By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Imagine dining in a Seattle restaurant, but you can order only steaks, fish and chips, or chicken breast. Would you be inclined to eat out more? Thank God, Seattle isn’t one of those cities without imagination. Nor is Bellevue. What really energizes the culinary scene nationally and locally for the past decade is the addition of diverse Asian entrees.
Have you noticed more and more non-Asians mastering chopsticks like pros, sometimes embarrassing American-born Asians who are unfamiliar with them? If you are hooked on bubble tea, you might be aware that it’s not American — it originated in Taiwan. Did you know Japanese Americans invented fortune cookies, not the Chinese? Did you know that a Vietnamese refugee created the popular Sriracha hot sauce in California? Have you heard about the Chinese American farmer who invented a type of orange that can withstand frost in Florida in the 19th century?
According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the concept of bigger egg rolls deep-fried in a thicker skin originated in America. Of course, you’ve heard of chop suey, a cuisine invented in America. A Chinese official didn’t have anything prepared for visitors, so he told the chef to dish up all the leftovers and make up an interesting name to fool his guests. By the way, General Tso’s chicken is also a product of America.
So many of my Asian and non-Asian friends have confessed that they can’t go on without rice — it has become an essential staple in the American diet.
Raise your hand if you have had poke, kimchi, sushi, dim sum, naan, or pho recently. When I spoke at the King County Council last week in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I was surprised that over 80 percent of the audience raised their hand when asked if they had Asian food recently.
And most of the audience members were not Asian.
Why is Asian food popular
One feature of Asian cuisine, with the exception of Japanese food, is its low price. Pick Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi), pad thai (stir-fried Thai noodles), fried rice, or Korean bibimbap (mixed rice), it is relatively inexpensive and can fill you up quickly. If you are on a tight budget, dining with little kids, chatting loudly with friends, Asian restaurants’ casual style would fit you perfectly.
And you can count on Asian restaurants to be open 365 days a year, especially Chinese restaurants, when mainstream restaurants close on major holidays, such as Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The influence of Asian food
Asian cuisine has inspired more and more Americans to be adventurous. For instance, pork belly was not acceptable in the old days at mainstream restaurants. Now, it’s available. They are so good and succulent. I almost couldn’t believe it.
Go to American restaurants and ask for soy sauce, tumeric, wasabi, or teriyaki sauce. The waiter would have no problems serving you. Asian sauces and cooking utensils, such as woks, have been incorporated into the kitchens of many Western restaurants. How many American restaurants also offer sushi rolls on their menu? Plenty…
Today’s restaurants hire white or Mexican chefs to make Chinese dumplings or sashimi, and doing stir-fry. And oh, many of the successful Asian chefs working in American restaurants cook dishes with an Asian flair, and their food tastes fantastic. Why? Because they have introduced Asian fusion techniques in their cooking without publicizing it.
While many historians would point to the contributions of Asian Americans in building railroads in the 1800s, and now in technology, architecture, science, and engineering, few realize the impact of API cuisine on the food industry.
Asian restaurants and food manufacturing are driving forces of the economy.
The 120+ Asian restaurants, Asian supermarkets, and food manufacturers like Tsue Chong Noodles Co., which also makes fortune cookies in the Chinatown International District, are considered to be an economic powerhouse of the Asian community, according to community leader Charlie James.
Not all the Asian restaurants are owned by Asians. Wild Ginger is owned by Rick Yoder, a Caucasian entrepreneur, and serves traditional Asian cuisine.
Its kitchen is mostly staffed by Asians. These food institutions provide thousands of jobs to new immigrants, and meals as well. I was a beneficiary when I worked as a waitress in college because I got cash tips every day, and free food. My trick was to order a double burger (two pieces of ground beef) or to help myself to two bowls of fried rice so I could bring food home. It saved me money and cooking time, as I didn’t need to buy food.
The increasing number of Asian supermarkets in King County also expands public interest and knowledge towards exotic fruits and vegetables from Asia. These stores are patronized by diverse customers, not just Asians.
Simultaneously, Asia’s desires for America’s seafood, such as geoducks, lobsters, salmons, and clams, helps to flourish the export and import business between America and Asia, resulting in trade and job creation. Many of these trading companies are Asian American-owned.
Food does magic in fostering human relationships. It brings families, friends, strangers of diverse cultures, and even enemies together. A recent example is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hosting a banquet for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after their successful talk about releasing American prisoners in North Korea. What do we do after a challenging encounter? We eat.
Food is an incentive for negotiators to look forward to what lies ahead after tough talks or a meltdown.
Asian food reflects thousands of years of culture and history. It doesn’t matter whether the dishes are Americanized, authentic, or fusion-oriented. It showcases the evolution of Asian cuisine in America. I still expect Asian American chefs to prepare palatable entrees with a twist of creativity. Don’t just dump the tray on the dining table, Make diners’ mouths water just looking at the food, so that we are dying to plough through with our fork or chopsticks, to enjoy the exquisite and irresistible.
I proudly declare that I have tried all types of Asian cuisine, and often yearn for more. If you haven’t had Asian food recently, you just don‘t know what you have been missing.
Ironically, I was one of those who missed out in my younger days. I was not willing to experiment and stuck only to Chinese and Japanese food. I didn’t know anything about other Asian foods. I thank all my non-Chinese friends for their patience in educating me about their cultures and food. You have given me blessings and experiences, which I cherish. I have done my own share of enticing my non-Chinese friends to be bold in tasting “weird stuff.”
Practice is my motto now. Each country has so much to offer, I just have to experiment until I discover the best foods from each culture. The journey has been rich, fun, and exciting. I am having a blast!
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.