The rise of authentic Asian flavors has become exceedingly apparent in the American culinary world. If you were to take a trip into a bustling city and choose a “modern” American restaurant, you would most likely find at least one dish utilizing traditional Asian ingredients or techniques. Isn’t it wonderful? It was not too long ago when “Asian food” was generalized to a chinese takeout spot hidden amongst pizzerias and mini-marts. But in today’s world authentic asian flavors have gained popularity around the U.S. and we can now see that “asian food” encapsulates an array of dishes as diverse as Asia itself.
We cannot talk about the evolution of the Asian palate in America without mentioning Los Angeles. L.A. has the highest density of Asian identities in any American city and this leads to a plethora of Asian restaurants, of which many are family-owned and pride themselves on catering traditional tastes (which can be seen as a foil to American cuisine). Traditionalists are satisfied, however it creates a barrier to those that are taking baby steps into Asian food culture (especially the spice!).
“Fusion” is a culinary practice that attempts to hem two cultural palates together, to introduce a product that is accepted by both respective parties. In fact, it could be visualized as a metaphorical bridge of sorts, and in L.A., a handful of chefs began the process of making authentic Asian flavors more accessible to American audiences.
There are many L.A.-based chefs to cover, but unfortunately (for the sake of time), we will focus on Mr. Roy Choi in this article. You may know Chef Choi as the founder and creative behind the Kogi Food Truck(s). Kogi is popular for their use of Korean ingredients with Mexican street tacos. Kimchi (김치) and bulgogi (불고기), both staples in Korean cuisine, obviously stand out on a menu shared with taco and make customers initially hesitant to order. Choi has talked about the initial difficulty of selling something new to customers, but once they got customers to take their first bite, they always came back for more. The success led Choi to begin other ventures and he opened up multiple restaurants, one of which being Best Friend, located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Best Friend continues the same trend of offering a mixture of Korean-L.A. inspired dishes to audiences. One can order a fried bologna sandwich, an L.A. street dog, and soondubu (spicy tofu stew) in one sitting.
Roy Choi and other L.A.-based chefs have done their part in making Los Angeles’ food scene more representative of their people. However, the same can not be said for all the other U.S. states. Based on my experience alone, Philadelphia is still developing establishments akin to Best Friend, and has not yet reached the same level of success and attraction to the general public.. That being said, there are a couple big players in the Philly food movement: Dim Sum Garden, located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, serves pseudo-authentic plates and runs from early afternoon to late at night. Traditionally, dim sum is served in mid-morning to afternoon, but the way Dim Sum Garden operates, makes it more accessible to the lives of city folk.
BonChon is a chain of restaurants that specializes in Korean fried chicken. And while “Korean fried chicken“ cannot be considered a traditional Korean dish, it draws heavy inspiration from East Asian flavors and seasoning. It is also served with pickled radishes instead of the typical coleslaw and biscuits. The store televisions will often show the nightly sports broadcast side-by-side with a popular string of K-pop music videos, which is an oddly perfect image of the relationship BonChon seeks with their American patrons.
All in all, this article strives to illuminate the great strides Asian food has made in America. We should celebrate our culture’s flavors and hope to share them with our neighbors of different ethnicities and communities. It is also important to acknowledge that what is nostalgic and “normal” to us may be something completely new and somewhat scary to others. There is value in creating new dishes that make the transition into authentic Asian cuisine easier, or to just have that extra option of a Asian fusion dish that may be just what someone out there is hungry for. During the rise of COVID-19, xenophobic thoughts and actions led to Asian restaurants being hit hardest. Many are still struggling to keep their doors open, but there has been an enormous amount of support from the fellow Asian community, regardless of diaspora. I believe that the support from young Asian American “foodies” will always be there and we have the ability to share these spots with new people. So next time you are craving “asian food” consider taking a stroll down Chinatown and support an establishment that provides an authentic asian experience… with taste!
Written by Lubin Park
Edited by Jaime Mah