The restaurant was modern chic. Not only was it was illuminated entirely by dim “mood lighting,” the water was also served in prim little mason jars, and the menu had not a single capital letter, only variations of the same aesthetically pleasing, gentle font. It was my first Asian fusion restaurant. As I scanned the menu, the only hallmarks of purported “Asianness” were buzzwords such as ‘bok choy,’ ‘soy,’ or sometimes just the adjective ‘Asian’ itself. The entire food cultures of various Asian countries were condensed to a few descriptor fragments that sounded vaguely exotic — but not too exotic.
Though interesting in theory, Asian fusion restaurants are problematic in practice because they perpetuate the of distinct Asian cultures. Korean, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indian… they all fall under the catchall phrase of “Asian.” Yet Asia is a large continent comprised of numerous distinct countries, each with its own rich and vibrant cuisine. It is therefore wildly inappropriate to lump them all together and market them as one entity, since doing so demonstrates complete disregard and lack of respect for non-American cultures. Thus, the concept of Asian fusion food does not lend itself to any sort of authenticity. Rather, it is a part of a larger trend of mainstreaming foreign dishes; they must become “westernized” before they are acceptable. People don’t go to Asian fusion restaurants to taste real culture — they go to feel like they’re experiencing the exotic nature of “Asian food” in an upscale, sophisticated setting without truly stepping out of their comfort zone.
So why are these cultural foods so frequently whitewashed? Why must chicken come in a signature shade of orange for it to be Chinese, and why are sushi rolls named after U.S. states? Why does soy sauce to something automatically qualify it as “Asian?” Perhaps because it’s only then that the cultural cuisine reaches a comfortable medium of being somewhat adventurous but not too unfamiliar — redesigned for the American palate. Foods that truly feel foreign are unfortunately often treated with a mix of fear and disgust; from personal experience, for example, ingredients in Chinese cuisine that are more obscure in American dishes, such as chicken feet or lotus root, often elicit strange looks or even derision.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. The unfamiliar can become familiar with a willingness to learn and an eagerness to try something new. Disgust is not an inevitable emotion: in fact, it is largely a concept. In order to reduce the whitewashing and irresponsible consolidation of different cuisines from countries all around Asia, we must actively maintain an open mind to change our perception of which foods are “disgusting” or “weird.” Instead of going to an Asian fusion restaurant, do some research and find a local restaurant that serves authentic cuisine. Take a chance — order something you haven’t tried before. Only then will we open up a whole new expanse of delicious, satisfying cultural foods — something far better than the illusory sense of authenticity from Asian fusion.
Siyang Liu is a first-year student from Princeton, NJ. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.