A friend who is wise in the ways how East and West interact recently quipped that, “you know your cultural heritage is a major success when someone else is selling it back to you.” He said this after I observed that all my yoga teachers are white, and that it’s ironic that Steven Spielberg produced Kung Fu Panda - Kung Fu and Panda being native to China - how it became one of the biggest movies in China.
West has long ago changed East, but in the age of mass migration and globalization, East too, in profound ways, is transforming West.
And nowhere is that so more self evident than in the area of taste.
A month or so ago, because Rachael Ray was teaching television audience how to make Pho Soup and got the recipe wrong -she said it’s a Thai inspired dish and using -gasp - pork instead of beef and no fishsauce- she caused this response from Vietnamese American chef and food writer Andrea Nguyen. “Pho is in the dictionary,” Andrea noted “I’m rather appalled that the producers of the Rachel Ray show would such an injustice to pho noodle soup. I wish that her show producers would go the extra mile for Asian food.”
Yet what’s taken now for granted is that Pho is in the dictionary and being taught by food channel network chefs like Ray. The Vietnamese noodle that until the Vietnam war ended was unknown outside of Vietnam’s borders now became part of a global phenomenon. Even Campbell soup cans the broth back in 2002.
What it all means is that American palates are shifting, and radically.
Think about it: three decades ago, who would have thought that sushi—raw fish—would become an indelible part of American cuisine? Or that curry powder and soy sauce would be found down Aisle 3 of Safeway? Or that an entire new basic taste -umami - meaning savoriness - a loan word from Japan - is now part of American culinary idiom.
Such affinity for all things Asians is no longer restricted to American coasts but the heartlands. According to Specialty Food Magazine, Charlottesville, Va’s Foods of All Nations, will increase its 30 feet of Asian products by another four feet, adding Korean and Chinese items. “Asian condiments and products have been growing over the past few years,” notes Joe Slavic, specialty food buyer. “We have Asians and Asian-Americans from the university who purchase products for traditional Asian dishes and non-Asians who buy products to incorporate Asian flavors into their own meals,” he says. “Soy sauces, wasabi pastes and powders are the store’s quickest movers.”
Indeed, Asian cultural influences have lapped at the American shores ever since the Chinese brought their herbal medicines and array of other plants during the California Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. But it is only since the 1980s that Asia’s influence, along with Asian-American demographic growth, began to take off on a massive scale, becoming respectable and —indeed — desirable. The effect is that what once was considered ethnic or even esoteric has spilled irrevocably into the mainstream, mixing with mainstream habits and transforming the landscape.
We slowly give up blandness to savor the pungent lemongrass in our soup, feel that tangy burn of red curry on the tongue. Tomorrow’s classics are today’s bold experiments: tofu burrito, hummus guacamole, spring rolls with salsa dipping sauce, lamb in tamarind sauce, lychee martini, wasabi bloody mary.
Yet it did not always seem so. For first few years in America my family and I were terribly homesick. At dinnertime, my mother would say, “Guavas back home are ripened this time of year, back at our farm,” or someone else would say, “I miss mangosteen so much,” and we would shake our heads and sigh. But then a friend, newly arrived in America, gave my mother some seeds and plants. Soon mother’s small garden in the backyard was full of lemongrass, Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander, and small red chilies. Homesickness was placated by the fact that home was coming, slowly but surely, nearer to the golden shore.
Now imagine my mother’s garden spreading over a large swath of California’s farmland. Southeast Asian farmers, in the footsteps of last century’s Japanese and South Asian farmers before them, are growing a large variety of vegetables in the Central Valley and trucking them to markets all over the state. Hmong, Filipino, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean, Laotian, South Asian, Latin American farmers join the rest and sell everything from live chickens and seafood to Thai eggplants and edible amaranth, from hyacinth beans and hairy gourds to oriental squash and winter melons, from Buddha fingers to sugarcane. I, for one, have learned not to underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. Here in California, it often becomes retroactive; so much longing for home recreates it in the new landscape. On a sunny day, visiting the local farmer’s market, there are fragrances and sounds so oddly familiar that, were I to close my eyes, I could imagine myself back in my hometown, in the verdant, fog-filled plateau of Dalat, Vietnam.
In my lifetime here I have watched the pressure to move toward some generic, standardized melting-potted center deflate—transpose, in fact—to something quite its opposite, as the demography shifts toward a society in which there’s no discernible majority, no clear single center. Instead, the story I often see here is one where one crosses, by various degrees, from ethic to cosmopolitanism.
Thus for this holiday season my family and I celebrate without a turkey as the centerpiece - bouillabaisse and Vietnamese crab spring rolls please! One lives, that is, in an age of enormous options in an astounding diverse and fertile region where human restlessness and fabulous alchemical commingling are becoming increasingly the norm. And, that complexity is infused in many ways by the taste, and here in the West, increasingly informed by that certain eastern sensibility.
NAM Editor, Andrew Lam, is author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, and East Eats West; Writing in Two Hemispheres.
Odette Keeley is host and executive producer of “New America Now”, NAM’s TV show, as well as anchor for NAM”s weekly segment on “Upside” - both airing on- Comcast Hometown Network CHN 104. This video feature was also featured by Keeley on "Upside." Valerie Klinker is a content producer for YO! & NAM.