Before all the ngau lam ingredients converge in a giant pot, the brisket, tripe and tendon must be blanched. It gives off a hot, heavy stench that permeates every room of the house and adheres to every fiber.
My childhood home in suburban Chicago always smelled like whatever we were cooking. Visiting us meant cloaking yourself in the scent of haam daan ju yoke beng, a dish of steamed pork and salted egg, or the perfume of mapodoufu, tofu and minced pork with a spicy chili and fermented black bean sauce.
I didn’t mind the smells growing up because I wasn’t aware of them. That is, until a high school friend declared my house smelled of “Chinese grossness.”
The comment clung to me like the smell in my home. My embarrassment hit a peak when my father installed a 5-foot-long fish tank in our family room so he could steam fish at home — extra fresh. I tried to pretend the blue fish swimming around in the murky green water were pets, but the lack of tank accessories gave away our true intentions, stunning my white friends.
My hunger for my family’s food was overpowered by my desire to fit in, so I minimized Chinese food’s role in my life and learned to make pasta instead. Little did I know that Americans would come to embrace the dishes and cooking styles that once mortified me. The Cantonese foods of my childhood have reappeared in trendy restaurants that fill their menus with perfectly plated fine-dining versions of our traditional cuisine. In some cases, this shift has been heartening. But in too many others, the trend has reduced staples of our culture to fleeting fetishes.
The shame associated with immigrant foods (until they become foodies’ favorites) isn’t unique to me or Chinese dishes. In her new book, “Maangchi’s Real Korean Cooking,” Korean cook and YouTube star Maangchi writes fondly of Korean soup soy sauce. In South Korea, all of her neighbors would boil their own. In the United States, though, the soup was received differently:
“I remember boiling my Korean soup soy sauce when I lived in Missouri, and my apartment manager knocked on my door. ‘What’s that smell? I got a complaint from your neighbor.’ I was so embarrassed that I didn’t make soup soy sauce again for a long time, even after I moved back to Korea.”
Even now, as an accomplished cook in New York City, Maangchi doesn’t boil soup soy sauce in her home. Instead, she takes it to a creek at the base of the Henry Hudson Bridge and boils it in a portable gas burner “where no one will complain.”
This experience is so universal that it recently became canonized in pop culture. New York chef Eddie Huang retold the story of his daily lunchroom shaming in a scene from “Fresh Off the Boat,” an ABC sitcom based on his memoir. When young Eddie takes a carton of noodles out of his lunchbox, his white classmates react with disgust: “Ying Ming’s eating worms! Dude, that smells nasty!” Back at home, Eddie demands his parents start packing him “white people lunch.”
The lengths to which immigrant families have gone to hide the way we feed ourselves break my heart. But something has changed. In cities big and small, Asian dishes and flavors have become popular among foodies at chic eateries. Foods that were once considered too strong, too spicy, too smelly or too obviously-from-an-animal for my white friends are now on Restaurant Week menus nationwide.
In one way, this is a positive change. Now that I’ve gotten over my fear of stinking up my kitchen, the growing number of Asian grocery stores means I don’t have to visit home to get ingredients for homemade Chinese food. Greater acceptance of international eateries allows immigrants, professional chefs and otherwise to explore their culture and dual identity proudly, instead of behind closed doors or at the edge of the Henry Hudson Bridge.
Gravitating toward “new” cuisines is understandable, and when done well, immigrant food can provoke discussions about personal history and shared diasporas. I’ve seen this happen at restaurants such as China Chilcano, which describes the history of Chinese and Peruvian fusion that influences its menu, a bare minimum that many restaurants ignore.
But while some eateries get it right, the United States’s take on “ethnic” food often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
“2015 is the year of bone broth!” the “Today” show declared in January. “These days, the hottest food trend is a steaming cup of soup.” The morning show touted bone broth as a newly discovered wonder food of “Paleo dieters and wellness enthusiasts,” making no mention of its grounding in Chinese culture.
In the United States, immigrant food is often treated like discount tourism — a cheap means for foodies to feel worldly without leaving the comfort of their neighborhood — or high-minded fusion — a stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit. The dishes of America’s recent immigrants have become check marks on a cultural scavenger hunt for society’s elite. One conspicuous example is an upcoming eatery in Washington’s Petworth neighborhood that packages discount tourism and high-minded fusion into one menu. The as-yet-unnamed restaurant seeks to re-create Southeast Asia’s “expat experience” — not for Asian residents in D.C. but for D.C. residents who crave the feeling of visiting Asia with other foreigners.
“When you travel in Southeast Asia, you have two experiences: the cultural experiences with the temples, food, and people, and then a phenomenal traveler’s culture, too,” chef Alex McCoy told Washingtonian. “That’s the inspiration for this place. We want to introduce people to Thai cuisine, but frame it in the eye of a traveler.”
This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as “authentic” on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here. Fashionable food from foreign cultures may satisfy a temporary hunger, but if you’re trying it for shallow reasons, you’ll be culturally unfulfilled in the long run.
Instead of attempting to expand our palates with best-restaurant lists and foodie fads, we should find deeper ways to explore the diversity of dishes that have come to the United States.
We need food writers like Monica Bhide, who appreciate not only diverse tastes, but also the cultures that produced them. We need more cookbook authors like Maangchi, who documents traditional recipes so fans of Korean food can participate in culinary rituals. We need more publications like Lucky Peach, which treats immigrant food with the same complexity that is bestowed on the all-American burger. And we need more films like “The Search for General Tso” that examine our relationship with “ethnic” food.
Americans are increasingly interested in where food is sourced. Surely, that interest should extend to a meal’s cultural roots as well as its biological origins.
My dad’s ngau lam is not gross, but I never want it to be given the “fad” treatment. You should try it the way he likes to prepare it — after he blanches the cow stomach, adds the bag of spices and lets it cook for hours.
The best meals are more than the sum of their ingredients; their flavors tell the stories of the rich cultures that created them. When the same respect is afforded to immigrant food as traditional “American” food, eating it will sate us in more ways than one.
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