Food is an integral part of Asian culture. It brings people together and is often the center at gatherings. Therefore, it was not surprising that when Asian immigrants came to the United States, they brought their food with them.
Much of the Asian foods in America came from the Asian immigrants that escaped their country during times of economic and/or political turmoil. When they arrived, they created communities and opened restaurants as a way to claim their own space in the big Melting Pot. Although, it is important to note that not all Asian American dishes are not Asian dishes adapted into American culture. Food items such as fortune cookies are American inventions.
Because America is known as the land of the free and a land for a better life, people around the world view it as their opportunity of a better life. Therefore, during hard times, many immigrate to America to get their chance for a better life. For example, Mr. Tony Cao, the restaurant owner of Viet’s Aroma, left Vietnam as a young boy with his family in order to escape the Communist rule and harsh economic times. In the 1850s, there was a wave of Chinese laborers that immigrated to the United States in search of work in gold mines and other manual laboring jobs to send money home (US Dept. of State). Then in the 1970s, young Japanese men sought educational opportunities while others came, not as settlers, but as temporary laborers that planned to return back to Japan (Japanese American National Museum). These settlers that came to America to provide a better life for their family also sought cultural comfort in the alienated land. Food became a way to do that.
Food became a way to bring “home” to their new home. In my impromptu interview with Mr. Cao from Viet’s Aroma, he showed passion about giving his customers a Vietnamese experience. In the 1960s, Japan started creating their own space in America when a little restaurant called Kawafuku in Los Angeles served sushi when younger generations started seeking out new foods, which helped start the sushi craze (Butler, “Nigiri to California Rolls”). For some, creating their own space in America came from different intentions. Thailand used pad thai to carve their own space, but with the intention to use it as a representation of Thai cuisine and to westernize Thailand (Greeley, “Finding Pad Thai”). Food became a way to bring people together and became a way to claim a space of their own. Over the years, different ethnic enclaves have sprouted all throughout the country. For example, the Chinese enclaves, commonly known as Chinatown, reside in multiple cities including New York City, Washington D.C, and Philadelphia. Koreatown exists in Los Angeles, California as well as a Little Seoul in Virginia. Little India, Japantown, Little Manila, and Little Bangladesh are also some of the many Asian enclaves in America. And from my own experiences walking through some of these enclaves, much of the businesses appear to be involved with the food industry, whether it’s a market or a restaurant. This observation shows that food is an important part of the culture. When the first Asian immigrants arrived in America, they sought the comfort of home and food became a way to deliver that sense of comfort.
But, how did we get from traditional sashimi sushi to the California roll? And isn’t pad thai supposed to be spicy? Although a restaurant’s major goal is to share their dishes to as many people as possible, they are still businesses. Therefore they still have to keep the customers and the supply in mind.
Restaurants have to cater to the market. They have to keep customers coming and to keep them happy. The first part to the Americanization of the Asian cuisine is the Americanization of the flavor of the dishes. In my interview with Mr. Cao, he made a statement that “there is a certain flavor that ‘we’ have but only ‘we’ have it.” And he is right. People grow up with certain food palates, so it’s no different that the Asian restaurant owners grow up with different food palates than the Americans they serve. Mr. Cao would love to bring as much authenticity to his food but “Frederick is not ready for it.” Frederick County, where his restaurant resides, is not ready for pig knuckles and pig blood in their pho. Therefore, he Americanized his pho by withholding those ingredients. Mr. Shigeo Saito, owner of the Kawafuku restaurant, experienced the same problem when his customers thought that sushi wrapped with seaweed was “too adventurous,” and thus he moved the seaweed inside and had the sticky white rice wrap around the seaweed (Butler, “Nigiri to California Rolls”). Tom Go, the manager of a restaurant that helped popularize the Chinese egg roll, based his own egg roll recipe based on what seemed to be a hit with the customers (Eng, “Tracing the history of the egg roll”). Traditional pad thai is a lot spicier than what they serve in Thai restaurants. The American palate is not known for their spiciness and their customers are not used to it. Therefore, a dish like pad thai was Americanized to be less spicy and is now used as a way to introduce others to the Thai cuisine (Sudbanthad, “Pad Thai”). Ultimately, These restaurateurs have done as much as they can to share their culture while still pleasing their customers.
The second part to the Americanization of the Asian cuisine is the change of ingredients. A change in flavor means a change in ingredients and sometimes, a change in ingredients is necessary even when trying to keep the same flavor. The California roll was created due to seasonal change. When tuna was a seasonal fish in the 70s, Saito used avocado as way to mimic the texture of the tuna. Then, he used crab to replace the taste of tuna (Butler, “Nigiri to California Rolls”). Tom Go said that most of the ingredients he uses to make egg rolls can be found in American grocery stores. More traditional egg rolls include bamboo shoots and water chestnuts, which are not commonly found in American grocery stores. Then, to be more cost efficient, Go uses cabbage rather than roast and pork (Eng, “Tracing the history of the egg roll”). Generally, restaurants use what is available and what keeps them cost efficient. Restaurateurs have gotten creative with keeping their cultural edge into their dishes while keeping their customers happy.
In conclusion, the Americanization of the Asian cuisine started out with the Asian immigration to the United States. When settlers arrived into a foreign land, they sought the comfort of food as way to bring back parts of their home country. When they started opening up restaurants to share their culture with others, they had to cater to the market in order to have a successful business. Catering to the market paved the way to Americanization because catering to the market meant changing certain flavors and changing ingredients. Therefore, when a dish has become something other than the authentic, traditional dish in order to serve American tastes, the dish becomes the Americanized version of itself.
Additional bibliography specific to essay:
“Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts – 1866–1898 – Milestones.” Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts – 1866–1898 – Milestones – Office of the Historian. Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <https://history.state.gov/milestones/1866-1898/chinese-immigration>.
“Brief Historical Overview of Japanese Emigration, 1868-1998.” JANM/INRP-Historical Overview. Japanese American National Museum, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2015. <http://www.janm.org/projects/inrp/english/overview.htm>.