A few months ago, I had the idea of creating a plated dinner to talk about the Asian-American experience through the lens of food. What I ate (or didn’t eat), liked (or didn’t like) through the years has always been more than just food, but snapshots of assimilation, fear, guilt, defiance and — eventually — pride. I was writing a personal essay about food shame at the time, and those visceral memories of being so very Asian kept coming back to me. From lunchbox moments to feeling inferior in culinary school, I wanted to try to explain the complicated narrative that is being Asian-American through the medium I knew best: food. So in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, please enjoy the ever-changing journey of an Asian-American in America, as told through a 3 course meal.
UPDATE: Asian in America is now a full-fledged exhibition and 6 course meal. It officially debuted at NYC’s Museum of Food & Drink on August 15, 2018 and is now touring North America! It is also a finalist for the prestigious Future of Storytelling “Bridging the Divide” Award and is being featured on TriBeCa Film Institute’s VR channel. Full project details are over at https://www.studioatao.org/asian-in-america.
Course One: You Make Asian Food, Right?
This is a question I hear all the time. It’s usually phrased along the lines of “What kind of food do you make?” and before I can answer, the asker will say “like…Asian, right?” Sometimes, there’s no question involved, just the assumption of yes. When I was looking for externship sites after culinary school, I received an email from my career services advisor with suggestions of places she felt I should apply — namely, Brooklyn Wok Shop. There had been no prior conversation, but I was indeed Chinese, so I suppose in her mind it was a natural fit.
I like to believe this doesn’t come about due to conscious malintent, but is a symptom of a larger issue about how our society limits the personalities minorities are “allowed” to have. Psychology proves that the more familiar we are with a group of people, the more we acknowledge the individual differences of each person within it. We see and accept multifaceted white protagonists in the media all the time, just like how we eat “globally inspired” cuisine from white chefs without further question. This dish is about surfacing the unsubstantiated restrictions we place onto groups of people, in food and beyond. Being Asian-American certainly binds us all together — and our ethnicities are absolutely a powerful, important part of us — but each of us also deserves the opportunity to be uniquely ourselves. If we want to make Asian food reflective of our childhood, fantastic; if not, we are able to excel at any other cuisine we’re interested in. Perhaps sometimes we make Asian food, and sometimes we don’t; perhaps our inspiration trajectory evolves over time. These artistic choices are ours to change and employ at any time we choose.
The base of this dish is a handmade black sesame & rye flour pasta, two flavors I love from different ends of the world combined in a distinctly non-Asian noodle. It’s topped with habanero chutney, a recipe I learned while I was in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti helping Blue Marble Dreams and Haiti 155 open up an ice cream shop two years ago. Nestled in the pasta grooves are “dim sum” style cherrystone clams — steamed, shucked, and confit’ed in my variation of the classic black bean sauce. And finally, a quail egg (or a goose egg, since I got my hands on a few) marbled in pickled beetroot juice; it looks like the tea egg version, but it tastes very different. I consider the egg a tongue-in-cheek version of saying, “Asian-Americans may look alike, but they are very different.” Why is there smoke on this dish? Because Asian-Americans can do whatever they want.
Course Two: Model Minority
In 2018 terms, the term “model minority” is the ultimate “neg”: it sounds like a compliment, when in actuality it’s a fear-based weapon that has been an effective chokehold against Asian-Americans doing anything that doesn’t fit with what’s acceptable for our racial group; a reminder that we curry favor by shutting up and fitting in, not by being ourselves.
To me, the insidiously awful thing about the model minority myth is that it integrates so seamlessly into the natural anxieties of Asian-American parents they become proponents of the same idea. They desperately want their children to succeed, and it seems there’s only one path to do so. And yet, when immigrant parents do exactly as asked, to conform their children to society’s standards for assimilation, they are labeled “tiger parents” and viewed in contempt. For both parties, trying to fit within the parameters of the model minority feels like an impossible maze. As an Asian-American woman, the constraints felt even tighter, dictating everything from my appearance and dress to my choice of language, profession and partner. I’ve struggled with depression my whole life, and I remember how scary it was to admit I needed help — especially after I changed careers into food and genuinely wasn’t sure if I was ever going to “make anything of myself”. What would happen to me if I failed? Would I be one of those Asians that never lived up to my “American dream”?
It is complicated to reckon with desiring acceptance while realizing how limited your life is allowed to be. This dish’s maze — piped with chrysanthemum puree — is a reflection of that. The chrysanthemum holds a double meaning as well, being an herbaceous green that has gone ignored for years but has been recently “discovered” by white chefs. These chefs were fittingly dismissive when I mentioned chrysanthemum is common in Chinese cooking and perhaps not an apt substitute for romaine in Caesar salads — after all, that’s not the narrative they have already built for the vegetable. The same could be said of celtuce, also featured in this dish grilled and julienned. Recently, when I mentioned to a chef that celtuce is very popular for stir-fries, he responded, “As far as I know, we’re the only ones using it.” The main protein is veal sweetbreads, a model minority of the offals world, which have marinated in ngo om and culantro, pressed, then — of course — deep fried. Finally, the sauce is a sweet and sour sauce from my Shanghai roots. It is completely different from what Chinese sweet and sour has become synonymous with in the U.S., another reflection of the disconnect between how Asian-Americans are seen versus how we see ourselves. When I tried to replicate this sauce in culinary school, my chef instructor promptly shut me down and told me to “add some ketchup” instead. Just like the appetizer, this entree is about our right as Asian-Americans to be who we really are, to be proud of how we are different, to demand to be represented beyond a stereotype.
Course Three: Fancy Because It’s French
I have a complicated relationship with French gastronomy. It is objectively nuanced, interesting and delicious— just no more so than the food of any other culture. Just as we make blanket assumptions about groups of people we are less familiar with, consumers base purchasing decisions off of what they do or do not know — and that starts with chefs themselves. There is an embarrassing imbalance of French cuisine taught in culinary school — for my alma mater, roughly 1 month meandering through France compared to 1 week for the entirety of Asia. We relished in the full range of French techniques from the bizarre (ever heard of canard à la presse?) to absurdly wasteful (i.e. consommé), but barely touched upon techniques like Japanese sushi aging, Chinese velveting, or Indian tandoor cookery. Recently, a fellow chef told me, to my face, that “all Asian sauces are just jarred things mixed together.” When I responded with, “Are all French sauces just butter with a few things mixed together?”, she disagreed vehemently.
This problem may be sown in education, but it grows well past that. While French establishments takes on many forms, from bistros and boulangeries to brasseries and patisseries, most Asian cuisines are asked to contain themselves in value-driven “Cheap Eats” type concepts or be accused of being “inauthentic”. In blogs, cookbooks and other media, this treatment can be observed in the form of acceptable substitutions. It may be of utmost importance to procure proper herbs for a dish from Provence, but it’s uncommon to see that level of scrutiny for ingredients like Shaoxing wine or fermented white pepper. If you search for “ramen noodle recipe”, the very first result on Google is a recipe containing eggs, not kansui (alkaline water). Misrepresentation and lack of representation reinforces incorrect worldviews that the particularities of these “other” cultures’ techniques or ingredients or traditions don’t matter, or are somehow inferior.
This dessert is an on-the-nose statement about the stereotypes of quality, ability, and importance we place onto whole groups of food (and people) without questioning the status quo. I took the idea and look of a classic Chinese mooncake and “reimagined” it with fancy French techniques. The red bean filling has been made into a fluffy mousse, the salted duck center into a custard akin to a crème anglaise, and the kansui-and-golden-syrup wrapper replaced with an oolong-flavored biscuit. Calling this not-really-a-mooncake item a “mooncake” is also a reminder of how frequently we chefs tend to cherrypick a few ingredients or techniques and globalize them into a representation of an entire dish. I served this mooncake alongside some freshly made soymilk, another incredibly misunderstood item. I still have no idea what mass-market soymilk in the U.S. is flavored with because it’s such a far cry from what soy tastes like, yet when my peers taste fresh soymilk the reaction is often “This tastes weird.” Ultimately my “mooncake” is different, but no better, than the traditional version.
Bonus Course: Dog Food Is A Necessity?
I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard some type of insult lobbed at me or my family that revolved around Chinese people eating dogs. When I competed on Cutthroat Kitchen a few years ago and expressed my dislike for lasagna, a stranger tweeted how ironic it was that a Chinese chef would question the meat contents of any dish. I was stunned and humiliated. Despite being a dog-owner and dog-lover in the U.S., my being Chinese meant the shame of being part of a dog-eating culture would follow me forever.
This used to make me angry until I actually visited some of the places that do eat dogs. Passing through these impoverished villages in Asia and beyond, I realized very quickly that rights (human rights, animal rights) are a privilege, not a given. In those areas, dogs are no different than the animals we regard easily as livestock: chicken or pigs or cows. Even if my insides twinged at seeing the cages of dogs being readied for slaughter, I simultaneously felt guilty for judging these strangers for doing what they had to do, just to survive.
Coming home, I struggled with being what felt like the perpetual bystander having no control over how my culture or identity was interpreted. It was not up to me to decide what was “right” or “acceptable”, only to accept the verdict and its consequences. Eating dog was (and still is) deemed inhumane, but spending hundreds of dollars a month on human-grade dog food is now acceptable, even enviable. My childhood lunches of kidneys and pig feet were “disgusting” — until eating “authentic” Asian food became new currency in the foodie bank. This doggie treat is a sobering look at how easy it is to judge when we do not understand. It’s a pretzel bao filled with pork belly and pig ears, a labor-intensive treat that is met with delight here — but reeks of entitlement elsewhere.
Thanks for reading! All feedback, thoughts, claps, questions are welcome. If you want to stay updated for my next installment, Privilege: A Triptych please follow along here on Medium and on my Instagram @chefjennydorsey.