Stinky, Spicy, and Delicious: The Radical Reinvention of Asian American Food

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talde.jpgClockwise from top: Dale Talde at his eponymous Park Slope restaurant; a cartoon-colored riff on halo-halo, a traditional Filipino dessert; chips and black sesame paste garnish a soba noodle dish (Nancy Matsumoto)

Sitting at the polished bar of Talde in Park Slope, surrounded by carved woodwork and porcelain figurines, Dale Talde, 33, dressed in a Chicago Bulls baseball cap and shorts, looks like a high school kid, not the chef-owner of the place. His elegant-yet-casual Seventh Avenue Asian American restaurant was a hit from the get-go, first mobbed by fans who loved his confident, street smart persona on Top Chef, and then because his food is bright, imaginative, and deeply flavored, and practically vibrates with the humor and sass of its creator.

Talde opened his eponymous pan-Asian restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn, this past January. Chef Carrie Nahabedian, who hired him years ago to work at her Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Naha, comes up with an apt characterization of Talde's food, and Asian Soul Food as a whole: "Sticky, luscious, gooey, lacquered, and mahogany: you just bite into it and you don't know how he did it, but you know there's a major collaboration of flavors to get the end result."

In a way, chefs such as Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened the door for this sort of innovation by introducing Asian ingredients into their cooking in the 1980s. But the term "fusion" has come to mean the clumsy, heavy-handed use of lemon grass and Thai chilis by chefs who lack deep familiarity with such ingredients. Talde has never felt that "fusion" was a dirty word, but he defines it in a deeply personal way. "I'm a citizen of the United States. But I grew up in a Filipino household, so this is what I am. For me, it's 'How can I fuse these together?'"

Talde's is among the most pan-Asian of the Asian Soul Food restaurants, but the chef also draws on food he sampled at friends' houses on the Southside of Chicago -- the black-eyed peas, collard greens barbecue and cornbread of the Southern diaspora -- and the "best tacos ever" that he found near Ashland Avenue and West Division Street.

He playfully references American street food in his juicy pretzel, pork, and chive dumplings with spicy mustard. He pays tribute both to his Filipino heritage and his childhood with his halo-halo dessert. The dish is typically made with shaved ice, condensed milk, and a mixture of fruits, legumes, and root vegetables cooked in syrup. Talde creates a cartoon-colored version of it with charred banana, pearl tapioca, and Cap'n Crunch.

Because he's of the opinion that "Mexican food here [in New York City] sucks," his brunch menu includes chilaquiles with barbecued tofu, a fried egg, and salsa verde, and a lemongrass chicken quesadilla. He freely admits he's taken a few cues from Kogi BBQ's Roy Choi, and says, "I admire him. I've never had his food, but you read his menus and it's like, delicious. I want to eat everything on it."

Growing up in Niles, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Talde was part of a sprawling extended family of close to 50 first cousins. "I knew we were Filipino, but I don't think I really understood what that meant, he says. "Back then, we didn't have Manny Pacquiao, we didn't have that dude from the Black Eyed Peas, we didn't have Lea Salonga. So I latched on to Michael Jordan and early '90s hip-hop, not knowing they would have a profound impact on the way I look at food, at culture in general."

For many Asian American Soul Food chefs, to aligning themselves with African American or Latino culture was easier than finding common ground with white culture. Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, who teaches Asian American studies at Stanford, recognizes this affinity as something he felt when he was younger. "It felt good when the black kids accepted me. It was the time of civil rights, and Black Power. For me it was a way of identifying with a bigger struggle, because there wasn't much I could identify with, being Asian American."

Murphy-Shigematsu says he often sees the same pattern in his Asian American college students: "They negate culture, say it's not something that's really relevant to them. They're often not aware that what they're admiring is mainstream values." At some point in what he calls the "identity process," they embrace their Asian American heritage. "They're searching for a kind of wholeness and balance, a blending that will connect all the different parts of themselves," he explains.

That's what Asian Soul Food chefs are doing, and in the process, they're claiming the right to create a more authentic form of fusion cuisine. Their food, Murphy-Shigematsu says, "is not authentically Asian, but it's authentically Asian American." As James Syhabout put it, "I'm comfortable now where before there was a big void. I think I neglected my heritage when I was younger because I thought I could be better than that, rather than just that." Food, he now believes, "is the best vessel to portray who I am."

In August, Talde plans to open a bar, also in Park Slope, called Pork Slope. He'll serve pork-centric bar food, Americana of the sort that he craves when he's not working: barbecue, burgers, a "Porky Melt," and hot wings. It's not obviously Asian, yet it's the next step in the evolution of his Asian Soul Food. "There's a lot of Mexican influence in Filipino food from the spice trade, and a lot of indigenous Malay influence," he says. "And Filipinos do pork exceptionally well."

The Asian Soul Food chefs have redrawn the map of ethnic cuisine in America, unafraid to open their refrigerator doors and serve the deep, funky flavors that helped make them who they are. Will their 21st century dishes -- kimchi quesadillas and pretzel pork and chive dumplings -- one day become as ubiquitous as African American soul food?

The only sure thing is that Asian American Soul Food will continue to change with each successive generation. "I look at it a little like hip hop," says Choi. "We're like the Beasties and Run D.M.C., and LL Cool J right now, Public Enemy. Stuff that's good, but not as good as what might come later, because it will evolve and there will be new kids in the game, and they'll be rapping and their style will just be so fresh. We're creating it as we go so kids 10 years from now will have a template. They'll say, 'Oh, you old farts, this is how you do it.'"

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Nancy Matsumoto is health, food, and culture writer based in New York City. She blogs at Walking & Talking and Psychology Today.

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