Led by her obsession with food, award-winning director Grace Lee takes audiences on a road trip in her new film Off the Menu: Asian America to explore what food tells us about family, tradition, and culture.
From Texas to New York, Wisconsin to Hawai‘i, Lee befriends chefs, home cooks, farmers, factory owners, and fishermen. She journeys into their homes, temples, and places of business—all to better understand what “Asian American” means.
“The idea of what Asian American is an abstract concept for a lot of people because it encompasses so many different languages, religions, ethnicities and countries of origin,” said Eurie Chung, one of the main producers for the film.
Through the film’s journey, the audience meets a diverse selection of people whose lives and work revolve around food.
“Everywhere we went, they’re like, ‘Have you eaten? Are you hungry?’” Chung said with a laugh. “The food was sort of an excuse to get close to these people.” They were eager to share about their traditions and culture because food is their livelihood, according to Chung.
This film explores people’s obsession with food, the phenomenon of posting food pictures to social media, and rating restaurants on Yelp. From there, the film delves into deeper questions about how food relates to the Asian American community and how it has evolved.
Food and community
Food historian and local community activist Maxine Chan speaks to the history of the Asian American identity from a Seattle perspective.
Chan described how food was an important source of identity, especially during the Asian American movement in the 1970s: “We [were] redefining who and what we are and what we want to be called, not what you want to call us. So there’s this whole movement, and I think as Asian Americans, the food, we’ve always known what our food was. What was in the restaurant, what was at home.”
Food, she explained, connected Asian Americans to their heritage and to each other.
“Food is a way of coming together,” Chan said. “It’s a way of gathering. It’s a social event. It’s not just to eat to survive. It is about eating to demonstrate an emotion.”
Chan said the way to demonstrate and show love in the Chinese community revolves around food.
“A way to show your love is you have dinner together as a family,” Chan said. “And we always put food on each other’s bowls or dish. You show your love by giving them the best part of something.”
Tomio Moriguchi, previous owner the Asian grocery retailer Uwajimaya for 40 years and current chairman, said he has seen the popularity of Asian food grow in Seattle. He said he remembers 30 years ago how there might have been only two or three places to get Asian cuisine. Now, there is some variation of Asian cuisine on nearly every block.
“Asian food has become like tacos,” Moriguchi said. “Fifty years ago, it was something unique.”
The story of food
Through Off the Menu’s humor and personal storytelling, Lee explores larger issues of race and even discrimination based on religion, according to Chung. He said that Lee was able to include more intimate interviews because a common love of food was the launching point for discussion.
“There is a context in this movie to talk about race that seems safe,” Chung said.
Chung and Lee have talked about doing a series of Off The Menu films that cover more areas of the United States, Seattle being one of them.
Seattle Asian American Film Festival Programming Manager Chris Woon invited Lee’s film to be screened at the festival.
“I think the film speaks to the importance of food as something that is able to penetrate cultural barriers like few things can,” Woon said in an email. “Often Asian American stories get overlooked, but people love the food that comes from our cultures, and in this case food can be a vehicle for not only entrepreneurship, but healing and the growth of community. In our food-obsessed town, hopefully a film like Off the Menu: Asian America helps people think more about the stories behind the food they love and so enthusiastically consume. Each bite brings out the potential to consider the struggles and triumphs both in a culinary and social fashion, that brought them these meals they might otherwise take for granted.”
The film wraps up with this narration from Lee herself: “The people I met are redefining American food and American culture itself. They showed me how food can both honor previous generations, and help us adapt to new cultures. How food can create community, and even feed us spiritually.”
The Seattle Asian American Film Festival will be screening ‘Off The Menu: Asian America,’ on Saturday, February 20 at 3:00 p.m. at Northwest Film forum Screen 1.