A few years back, I was at dinner with some colleagues after we had finished the day at the client site. In the course of making some small talk, the project manager (Caucasian male in his 50’s living in North Carolina) and I started chatting about my background:
Him: So Eddy … how long have you been living in Chicago?
Me: A few years now. I went out there for college and stuck around after I graduated. But I grew up in California and I was actually born in Taiwan.
Him: Oh Taiwan? I love Taiwan. My kids and I love Thai food. We order it at home all the time.
Me: (After spending a couple seconds contemplating if I’m about to possibly commit a major CLM) “Well, Thai food is actually from Thailand. Taiwan is a different country.”
Him: Oh … (Awkward silence. Then turns to the rest of the group.) So, are we ready to order?
I share this conversation not to exemplify general American ignorance to many things Asian/Asian American; I’m guessing many of you probably have similar stories so my hunch is that I’m likely preaching to the choir. Instead, I think it’s amazing how restaurants serving specific Asian cuisines have proliferated throughout cities all over America, regardless of the actual size of the actual Asian population in those cities. I mean — the project manager I mentioned above lived in North Carolina. Are there even Thai people in North Carolina? (Just kidding. Sort of.)
For example, I live in Chicago and I can say without exaggeration that we have a gagillion Thai and sushi joints all over the city (ok, maybe slight exaggeration there). Unlike Chinese and Korean restaurants — which, not counting places in the burbs, are predominantly located in Chicago’s Chinatown and Koreatown — restaurant serving Thai food and/or sushi can be found in many Chicago neighborhoods. Case in point: a quick search for “Thai Food” and “Sushi” on Yelp Chicago brings back 700 and 796 results respectively. Add to the fact Chicago does not have a very large Thai or Japanese community, nor does it have an actual “Thai Town” or “Japan Town” and I think it would be fair to say that both Thai food and sushi have successfully made their way onto the palettes of non-Asians.
So how exactly did sushi and Thai food become so popular while other Asian cuisines (e.g. Vietnamese, Korean) are still relegated to “exotic cuisine status that can only be found in specific neighborhoods?” Your guess is as good as mine. I’m pretty sure the California Roll played a large part in boosting the popularity of sushi, as it provided a “safe” introduction to the cuisines for American leery of eating raw fish. Take one gateway maki and add in the inherent pleasures that come with pounding sake bombs and all of sudden you have people clamoring for unagi’s and o-toro’s. As for Thai food, my hunch is that its popularity has been driven by the idea that it’s perceived to be not only cheap and filling but also a healthier alternative to the greasy stuff you’d get at your average American fast food chain. In other words, perfect for health-conscious people too busy to cook or broke college students sick of eating Big Mac’s.
As we welcome in the new year, I have a feeling another Asian cuisine is ready to make the jump to mainstream American acceptance. My money is on Vietnamese food, especially as the bánh mì continues to gain in popularity and people start learning that there are other things on the menu to order besides pho. What about you? Care to make a new year prediction as to which Asian cuisine is ready to make the jump?
ABOUT EDDY: Eddy is a native Southern Californian who currently lives in Chicago but constantly rebels against being labeled a “Midwesterner”. While he epitomizes a “Guy’s Guy” and enjoys things like beer, poker, MMA, basketball and football (fantasy and real life), Eddy likes to think he also has a refined side, as evident by his semi-ridiculous collection of colognes and cuff links as well as his affinity for dining out and all things Michael Buble. Not without his shortcomings, Eddy also has trouble swallowing pills (due to an unfortunate incident with a large fish bone when he was six) and sings horribly off key at karaoke (unless it’s “Baby Got Back”, in which case his Sir Mix-a-Lot impression will blow you away). In an ideal world, Eddy would have won the lottery by now but instead he bemoans the fact that it now costs up to $4.25 an hour to park on the streets of Chicago.
(Flickr photo credit: Ollie Crafoord)