Living again in the Midwest, I am hard-pressed to find a few good restaurants serving my favorite comfort foods: chicken chow fun noodles, various assortments of dimsum, and Chinese broccoli. What passes as Asian American food in multiple Midwestern states is a very bland sushi, cheese-topped baked mussels, fake crabmeat doused in mayonnaise, and biscuits baked around wieners at all-you-can-eat establishments.
The History of Asian American Fare
Asian foods were first introduced to the US with the arrival of Chinese laborers in the 1850s to California, and most of their creations were consumed by the male migrant laborers in their ghettos. This cuisine became more popularized in the 1920s among Jazz Age cosmopolitan youth. However, it wasn’t until World War II that Chinese and Japanese foods entered the mainstream. Then, in the 1970s, the influx of Vietnamese, Hmong, and other Southeast Asians introduced yet other peoples’ food traditions to the US.
The website, Asian Nation (asian-nation.org) separates the various Asian food origins into larger regions. The southwest style includes foods from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma (described as flat breads, kebabs, mutton, rice and beans). The northeast tradition stems from China, Korea, and Japan—with a focus on rice, meat stir-fried with vegetables, stews, and various raw fish. The southeast style hails from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei (for example, stir-fried, steamed, or boiled foods seasoned with herbs and citrus juices).
The foods of a place and a people evolve from the local wild animals and crops, domesticated food animals and crops, the local climates, and human ingenuity. Foods are prepared in numerous ways—roasted, boiled, baked, stir-fried, steamed, or left raw—after various preparations with sauces, cuts, and intermixing of ingredients. People’s palates are informed by their childhood foods and food experiences and then their sense of adventure as they are further exposed to the world.
The Americanization of Asian Fare
The Americanization of the traditional Asian diets has resulted in the infusion of more meats, deep fried foods, and food colorings into the various dishes. Some menus in restaurants offer Americanized dishes for those who speak English but offer more traditional fare to those who speak the local language or know to request particular foods.
High delicacies—those with medical potency, unusual flavors, elusive ingredients—never appear on any menus. These would include stewed brain, deer antlers, shark’s fin, bird’s nest, and ginseng-based stews, for example. Other dishes which would not appear would likely be those that would not directly appeal to the mainstream palate—like cooked loaves of fat, sliced thin, and topped with spices; deep-fried frogs; syrup-covered deep-fried bananas; stir-fried silkworm larvae; bean-filled lollipops, or shapeless Northern Chinese-style baozi.
Those who travel to Asian countries would be hard-pressed to find similar fare in their restaurants or street food vendors. While the Asian Food Pyramid from the USDA and HHS shows more of a focus on primary foods such as rice and noodles and vegetables, with meat eaten more rarely, Asian American diets have aligned with the mainstream American ones sufficiently to change the health effects of the larger consumption of high calories, animal meats and fats, and sugars.
While traditional meals were occasions for socializing, ceremonial events, and business meetings (think of feasts and hot-pots), the Asian American approach has involved fewer interactions, as a reflection of a more individualistic and less communal lifestyle. The focus on efficiencies in American fast-food preparation has meant a greater use of pre-packaged foods. The focus on value has resulted in the increasing amount of food portions.
The federal focus on food safety means that few of the vibrant street foods found at vendors and open-air markets throughout Asia exist stateside.
Also, inventive Western cooks have made foods that have little tie-in to actual formal cuisines of Asian countries. There are widespread mentions of how fortune cookies came from Japan, not China. “Chop suey” is a Western creation of odds-and-ends, not something that typical Chinese would go to a restaurant to eat. Many adaptations may be localized ones and are influenced by the backgrounds of the various cooks.
Jennifer 8 Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”, makes the point that there are numerous types of fusion Chinese food that she encountered in her around-the-world search for Chinese food for her book: French-, Italian-, British-, West Indian-, Jamaican-, Middle Eastern-, Mauritian-, Indian-, Korean-, Japanese-, Peruvian-, Mexican-, Brazilian- and other cultural amalgams.
Fusion Asian American Cuisine
Fusion refers to the combination of culinary traditions. While these approaches were initially more common in high-end chi-chi restaurants, Asian American fare has been a favorite for such mixing and matching. Now, such practices have become much more popularized in populist restaurants and even in airport eateries and the frozen-food aisle of the local grocery stores.
Different types of rice (and flavors of rice) may be integrated into sushi. Northern-style flavored meats are used for the Southern influenced dimsum. Salads are topped with a nori-topping and miso-influenced dressing.
Fusion itself is all about mix-and-match based on the chefs’ inspirations and diners’ palates.
There are deep-fried salmon rolls dipped in Chinese hot-mustard sauce. Lamb basted in hot Korean spices. Jiaozi dumplings filled with seafood mixtures. Spring rolls filled with crabmeat. Fusion cuisine is about mixing and matching. What fuses well then is a matter of taste and aesthetics.
I “fuse” (as an amateur) at home when I mix ingredients for different effects (or because I don’t have the core ingredients at home). And my Pacific Northwest palate has been honed well to the nuances of Asian American fare, so when I come across an interesting mix (mix-up?) at a local Midwestern eatery, I have to remember where I am and call it good (and maybe call it “local fusion”).
To contact Shalin Hai-Jew, e-mail [email protected].