Food & Drinks

What Does Asian Food Mean to America? A National Smithsonian Series Will Talk It Out.

One of the more striking images to emerge from the rallies and protests that arose after a white man killed six women of Asian descent during attacks on Atlanta-area spas last month was the slogan “Love Us Like You Love Our Food” painted onto picket signs. In a four-part series hosted by the Smithsonian in May and June, some of the country’s foremost experts in Asian-American food will explore the disconnect between how mainstream American culture enjoys cooking from the continent and how it treats the people who produce it.

The free series of Zoom panels, called CULINASIA, the Future of Asian Food in America, includes events dedicated to America’s Chinatowns (May 5), Southeast Asian restaurants (May 19), the stigma and devaluation of Asian cuisines as “ethnic” or cheap food (June 9), and the experiences of Asian-American farmers and vinters as highlighted in Oscar-contending Minari (June 23). Register in the links provided above, and find more information on each event below.

The series will pass the mic to high-profile chefs from around the country, including Brandon Jew of Chinese-American standout Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, frequent Food Network host and Pei Wei Restaurant Group partner Jet Tila, Masterchef winner Christine Hà of contemporary Vietnamese Xin Chao in Houston, Top Chef contestant Dale Talde from New York, and D.C.’s own Katsuya Fukushima, the chef and partner in Daikaya Group’s ramen shops around town.

The series will also include a range of activists, organizers, agriculture experts such as Mai Nguyen of the Asian American Farmers Alliance, and writers like James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Grace Young and Food and Wine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah. In one segment, Bad Saint owner Genevieve Villamora will cook with Vilailuck “Pepper” Teigen to demonstrate a recipe from Teigen’s new Thai cookbook.

Simone Jacobson, a co-owner at award-winning Burmese restaurant Thamee on D.C.’s H Street NE corridor, is the official curator for CULINASIA. She pitched conversation topics and guest speakers to Lauren Rosenberg, a program coordinator at Smithsonian Associates, the museums educational and events wing. While working with federal grant money, Smithsonian Associates collaborated on the series with Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art (Freer and Sackler galleries), which is offering an online screening of Minari.

Kristyn Leach grows long beans, Korean melons, and shiso, among other items, at Namu Farm in Winters, California.
Michelle Min/Eater

Rosenberg and her team applied for grant money and began planning the series before the pandemic before pressing pause for the last year. While Smithsonian Associates typically plans live, in-person events for a local D.C. audience, moving CULINASIA to Zoom opens it up to whoever wants to tune in. “It just kind of turned into something that’s so much more relevant now than it was in its first iteration,” she says.

By discussing the topics on the CULINASIA agenda, Jacobson says the Asian-American community is “continuing to render ourselves visible, as an integral and essential part of American eating and American culture.” She wants to work toward a future where “we don’t have to fear for our safety when we go to work, we don’t have to work twice as hard for half as much forever.”

From left, Thamee owners Simone Jacobson, Jocelyn Law-Yone, and Eric Wang.

Thamee co-owner Simone Jacobson, left, curated the CULINASIA conversation series for a collaborative Smithsonian effort
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Jacobson says she’s hoping the series can foster a broader understanding between people who consider themselves experts in the cooking of myriad Asian cultures and an audience that’s unfamiliar with cuisines beyond American-Chinese food.

“At the intersection of those two audiences is where we can actually grow and learn from each other,” she says.

Jacobson’s overall goal is to foster a future “normalization of funk” in which fermented, sweet, sour, and umami dishes have a place at the average American table alongside pizza and cheeseburgers.

Here’s the full description of CULINASIA events, as described by the hosts at Smithsonian. Register for tickets at the link in each title.

Saving Chinatown and Our Legacies (May 5, 6:30 p.m.)

In the COVID era, anti-Asian racism and violence has been widespread, and many Asian restaurants large and small have permanently closed their doors. Why are the survival of Chinese restaurants and the preservation of the legacy of Asian food in America so essential to the soul of cities?

Panelists

  • Grace Young, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and co-creator of Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories
  • Brandon Jew, chef and owner of Mister Jiu’s, Moongate Lounge and Mamahuhu in San Francisco and co-author of Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown: Recipes and Stories from the Birthplace of Chinese American Food
  • Jennifer Tam and Victoria Lee, founders of Welcome to Chinatown, a grassroots initiative supporting New York City’s Chinatown businesses
  • Daphne Wu, co-organizer of Save Our Chinatowns, an arts and culture initiative uplifting Bay Area Chinatown communities
  • Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown BID/Partnership in New York.

Southeast Asia Got Something to Say (May 19, 6:30)

Opening a Southeast Asian restaurant, bar or food business was always an uphill battle. How can they keep their doors open during a global pandemic with the doubly stacked odds of anti-Asian racism at an all-time high?

Panelists

  • Jet Tila, Food Network star and chef partner in Pei Wei Restaurant Group
  • Christine Hà, the first blind contestant of MasterChef — and winner of its third season in 2012 — and owner of The Blind Goat and Xin Chào in Houston.

*Genevieve Villamora, co-owner of the award-winning restaurant Bad Saint in Washington, D.C., and Vilailuck “Pepper” Teigen, author of The Pepper Thai Cookbook: Family Recipes from Everyone’s Favorite Thai Mom, will demonstrate a recipe from the new cookbook

“Fast, Casual, Ethnic”: Asian Food Beyond Misnomers and Myths (June 9, 6:30)

A national panel of Asian American food professionals explores the pervasive, harmful and persistent myth that so-called “ethnic” food is supposed to be cheap and fast. Speakers examine the origins of long-held assumptions about Asian food and challenge people to grapple with how to collectively move beyond them.

Panelists

  • Kim Pham, a first-generation Vietnamese American and co-founder of Asian pantry staple company Omsom
  • Chef Katsuya Fukushima, co-owner of D.C.’s Daikaya, Bantam King and Haikan
  • Chef Dale Talde, a three-time contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef, with restaurants in Brooklyn, Jersey City and Miami
  • Sana Javeri Kadri, a third-generation Mumbai native and Diaspora Co. founder and CEO working toward a more equitable and delicious spice trade
  • Food and Wine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah, whose primary interests include the foodways of the South Asian diaspora.

Asian American Farmers Look Back to Go Forward (June 23, 6:30).

In film and popular media as well as farming and land ownership, Asian Americans have been historically underrepresented and repeatedly denied opportunities for advancement. The Oscar-nominated film Minari offers a unique opportunity to explore how being Asian in America is further complicated by the model minority myth and the “perpetual foreigner” burden carried by diverse communities. Asian American farmers and vintners come together for a discussion inspired by the semi-autobiographical story of a Korean American family that embarks on a new kind of American dream, traveling from their California home to a rural Arkansas farm where they nurture the father’s hopes of growing Korean produce to sell to vendors in Dallas.

Panelists

  • Mai Nguyen, founder of the Asian American Farmers Alliance
  • Kamayan Farm co-founder Ariana de Leña
  • Thai American winemaker Kenny Likitprakong of the family-owned, California-based Hobo Wine Co.

*Participants can view Minari in advance of the program, Friday, June 18, at 7 p.m. as part of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s film program. Find more information here.

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