Food for Thought: Asian Cuisines, Western Appropriation and Eating Like a Local
Asian food is a rainbow of spice, colour and flavour, but its dishes are often adapted to suit the western palate. Exploring the origins of fortune cookies and proper sushi etiquette, a Chinese-Filipino writer seeks out the stories behind our favourite cuisines and says: order something other than tikka masala.
21 September, 2020
I come from a big (and I mean big) family of Chinese immigrants in the Philippines. One of the biggest dramas during our annual Christmas family meal is who gets to cook grandma's hallowed cellophane-chicken recipe. One year, my ever-defiant mother volunteered to cook the dish - which involves wrapping bits of chicken with coriander, shiitake mushrooms and a secret combination of sauces - and served it during our family meal, in which everyone volunteers a dish or two to be shared.
My grandmother, secretly wishing her to fail, said it was "passable but not as tasty as the original", while other family members joked and nit-picked about everything from the tenderness of the meat to the consistency of the sauce, laughing all the way. All of this culminated in a loud but affectionate debate over the dinner table. It was one of the best moments of our annual family meal. The conversation then moved on to the dishes that everyone would bring to the next gathering.
So much of Asian culture is defined by food. The rich and endlessly diverse flavours of the continent - from Central Asia, South Asia and the Far East - tell stories steeped in history and rituals of familial love and neighbourly camaraderie. In Asia, food is a language with a vast vocabulary of spice, colour and taste.
In a similar food-related kerfuffle with my (extremely) British husband, he told me that tikka masala was actually a British invention. Confused, I fell into a tikka-masala-conspiracy rabbit hole, in which I discovered a glaring lack of consensus on its origins. Some believe that it is a Punjabi dish adapted as a British curry, while others say it was invented by a Bangladeshi chef in the UK. The most popular theory attributes its creation to Ali Ahmed Aslam from the Glaswegian curry house Shish Mahal. Apparently the masala sauce was created to appeal to British taste buds, which accounts for it being one of the most beloved takeaway dishes in the modern-day UK.
This story is great for Shish Mahal (still a cult-favourite among Glaswegians), but it does a huge disservice to the bountiful nature of Indian cuisine by diminishing the British populace's understanding of it to just one dish. Much like the deep-rooted complexity and diversity of Asian food culture, the will to take ownership and commercialise this culture is equally ingrained in western civilisation.
Let's take fortune cookies for example. Modern-day fortune cookies are primarily an American invention. Again, the exact origins are up for debate, but most trace it back to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Others claim that a similar fortune cookie-type pastry was found in traditional bakeries surrounding Shinto temples in Japan. However, the earliest inspiration for the fortune cookie was the Chinese moon cake, which 14th-century Chinese revolutionaries used to distribute covert messages in a plot to overthrow Mongol invaders. It's a fantastical tale, but one which is lost in favour of commercialising vague East Asian mysticisms.
In the UK, Chinese cuisine was popularised after the Second World War as Cantonese immigrants, primarily sailors, settled in the country. While the number of Chinese takeaways grew exponentially, the dishes they served were (and still are) created with the British palate in mind. Sweet-and-sour pork, lemon chicken and, heck, sesame prawn toast are all creations for western taste buds painfully unaware of the wonderful flavours also offered in Sichuan, Fujian and Hainanese cuisine, as well as countless other regional delicacies in China.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't some kind of rant against the globalisation of Asian cuisines, which oftentimes necessitates a bit of adaptation. I grew up with a mixed Chinesea -Filipino heritage and migrated to the UK - for me, it's a pleasure to see British people embrace our food and enjoy dishes that so dearly remind me of home. There are also countless restaurants in London (Duddell's, Din Tai Fung, Four Seasons, Romulo Café to name a few) that honour these cuisines with admirable authenticity.
However, there is a fine line between adapting aspects of a cuisine to enhance its cross-demographic appeal and losing its essence altogether. It is a line that is almost invisible, and one that doesn't usually cross the minds of most of the people in the west. So, how do we overcome inauthenticity? It really is all about context and understanding. As conscious citizens and travellers, we should seek out the stories behind what we eat, especially when venturing to places in which certain dishes originate.
On a trip to Japan a few years ago, I experienced the ceremony of sushi omakase in a traditional sushi shop. The preparation alone was akin to a performance. I sat by the counter and watched the chef silently and meticulously clean, prepare and cut the day's fresh catch, and roll the rice with just a dash of wasabi underneath. Proper sushi etiquette is to order piece by piece, eat with your fingers (unless it's sashimi; then you use chopsticks) and consume each piece in one bite. And of course, never use too much soy sauce.
All of this is certainly a world away from hurriedly grabbing a sushi box at your local Wasabi, before clambering onto the platform just in time to catch your train. While there is nothing wrong with a takeaway sushi box, there is also so much poetry in the ritual that inspired it, and that you simply can't get in a plastic container.
So, while you can have a laugh reading about your fortune from a baked dessert, don't forget to seek out the authentic Asian flavours in the UK too. There are plenty if you know where to look. And if you do find yourself travelling to popular Asian destinations, get out of your comfort zone and eat something unfamiliar. Don't settle for the dishes that have historically been adapted to suit your tastes and instead try adapting your tastes to the local culture. Don't fall into the trap of the familiar.
To immerse yourself in the food language of each destination, seek out local recommendations. Maybe even go rogue and try the cellophane chicken, because if you live the rest of your life just ordering tikka masala off the menu, wouldn't that be the worst fortune of all?