So these chefs’ cooking, born of shame, rebellion and reconciliation, is not some wistful ode to an imperfectly remembered or never-known, idealized country. It’s a mixture of nostalgia and resilience. It wasn’t taught — certainly not in the way other cuisines have been traditionally taught. Graduates of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., recalled that little time was devoted to Asian cooking; at Le Cordon Bleu in London and in Paris, none. One instructor took offense when Preeti Mistry, whose Indian-inflected restaurants include Juhu Beach Club in Oakland, Calif., likened a French stew to curry. Another told David Chang that pork stock, essential to tonkotsu ramen, was “disgusting.”
Neither does their cooking have much kinship with the “fusion” cuisine of the early 1990s, when non-Asian chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz began folding Eastern ingredients into otherwise Western dishes. (“Fusion” is another term that sits uneasily with Asian-American chefs. “I wouldn’t call myself ‘fusion,’ ” said Maiko Kyogoku, the owner of the idiosyncratic Bessou in New York. “To describe food that way? It’s an extension of myself.”) In spirit, Asian-American cooking is closer to other American-born cuisines with tangled roots: the Lowcountry cooking of coastal South Carolina, which owes a debt to slaves from West Africa who brought over one-pot stews and ingredients like okra, peanuts and black-eyed peas; and Tex-Mex, which is not a bastardization of Mexican food but a regional variant of it, cultivated by Tejanos, descendants of Hispanics who lived in Texas when it was part of Mexico and, before that, New Spain.
There’s also no one cultural touchstone or trauma that binds Asian immigrants: no event on a national scale that has brought us together. But part of what distinguishes our experience from that of other immigrants and people of color is the fraught, intimate relationship between our countries of origin and the U.S., which has been foe and protector, oppressor and liberator, feared and adored. In 1899, the British writer Rudyard Kipling urged the U.S. to “take up the White Man’s burden” in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War:
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
[…] Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
This begot more than a century of American military intervention in East and Southeast Asia, and a history of conflicting images: Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima; the Vietcong in black pajamas and the American atrocities at My Lai; teeming refugee camps and smiling American G.I.s handing out candy, decade after decade, to throngs of dark-haired, starving children.
Any immigrant is an outsider at first. But for Asians in America, there is a starker sense of otherness. We don’t fit in to the American binary of white and black. We have been the enemy; the subjugated; the “lesser” peoples whose scramble for a foothold in society was historically seen as a menace to the American order. And yet we’ve also been the “good” immigrants, proving ourselves worthy of American beneficence — polite, humble, grateful, willing to work 20-hour days running a grocery store or a laundry or a restaurant that will never be “authentic” enough, to spend every dime on our children’s test prep so that they get into the best schools, because we believe in the promise of America, that if you work hard, you can become anyone. If you try hard enough, you might even be mistaken for white.
Among the children of immigrants, Asians in America seem most caught in a state of limbo: no longer beholden to their parents’ countries of origin but still grasping for a role in the American narrative. There is a unique foreignness that persists, despite the presence of Asians on American soil for more than two centuries; none of us, no matter how bald our American accent, has gone through life without being asked, “Where are you from? I mean, originally?” But while this can lead to alienation, it can also have a liberating effect. When you are raised in two cultures at once — when people see in you two heritages at odds, unresolved, in abeyance — you learn to shift at will between them. You may never feel like you quite belong in either, but neither are you fully constrained. The acute awareness of borders (culinary as well as cultural) that both enclose and exclude, allows, paradoxically, a claim to borderlessness, taking freely from both sides to forge something new. For Asian-American chefs, this seesaw between the obligations of inheritance and the thrill of go-it-aloneness, between respecting your ancestors and lighting out for the hills, manifests in dishes that arguably could come only from minds fluent in two ways of life.
Thus the kaiseki at Niki Nakayama’s n/naka, in Los Angeles, always includes a pasta course. Her slyly voluptuous “carbonara” of abalone livers and egg yolks is a homage to Tokyo-style wafu spaghetti with briny pickled cod roe — only here it’s capped with shaved truffles. At Tao Yuan, in Brunswick, Me., Cara Stadler takes tiles of goat cheese made by a local creamery and sears them, as is done in Yunnan, to approximate rubing, a sturdy farmer’s cheese. But instead of merely sprinkling the cheese with sugar or salt, she counters its meatiness with a bright grace note of mint and watermelon from summer’s height. A Caesar salad might be supplanted by a canoe of romaine, grilled for a hint of smoke and loaded with dainty jako (dried baby sardines) and quail eggs as anchors, as at Bessou in New York. Or, as re-envisioned by Chris Kajioka at Senia, in Honolulu, it might be a mossy cliff of charred cabbage — a wink at an iceberg wedge — dusted with shio kombu (shredded kelp boiled in soy and mirin), soaked through with dashi and ginger, and surrounded by daubs of heady green goddess dressing and buttermilk turned to gel. It’s not so much a salad as a cheeky biography of it by the barbarian at the gates, achieving the quintessence of an American classic through Asian ingredients.
And while Asian-American cooking may not be expressed in or identified by a single set of flavors, one thing that does unite such disparate traditions is an emphasis on textures. Indeed, if the cuisine can be said to have revolutionized American food, it’s by introducing unfamiliar mouth feels — crackle where one doesn’t expect it, slime in a country that’s always shied away from that sensation — into our culinary vocabulary. Justin Yu, who recently opened Theodore Rex in Houston, rhapsodizes about “the crunch that you can hear in the back of your head”; unrendered, gelatinous animal skin, “a fun burst of fat and softness”; broths barely skimmed, or with a spoonful of fat added “to coat the lips.” The maverick Katsuya Fukushima, of Daikaya in Washington, D.C., once turned natto — a gooey, slippery skein of fermented soybeans, with the perfume of castoff socks — into an earthy caramel over soft-serve. Like Latin-American food, which made Americans crave heat, Asian-American cuisine has made “difficult” textures not only desirable but as integral to food as flavor itself. That certain ingredients still make some Western diners squeamish is part of its provocative fun.
But the question remains: Does calling this kind of cooking Asian-American cuisine deepen and contextualize our understanding of it, or is it just a label, like speaking of Asian-American art or fiction — a way of simplifying a complex story and making it a marketable cliché? The danger is fetishizing Asian features, a tendency that diminishes: If you are an exotic object or phenomenon, you may never become recognized or acknowledged as more. “White chefs are using these ingredients and saying, ‘Oh, it’s so strange,’ ” Tin Vuong, of Little Sister in Los Angeles, said. “It isn’t.” Instead of a historical matrix of Asian culinary traditions, “young cooks just see a big pantry,” Fukushima said. “Take a little bit of this, a little bit of that — there’s no soul to it.”
Chang believes that food “has the potential to sort of show that we’re all the same.” But even he isn’t entirely comfortable with the ubiquity of kimchi. “Let’s say you spent no time in Asia, you just found a recipe on YouTube,” he said. “That’s appropriation. It’s not about skin color. You have to have a story, pay respect to what it was and what it means.” At the same time, it seems reductive to expect Asian-American chefs to make food that somehow reflects their personal “story.” On season three of “Top Chef,” Hung Huynh, a Vietnamese-American contestant, was faulted for cooking that was technically dazzling but lacked explicit reference to his roots. “You were born in Vietnam,” Tom Colicchio, the head judge, said. “I don’t see any of that in your food.” (It’s hard not to hear an echo of the trope of the inscrutable Oriental, whose motives can’t be deciphered, and the common criticism of Asian-Americans at school and at work as being overly cerebral and lacking feeling.) The strictures of reality TV do demand a baring of the soul, but not all Asian-American chefs want to work with Asian flavors — and when they do, it’s not always in expected ways.
Must every Italian chef make lasagna, every French chef coq au vin? Anita Lo, who closed her fine-dining restaurant Annisa in New York earlier this year, cooked there for 17 years without fealty to one region or cultural tradition. This puzzled some diners. “I had someone come in and say, ‘Where’s the big Buddha head?’ ” she said. When publications request recipes and she submits one without Asian ingredients, the response is often, “We were really hoping for something Asian” — or Asian-ish: Anything with soy, apparently, will do. “I send in Japanese, which isn’t even my background, but that works,” she said.
Corey Lee’s “Benu” cookbook is filled with stories: of his grandmother foraging for acorns; of his mother forcing him to drink a tonic of brewed deer’s antlers; of his father bringing home live lobster for his son’s birthday, and of the joys of eating tomalley (the wet gray-green paste that acts as a lobster’s liver and pancreas) on buttered bread. All suggest that Lee’s dishes, however rarefied, are also deeply autobiographical. But Lee demurs, the way a novelist might, fending off a critic’s attempt to find in his books correlations to actual events, wanting them to stand alone as fully imagined works of art. “There’s great pressure for chefs to have a story,” he said. “Maybe there’s no story beyond, ‘I want to serve this food and it tastes good.’ ”
It’s the eternal plea of the minority, to ask to be judged not by one’s appearance or the rituals of one’s forbears but for the quality of one’s mind and powers of invention. Certainly our country was predicated on the right to shed one’s past and be reborn, to come from nothing and work your way up; in this, Asians may be among the most American of Americans. But why is the choice always between exotic caricature or rootlessness? The philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues that the embrace of “ethnic” restaurants is merely “tolerance” of a “folklorist Other deprived of its substance”: “The ‘real Other’ is by definition ‘patriarchal,’ ‘violent,’ never the Other of ethereal wisdom and charming customs.” Too often Asian-American chefs are presumed to double as educators or ambassadors, representing an entire race, culture or cuisine.
In the end, doesn’t it matter — not to others, but to ourselves — where we are from? And no, I don’t mean “originally.” I mean the forces that made us: the immigrants who raised us, with all their burdens and expectations, their exhortations to fit in but never forget who we are; and the country we grew up in, that is our only home, that taught us we are “other” but also seems, in some confused, tentative way, to want to learn something from us.
For Asian-American chefs, this is the conundrum, and the opportunity. The foods of their childhoods were once mocked and rejected by their non-Asian peers (and by their ashamed or rebellious younger selves); then accepted in dilute, placating form; and now are able to command audiences who clamor for their sensations and aggressive flavors, and who might be unnerved if they knew exactly what they were putting in their mouths. What may be most radical about Asian-American cuisine is the attitude that informs and powers it, reflecting a new cockiness in a population that has historically kept quiet and encouraged to lay low. It’s food that celebrates crunchy cartilage and gelatinous ooze, that openly stinks, that declares: This is what I like to eat. What about you? Do you dare?