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

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They grew up in tough neighborhoods and trained in refined European kitchens. Now these brilliant young chefs want to show you what's really in their refrigerators.

choi2.jpgClockwise from left: Chef Roy Choi at Chego; french fries smothered in spicy Asian sauce and Mexican cheeses; buttered kimchi chow, a rice bowl topped garnished with Mexican fried pork rind and Japanese dried seaweed; diners on a typically busy night (Nancy Matsumoto)

It's a weekday night at Chego, a rice bowl joint situated next to a convenience store in a postage-stamp-sized mini-mall in West L.A. Customers line up at the register to order dishes like buttered kimchi chow, a bowl of rice topped with fiery Korean pickled cabbage, a fried egg, and red chili tofu, strewn with a colorful garnish of Mexican fried pork rind, and Japanese dried seaweed. Many customers supplement their orders with a house favorite -- a glorious mess of French fries smothered in sambal-spiked sour cream, melted cheeses, chilis, cilantro, and pickled garlic. The amped-up flavors -- salty, sticky, sweet, spicy, and addictive -- assault the senses like stoner food from a Harold and Kumar fantasy.

These loud-mouthed dishes are the inventions of Korean American chef Roy Choi, 42, who grew up in L.A. thinking he was Latino and who in 2008 ignited the food truck revolution. Kogi BBQ-To-Go, his mobile food service, delivers swaggering Korean-Mexican-American creations such as kimchi quesadillas and kalbi sliders to all corners of L.A. County. If food could talk, Choi's, just like its maker, would be dropping cheerful F-bombs right and left, uninhibited by conventional standards of taste and decorum.

Choi is part of a tsunami of rule-breaking Asian American chefs who have created a new genre of cooking in America: a robust and astonishingly creative blend that draws on Asian, Latin, and Southern foods. Its growing ranks of practitioners bring sterling chef credentials and modernist cooking techniques to bear on the foods of their forebears.

What they're making is not just "modernist" Asian cuisine. It's a type of cooking that has filtered through the multiethnic influences of their upbringings: taco stands, fast food joints, barbecue shacks, hip hop, and graffiti. Theirs is not the "fusion" cooking of the late '70s and '80's, effete creations of European-trained masters who melded cultures with delicacy and nuance. Nor is it the cooking of Nobu Matsuhisa or Martin Yan, talented newcomers who tutored America in Asian ingredients and flavor combinations. This new wave of chefs is dishing up what I call Asian Soul Food: a gutsy, high-low mash up of street food and haute cuisine, old country flavors and new-fangled cooking techniques.

The story of David Chang, owner of New York's Momofuku restaurants, is the best known. The 34-year-old Korean American was reared in Virginia and blew through the kitchens of celebrated New York chefs before turning his youthful noodle obsession into an empire built on pork: Asian braised belly and shreeded shoulder sharing the menu with Southern American shrimp and grits and collard greens. Since the 2004 opening of the East Village's Momofuku Noodle Bar, he's founded three more restaurants, a modernist bar and an outpost in Australia, and he has another planned for Toronto. He's also launched, in conjunction with McSweeney's, a quarterly food magazine called Lucky Peach, and the careers of a slew of talented newcomers.

"Asian Soul Food" can be located in the broader trend of highly trained chefs who grew bored with white tablecloth dining and began searching for historical authenticity, mixing high technique with low ingredients. "It's definitely one of the more interesting movements in food now," says Jonathan Gold, the Los Angeles Times dean of ethnic, hole-in-the-wall, anti-establishmentarian food criticism. "It's not fusion coming from the other side, chefs of European heritage making European food and putting Asian flavors in it." Instead, he says, these young Asian Americans "learned the exacting specificity of French techniques and are using it to sort of focus their Asian dishes."

Asian Soul Food chefs are all the children of immigrants, and some immigrated to America themselves at a very young age. Love of good food was universal, a way to keep the family together and maintain ties to the old country. "Most Asians grow up in a culture of food," says Choi, who was born in Korea and moved to the U.S. with his family when he was two. As a child, when he reached into the fridge for snack fixings, what he drew out were not Lunchables and a Capri drink pak, but marinated fresh vegetables, cold rice, soy sauce, sesame oil and eggs.

Even as these powerful early food memories were being laid down, these chefs also grew up attending American public schools, listening to '80s and '90s hip hop, watching TV cooking shows, and idolizing NBA superstars. "We look in the mirror and we see Americans," says Choi, who did a short stint at the Michelin-starred New York restaurant Le Bernardin after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and before working his way up the ranks of the hospitality industry. "Our food is a reflection of that."

Even as they were becoming fluent in American popular culture, these Asian Soul Food chefs were acutely aware that their parents were sacrificing their lives--some of them by working in or running their own restaurants--to give their children a chance at becoming highly paid professionals. Chang's father got out of restaurant work, but many of his friends were restaurant owners, Chang told the Washington Post. "He would tell the chefs to take me down and have a conversation to convince me that the kitchen was no place for a kid like me."

Roy Choi first fell off the gifted-student path at 13 to experiment with drugs and run with a dangerous crowd. The people he most identified with were Spanish speaking. "I grew up in Latino neighborhoods, which is why kitchens are so comfortable for me," he explains. "My humor, my life, my rhythm, I am in my soul and my spirit Latino." He speaks kitchen Spanish with his Mexican staff, whom he calls, "mi familia," and one of his most powerful memories is of a Mexican dishwasher friend who let him in on a family tradition of buying a goat every week to skin, butcher and take to Mexicali to make birria (pit-barbecued goat).

But it was only after struggling through one year of law school that Choi was able to admit to himself, "This whole thing to please the parents is over!" and embrace his "own little private secret": he wanted to cook for a living. "No one ever fostered that," he says. "Being Asian, it wasn't even part of the conversation. It would have been like saying you wanted to strip and give blow jobs."

Even after he rose to become a hotel executive chef, first at the Embassy Suites and then as chef de cuisine for the Hilton chain, Choi's parents wondered why he couldn't get a job at the Ritz-Carlton. Instead, was recruited to become the top chef at a restaurant called Rock Sugar, the first Asian concept from the company behind the Cheesecake Factory chain. And then he hit a wall. "I just failed," he says simply, "the restaurant was too big, it became too busy, and there were these very rigid systems."

It was during this period, when no one was returning Choi's calls, that he got a call from Mark Manguera , a Filipino American friend and former colleague who had worked the front of the house at the Beverly Hilton. Manguera had a crazy idea: to put Korean barbecue in a taco and take it to the clubs after hours in a truck. Choi was desperate enough to sign on. Creating what were to become his signature Korean-Mexican dishes, he says, was both a culinary and a spiritual breakthrough moment for him.

"It was the first time I really expressed myself all the way, not trying to be a professional, not trying to please my parents." He adds "I had to let go of that fucking Asian guilt. The moment I let go of, 'I should be a doctor,' I truly soared." Now, in addition to his mobile truck business and Chego, he is executive chef and co-owner to three more L.A. area establishments and consulting chef to a Jamaican-inspired restaurant in Venice called Sunny Spot.

Next page: "Will white Americans eat this?" -- the aggressive flavors of James Syhabout's Hawker Fare

syhabout.jpgTop: James Syhabout beneath the graffiti-splashed wall of Hawker Fare; bottom: a side of Siamese peanuts tossed with fried anchovies and shallot chili jam (Nancy Matsumoto)

Hawker Fare is located only a couple of blocks from the Oakland, California, neighborhood where chef James Syhabout grew up, in the very spot where his mom ran her restaurant, Manyda Thai Cuisine, for seven years. Syhabout redesigned the airy, industrial space himself. He ripped up the linoleum to expose the concrete floor, put in galvanized steel work stations, and splashed a graffiti logo across the walls next to posters of famous Oakland icons, including the band Green Day and his idol Bruce Lee (who ran a martial arts center here).

Syhabout, 32, is a former Manresa sous chef who trained in the kitchens of such world-renowned restaurants as Britain's Fat Duck and Spain's El Bulli. He displays his formidable technical skills and soigné sensibility at his fine dining restaurant Commis, where he became the first Oakland chef to be awarded a Michelin star in 2011.

But at Hawker Fare, which he opened that same year, he dishes up his own Asian Soul Food: pungent yet harmonious dishes inspired by Thai street food. "I always tell people, 'Commis is what I love to do,'" he says. "'But this, Hawker Fare, is who I am.'"

The softspoken chef lets his food do most of the talking for him. Over a sublime meal of his tender kao mun gai chicken, Syhabout recalls how dynamite the staff meals were at his mother's restaurant -- "So awesome, really stinky, smelly, super spicy. I'd beg her, 'Mom, why don't you serve this at the restaurant?'" But she refused, sure that customers would be turned off by the uncensored flavors she loved.

When Asians take their first bite of Syhabout's pungent and delicious Siamese peanuts--which he roasts and tosses with tiny fried anchovies and a shallot chili jam--their first thought is an incredulous, "Will white Americans eat this?" Even a discerning food critic like San Francisco magazine restaurant critic Josh Sens, who has raved about Syabhout's food in print, admits dislike for at least one of Hawkerfare's funkier dishes: the Laotian-style green papaya salad, muddled with dried shrimp fish sauce, tamarind, and lime juice. "It's really aggressive," Sens says, only partially joking when he adds, "I was afraid to say I don't like what's authentic because I'd lose my culinary street cred."

Syhabout and Choi met for the first time when they were both selected for Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs list in 2010. Syhabout recalls being a little envious of Choi's cocksure sense of self. "I felt like I knew him forever. He was like an older brother to me," recalls Syhabout. "He has a fine dining background but he's comfortable with who he is."

Syhabout's praise brings to mind a comment Choi made about the inspiration behind his rice bowl restaurant Chego: It was about never again having to hide his Asian self. As a kid, when friends came over and opened his family's fridge door, he recalled, "There's fish guts, you know, pickled daikon, braised mackerel and gingko nuts. You can't show that life a lot. A lot of times you get the stink eye, like. 'What the fuck you got in your refrigerator dude?' Even to the toughest dude, that's a very sensitive moment, and so you hide a lot of that stuff. Well, Chego was a poem to that. It was like, 'Let me show you what's really in my refrigerator.'"

Next page: Park Slope chef Dale Talde updates Filipino dishes with collard greens and Cap'n Crunch

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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