Growing up with the privilege of nightly access to fresh, homemade Chinese food, I have always taken its Americanized cousin for granted. At best, American Chinese food was a guilty pleasure. At worst, it was an orange stain on Chinese tradition — a cheap knock-off of the recipes my ancestors passed down for generations, watered down and commercialized for Western palettes.
But I have come to realize that the very notion of authenticity within a cuisine revered for its cacophony of diverse culinary styles is completely outrageous. Sichuan cuisine is famous for its extensive use of the Sichuan peppercorn, which gives its dishes their signature “mala” (numbingly spicy) taste. Meanwhile, the cuisine of the Jiangsu Province is far more cosmopolitan, favoring artistic presentation and more aromatic flavors.
American Chinese food is just as deserving of a spot in the culinary pantheon. A closer examination into the roots of many of its signature dishes will reveal that American Chinese food is the legacy of the creative and resilient spirit of Chinese immigrants.
Chop suey was created by Chinese railroad workers who tailored Cantonese cooking techniques for “tsap seui” (miscellaneous leftovers) to whatever scraps they could get their hands on. Kung Pao chicken is a riff off of the Sichuan dish “Gong Bao Ji Ding” which swaps the original dish’s signature spicy peppercorns for milder bell peppers. Even General Tso's chicken stems from a dish of the same name made in a Hunanese restaurant in Taiwan, with the American variant being far sweeter and crispier than its Eastern counterpart. Many impromptu chefs endured heavy prejudice along the way, from lynchings to discriminatory federal laws, while crafting flavors that captivated the taste buds of an entire nation.
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While the classic dishes of my childhood — from rich and aromatic braised pork belly to my Mom’s famous pork and chive dumplings — capture centuries of Chinese tradition in a single plate, the dishes of the modern Chinese American culinary landscape — from hipster fusion restaurants to your local mom-and-pop holes-in-the-wall — are symbolic of its future. As a cultural chop suey myself, having been born in the East and raised in the West, there aren’t many things that relate with my experiences of existing between cultures like a hearty serving of orange chicken or chow mein. The harmonious integration of Western ingredients and textures into Eastern recipes and cooking techniques is a deliciously elegant example of the innovative potential of cultural intermixing, the flavor of the Chinese diaspora.
By William Yuk
Asian fusion was everything I ate growing up. On weekends, I spent hours in the boba shops nestled within Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo or Chinatown. At home, my parents always prepared some sort of Chinese or Vietnamese dish with a twist. My mother, who is from Ningde, a Chinese province in Fujian where there is a strong fishing culture, introduced me to towers of snow crab legs at Chinese buffets, steamed rockfish drizzled with ginger, scallions and soy sauce, and spot prawns dunked in equal parts soy sauce and white vinegar. When my Vietnamese father cooked, he drowned New York steak in Korean BBQ sauce, shredded cilantro and Thai basil over ramen and made lots of egg sandwiches.
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I struggled to integrate veganism into my understanding of Asian fusion when I became plant-based in 2018. Removing animal products from my diet was easy, but the cornucopia of vibrant flavors from the blend of cultures I grew up with was lost in the recipes by white vegan YouTubers that I tried. I watched them make “pho” with the blandest tofu, ramen with raw bell peppers and fried cauliflower soggy with sweet chili sauce. I can still remember feeling so frustrated after trying out a new recipe for salad dressing, pouring so many herbs and spices into my mixture only to find that it lacked the familiar umami I craved. I was learning from people who did not have the same cultural experiences as I did.
I have been called “less Asian” for taking meat out of my diet, but vegan Asian fusion food created by vegan Asian chefs — such as The Korean Vegan, Chez Jorge, and The Viet Vegan — shows the beautiful complexity of this unique intersection between different cultures and environmentalism. Vegan Asian fusion food exists because of our willingness to experiment and marry the nostalgic variety of spices, herbs and sauces to recreate the complex flavor profiles of our cultures — only without the cruelty. In doing so, we learn to create a space for ourselves at the dining table.
By Celine Pun
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Growing up in a small town located in Central America, Asian food was a rarity. As time passed, I found myself attempting to recreate Asian cooking with the limited ingredients available to me, hoping to mimic authenticity. Despite my desperation for a taste of home, these attempts would conclude with an odd (but delicious) mixture of tastes that left me and my family staring at one another in comical silence.
Both my cooking and the foods I eat have always seemed out of reach of being authentic. Compared to its traditional counterpart, Asian fusion food seems to falter. Yet when looking back at the explosion of tastes and memories I have made, I have come to appreciate the delicacy of whatever a combination consists of. These fusions often draw from the cook’s identity, mixing in subtle parts of their heritage and life experiences. In small towns, where access to ingredients is lacking, these foods often represent the cook’s yearning for home. As it did for me, these moments also create new memories that weave together the distinct parts of one’s identity — parts that may have seemed too distant before.
When I first moved to Nicaragua, my identity as a Korean American was more foreign to me than to the people around me. My cooking and identity were inauthentic. Accepting the blatant stares and poorly hidden fingers was easy, but I was lost when it came to negotiating between three contrasting savory cultures of cooking. In my desperate frustration, I decided to remove the rules, allowing myself the much-needed space to explore.
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Through Asian fusion, I made peace with my idea of authenticity. Like the food I make, I consist of a myriad of cultures and heritages yet remain a unique individual without any specific definitions. So, when I eat any person’s cooking, a sense of nostalgia washes over me, encouraging my eyes to wander over the dish. In these moments, I journey through the ingredients, observing them as they come together to form the rich conversations known as Asian fusion.
By Iris Jung
My father worked an 8-to-12 in a Chinese takeout restaurant. But at the start of the pandemic, those 16 hours became more than grueling shifts flipping scallion pancakes and frying drumsticks in a 100-degree kitchen — more than lost time to see loved ones. His job was his only shot at making a living as a non-U.S. citizen, and it was also the reason why he lived in constant fear of being shot every day.
He wasn’t alone either. Asian American hospitality businesses found themselves at the center of the hate crime crescendo in recent years. As news sources sensationalized wet markets, and as the coronavirus became a topic of political debate where Asian people always found themselves at the losing end, Asian culinary traditions suffered, restaurants were vandalized and innocent blood was shed. The same unfamiliarity that was once fetishized in the culinary circle for its exoticism is now seen as a threat to a sociopolitical order that never existed in the first place. The same stereotypes of Asian domesticity and reservedness are now being exploited to create an image of a people who won’t retaliate against hate. Overhearing white shoppers at the local Asian supermarket pretend to vomit at the live seafood section. Working at a restaurant and having customers call you dog eaters. Sitting alone in the school cafeteria because all the other students find the smell of fish atrocious.
My father’s response was more reflex than deliberation; his business immediately adapted to a more Westernized palette, incorporating more familiar American ingredients out of fear that the original menu would not only bring shame to Asian culinary culture, but also compromise his safety and belonging. We want nothing more than to belong, to have the same opportunities that everyone else has — be it a seat at the lunch table or the ability to walk on the streets without fear. The result is a paradoxical binary where Asian business owners can never win: the illusion of unauthentic Asian food is created to satisfy Westerners — to survive — but then, Asian and Western customers alike turn around and criticize that same food for being cheap and “not Asian enough.” What are we really calling cheap and unauthentic here? The hours upon hours that these immigrant restaurant owners and workers pour into their craft, their family and their community, or our incapacity as Americans to ever be satisfied, our failure to realize that the people we patronize cannot be everything we want them to be all at once?
Asian food is Asian history. Asian American food is Asian history. Fusion food is symbolic of the resilience of Asian business owners in an America that continues to disrespect immigrants and demonize the unfamiliar. These people are a symbol of the very little that Asian immigrants have turned into a shot at the American dream through 16-hour work days and delicious food. Let us remember this the next time that we, Asian or not, think of Asian fusion as a bright orange stain on tradition, as a cheap knock-off of a more “authentic” culinary style watered down for Western palettes.
By Brian Zhang
Feature image via BuzzFeed Bring Me
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