Adapting Food Between Cultures

By | March 29th, 2009 | Upfront

America’s versions of foreign cuisine

By Jackie Simone

This is not Chinese food,” Yidi Wu, an Ithaca College sophomore from China, said as she pushed aside her dumplings in disdain at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, Washington, D.C. Wu is certainly not alone in her bewilderment with ethnic food in the U.S.: the Americanization of ethnic food is not unique to Chinese cuisine. When immigrants come to the United States, they bring with them an array of flavors and culinary traditions. However, many of their most definitive ethnic dishes change as years pass.

The ethnic food industry is one of the most prosperous sectors of the U.S. economy. One of every seven food dollars will be spent on ethnic foods in the next decade, according to a study by PROMAR International, a strategic marketing and consulting firm in Virginia that specializes in food and beverage research. Many Americans, regardless of their ethnicity, indulge in Chinese take-out on a weekly basis. However, a lot of these recipes are significantly changed to suit the American palate. Since food is a central aspect of any given culture, Americans should consider the broader implications of this culinary adaptation.

The specific issue of the evolution of ethnic foods is reflective of the various pressures immigrants face as part of Americanization. While certain aspects of immigrants’ native cultures are changed when they enter any new country, the U.S. in particular is an interesting case. The U.S. lacks a specific food culture, compared to countries such as Italy, Mexico or India, which are known for their culinary traditions. The relative absence of definitive “American” food could create more opportunities for ethnic foods to retain their authenticity. Instead, Chinese and other ethnic foods are significantly changed in the U.S., which bears broader significance in the discussion of the immigrant experience and cultural homogenization. It is important to look at what we are putting into our mouths as well as what we are putting into the minds of new Americans.

The cultural and historical importance of food is explained by author Jennifer 8. Lee in her 2008 book about the evolution of Chinese food, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

“Food is an intimate language that everyone understands, everyone shares,” she writes. “It is the primary ambassador of first contact between cultures, one that transcends spoken language. Food crosses cultural barriers. It bridges oceans. Becoming competent in a foreign language takes a lot of time, and learning a culture’s history and literature requires a great deal of effort. But everyone can immediately have an opinion on food.”

According to Lee’s book, there are approximately 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. This is greater than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. Clearly, Chinese food is a cornerstone of American eating habits. The question becomes whether American culture has impacted Chinese food to a greater extent than Chinese food has impacted American culture.

The popular Chinese recipes in the U.S. reveal the effects of American dietary preferences. Dishes that Americans consider Chinese staples, such as chop suey, chow mein, and General Tso’s chicken, are in fact not Chinese at all; they were created in the U.S., sometimes not even by Chinese immigrants. These recipes were mainly developed in the 19th century, when Chinese-American cooking became common in the U.S.

“It’s really suited to American tastes,” Wu said of a popular sweet and sour chicken dish. “Americans like sweet stuff, and Americans like chicken.”

Many Americans are unaware that the ethnic food they eat has been altered so significantly. If they have not been exposed to authentic Chinese food, they can eat their lo mein without comparing it to the vibrant flavors that visitors could find in China. The Americanization of food often entails a greater emphasis on frying, salt and sugar. Even soy sauce, which is often heralded as an authentic Chinese flavor, has been significantly Americanized. As Lee explains in her book, real Asian soy sauce is made of water, soybeans, wheat and salt. However, Kari-Out and other popular American soy sauce manufacturers use water, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, caramel coloring and corn syrup. The title “soy sauce” is therefore erroneous, because the American version does not usually contain any soy.

It would shock most American consumers to learn that fortune cookies are considered American food in China, and that they were actually invented by Japanese immigrants in California. The hard cookies that have been culturally accepted as the symbolic conclusion of any Chinese meal is no more Chinese than a hamburger.

“I never had a fortune cookie before I came to America,” Wu said.

Other Asian dishes are also being given an American twist. In the era of the Food Network, the mainstream success of cookbooks and cooking shows has exposed many Americans to diverse ethnic recipes. Although it is not as popular as Chinese food, Thai cuisine is becoming increasingly trendy amongst American consumers. This recent increase in Thai food popularity might be attributed to “Kitchen of the World,” a project started in 2001 by the government of Thailand to promote its cuisine and culinary culture worldwide.

Traditional Thai food incorporates fresh vegetables and is very healthy compared to American cuisine. Most dishes are centered around rice, which is a staple of Thai culture. There is also a focus on seafood, which is inexpensive in Thailand due to geography. Thai people often bring raw fruit as a gift for friends, and they eat it regularly.

Much of the daily routine in Thailand revolves around the preparation and consumption of meals.

Most authentic Thai dishes have a considerable amount of heat. The American Thai restaurants are more likely to cater to individual customers’ tastes, since Americans are often unaccustomed to the spiciness of Thai cuisine. This is one of many examples of immigrants changing a key ingredient of their ethnic cuisine to lessen the spiciness for American customers.

In this way, Thai chefs have to decide between financial success and authentic dishes. This forced choice between retaining their traditions and becoming an economically successful American contradicts the rhetoric that the U.S. encourages all people to express themselves. In order to achieve the American Dream of economic prosperity, they must surrender part of their own culture.

Despite these changes, Thai food in the U.S. is typically more authentic than American Chinese food. Many other ethnic foods are not as significantly changed as Chinese food and have yet to be accepted by mainstream America. Alice Pak, a senior journalism and politics major at IC, is the daughter of two Korean immigrants. She has noticed that Korean restaurants are typically authentic when compared to the greatly altered Chinese food. The lack of mainstream success of Korean food has enabled the cuisine to maintain its authenticity, whereas the popularity of Chinese food has contributed to its drastic changes.

“I think with Americanized Chinese food, there’s an obvious difference,” Pak said. “It’s Americanized, it’s fried, it’s disgusting, basically. But with Korean food, I don’t know many white people who own Korean restaurants, because it’s not as popular as Chinese food.”

The obscurity of Korean food in mainstream American culture is the result of numerous factors, including the comparatively small numbers of Korean immigrants and images in mainstream American media

“I think the media has something to do with it,” Pak said. “You see people at home, the cute girls, having takeout Chinese in their boxes. You don’t do that with Korean food.”

With new initiatives by the Korean government to increase the popularity of Korean food abroad, the media’s portrayal of the cuisine might soon be changing. Chang Tae-pyong, the Korean Minister of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, announced in a 2009 article in The Korea Times that the government has set a goal of making Korean food one of the world’s five most popular ethnic foods. The government’s plan includes standardizing Korean foods through recipes, training cooks for work overseas, emphasizing the cultural significance of culinary traditions, and increasing publicity and marketing methods. Through these measures, it is possible that Korean food will achieve the same popularity in the U.S. as Chinese food, but it might also lose authenticity as it becomes mainstream.

The U.S. is a nation composed of immigrants, and it has often been referred to as an ethnic “melting pot.” This analogy is both accurate and disconcerting, since it implies that the various cultures are diluted as they form a homogenized American identity. Instead of retaining their authenticity, they lose certain aspects of their character. American society forces immigrants to not only surrender their traditional foods, but also their cultural identities. This Americanization can be applied to both the specific point of food and the broader aspect of culture.

As the face of immigration changes, some people believe the melting pot image fails to communicate the complexity and diversity of the U.S.

“The melting pot is not cracked and broken,” Martin Mastascusa wrote in an opinion piece for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Instead, it has been replaced by a salad, a very tasty and diversified one.”

Not only with food, but also with language, clothing, etiquette, religion and other arenas, immigrants are immediately forced to conform to American culture. An analysis of the evolution of ethnic cuisine unmasks the deeper prejudices and societal pressures in the U.S. It is time to lift the lid of the American melting pot and examine whether or not the nation is indeed multicultural or a bland, homogenous broth.

Jackie Simone is a sophomore journalism major. E-mail her at jsimone1[at]ithaca.edu.

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