods were deemed questionable and lunch boxes oozed repugnant scents. For many immigrants, food faithful to their mother countries, food that nourished them on multiple levels, became a tag of shame. And even when Asian-American food, whatever that began to mean, was increasingly sought-out by the public, accusations of inauthenticity, a common phenomenon for many immigrant cuisines, were hurled.
So, Asian-American cuisine is far from one of calm, peaceful origins. It is a commodity born of resilience, of nostalgia, of shame, of stubbornness. And it is exactly this ambiguity that often befuddles the mainstream consumer. The consumer wants to know of a list of ingredients that flags food as Asian-American (ginger, soy sauce, and scallions, to name a few), to be able to vaguely refer to that culturally clashing dish as "fusion." But the history of Asian-American cooking is not so simple. It is mired in naturalization barriers and immigration quotas, American military intervention in East and Southeast Asia, and, of course, the simple fact that "Asian" paints disparate countries, cultures, peoples, and palates with an incredibly wide brush.
This confusion of Asian-American identity is further complicated by the contrasting images that Asian-Americans hold: we are the "other," the "lesser," the penny-pinchers scrambling in crowded alleys, unfeeling, untrustworthy, a shoddy race. But we are also the "model minority," the "good" immigrants, quiet, hard-working, prime examples of the American Dream bearing fruit. Asian-Americans traverse this limbo-like state of Asian and American, wanted and unwanted, dipping our feet in the culture of our ancestors and the culture that now surrounds us. For some, this third culture state is seen as a prison; we belong nowhere, we must eke out our own breathing space, a mere wedge between two massive cultures that war within us. However, others see it as a sort of liberation. Asian-Americans are then able to translate between the two spheres of Asian and American. We flit between two cultures that attempt to cage us yet fail, since we fully pledge allegiance to neither.
Perhaps Asian-American cuisine is a similarly fluid dance between boundaries. Some still attempt to impose borders on the amorphous art by demanding the Asian-American chefs to tell a personal story through their food, or to remain authentic to the cooking styles of their ancestors, desiring some pristine standard preserved without the impurities of Western influence. The dilemma of the Asian-American chef, then, is to navigate these boundaries. After all, their very specialty demands an escape, a type of borderlessness that allows the food to lean East or West, or up or down — any direction it pleases. Asian-American food is a cuisine of courage, one that hearkens back to its roots of rebellion and resistance: it shouts "Go!" and dives headfirst into the abyss.