The Folks Behind 'Off the Menu: Asian America' Share Their Favorite Food Stories

Guest Post by Momo Chang

I'm on vacation! This week, I'm taking a much-needed break to recharge the batteries and get a change of scenery. To keep things going around here, I've enlisted the help of several friends of the blog to submit guest posts on various topics of their choosing. Here's Momo Chang of the Center for Asian American Media.

Hello, my name is Momo Chang, and I’m the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and a freelance journalist. CAAM is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian Americans by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, TV and digital media. As part of my job, I’ve had the great fortune to work on a multimedia food project entitled Off the Menu: Asian America, a companion website of food stories, essays and recipes to support the film by the same name.

Off the Menu: Asian America is a PBS documentary directed by award-winning filmmaker Grace Lee, which premieres nationally on Monday, December 8, 2015 (check local listings). Co-produced by CAAM and KQED, Off the Menu is a road trip into the kitchens, factories, temples and farms of Asian Pacific America that explores how our relationship to food reflects our evolving community. To celebrate the release of the film, we’re also holding an #OfftheMenuAsianAmerica recipe contest.

I asked some of the filmmakers of Off the Menu: Asian America and some of the talented folks who contributed their personal essays, photos, artwork, recipes and articles to the website, about their favorite foods or food moments with the Angry Asian Man blog. Here’s what they said:

Grace Lee, director of Off the Menu: Asian America

I often travel for work to places where there isn’t a lot of great Asian food readily available, especially Korean food. In production, I’m often stuck eating on the fly—something completely uninspiring like a turkey sandwich or a slice of pizza, or maybe a salad. When I come back to L.A., I usually drive straight from LAX to Koreatown on my way home and order a bowl of daenjang jiggae (fermented bean paste stew) from some hole-in-the-wall Korean takeout place that I don’t think Yelpers would ever set foot in.  But this place has homemade daenjang and it’s like walking into a relative’s kitchen. The stew comes out still bubbling over, and I usually burn my mouth because I can’t get to it fast enough. As soon as I take my first bite, I can feel the blood rush back to my head and I immediately feel like a human being again.

Tina Nguyen, editor of Off the Menu: Asian America
My favorite food is pho. It’s been my favorite food since childhood. My mother would make it every Sunday, and I would look forward to it all week. Sunday was the only day when my mother had enough time to do it. She would start early in the morning while the rest of us were still asleep. We would wake up when it was already on the stove brewing in our biggest pot with about three long hours to go. Come lunchtime, my siblings and I would be clamoring for it. I don’t really know why I love it so much. Why would a kid choose a bowl of rice noodles in a beef broth flavored with ginger and star anise over a Happy Meal? And why would this kid think the heavens are aligning as she puts in just the right amount of hoisin sauce and “rooster” sauce? Pho is the ultimate comfort food for me, that is, if it comes close to how my mother makes it.

Kao Kalia Yang, writer/web contributor: "Hmong New Year When Grandma Was Alive"
My favorite food memories all have one common denominator: the presence of my older sister Dawb. We are toddlers, sitting at our mother's feet, in hot Thailand. She has a single hardboiled egg in her hands. We open our mouths like birds. Dawb gets her favorite part of the egg, bites of yellow yolk. I gobble up the bits of egg white that my mother delivers with clean hands. We are in America and my mother has a little more money. She has purchased half of a chicken. Dawb and I get to eat first, perched on our chairs, short legs swinging. Dawb points to her favorite part: the drumstick. I wait eagerly for mine: the breast. Years later, a dozen eggs in the refrigerator and whole chickens in the freezer, in our own homes with our husbands and children, it is not the same. I yearn for the taste of the past, the egg and the chicken we share, the taste of our much younger days, tucked in the nest of our mother's making.

Andria Lo, photographer/web contributor: "Are Your Grandparents Being Served?"

One of my very earliest memories is a food memory. I must have been around two years old. I remember, perched on a highchair, looking down at my dinner plate and seeing a piece of broccoli for the first time. I was absolutely amazed. I could not believe there was a teeny tiny tree on my plate and internally questioned if it was food. I'm pretty sure I was unable to articulate my shock and have no memory of how it tasted, but that moment has stuck with me. (Photo by Christina Richards)

Tara Dorabji, writer/web contributor: "Curry Remixed"
Oddly enough, what is coming to mind is the breakfast buffet in Juhu Beach, Mumbai. I'm not big on breakfast—I often go oatmeal—and buffets are usually overpriced and low on quality. One young man brought us a freshly shelled bowl of pomegranates every morning and there were young coconuts to drink from. I made pancakes to order with walnuts and chocolate after eating a masala dosa with freshly grated coconut chutney. Do you feel me? I'm going straight up tourist style on this. But of course, the real answer is my mom's kitchen table—that is where the best meals come from. Or if we want to go roots, it was up a steep hill in Carrara, Italy, where my grandfather's sister rolled ravioli out on her counter top—hand cut and full of meat; something about that meal stays with me. Memory is like that—one triggers another. (Photo by Sheila Menezes)

Oliver Wang, writer/web contributor: "We Are What We Eat: Asian Americans and Food" and moderator of the post-screening discussion at the L.A. premiere.

This is just one of many but when we first moved back down to L.A., my wife and I were curious to try the burger at Sang Yoon’s Father’s Office. It began as a bar that also served food—I feel like this was before everyone wanted to declare that they had a “gastropub concept” -- and the FO burger was both lauded and divisive. People either seemed to love or hate it and it didn’t help that FO’s original Santa Monica location was one of those places where you have to order at the bar and then pray someone opens up a place for you to sit. By the time we ordered and managed to circle, like vultures, to eventually find an open pair of stools, we were ready to hate on the whole experience. Then we got our burger, took our respective bites and just looked at one another and began nodding. That nod was a quiet way to make an emphatic point: “OMG, this burger is amazing, I totally get it.” And so even though the bar was loud and there were hungry people hovering around us, hoping we’d get up and leave, the burger filtered out all of the noise and in those precious moments, we couldn’t have been more content. (Photo by Eilon Paz)

Brian Ignacio, illustrator/web contributor: "We Are What We Eat: Asian Americans and Food"
The first thing that comes to mind is a "dinner" I had with one of my best friends, Lalitha. At the time we were both broke college students and the meal itself was a DIY approach to "healthy eating," meaning we bought anything that we could afford from Whole Foods at the time. The result was about 25 dollars worth of random pre-packaged meats, crackers, a lot of good cheese, and red wine. In my opinion, what makes the best food memories are the people you're sharing the food with.

Andrew Lam, writer/web contributor: "Mother"
My favorite memory of food is of my mother cooking for Christmas dinner in Dalat, Vietnam, when I was a child. We lived in a French built villa on a windy hill full of pine trees and her cooking, with all its aromas and laughter—there were a lot of women folks helping her in the kitchen -- made the memory all the sweeter now that I live thousands of miles away and mother suffers from Alzheimer's. The usual fare for dinner: roast goose, French seafood (bouillabaise), and Vietnamese spring rolls. For dessert: Buche de noel (french Yule chocolate) with champagne and ladyfingers. 

Grace Hwang Lynch, writer/web contributor: "Dangerous Bites: Cultural Implications of Food Allergies"
Every Taiwanese American kid is subject to an array of traditional and herbal soups with supposed healing properties. I was a skeptic of those bitter brews until one winter after I graduated from college. My voice was completely gone as the result of a nasty cold, and I had tried all the over the counter lozenges, pills and sprays, which just made my sore throat even worse. I finally gave in and went to my mom’s house for the weekend. She cooked a pot of bitter melon soup. Bitter melon, with its tannic astringency, was one of the few foods I could not stomach as a child. But I was desperate and gulped down a bowl and went straight to bed. The next morning I woke up and my voice was back. I’ve been a believer in bitter melon ever since.

Matthew Salesses, writer/web contributor: Korean Adoptee Cooks Find Connection in the Kitchen" and Frosted Flakes in Busan"
I really like the octopus they cut up just before they serve you, so that the legs suck onto your tongue as you chew. All that sesame oil and that slickness versus the suction. You have to chew until the legs stop moving, or you might choke. I like that agency over your food, the slight danger but also the knowledge that you can conquer it and it nourishes you.

Irene and Lisa Yadao, writers/web contributors, forthcoming profiles on Filipino chefs

Irene: The food that engenders the warmest, happiest feelings within me is siopao, which is akin to a Chinese pork bun but is the Filipino version. My mother’s siopao rivals all, with a bun that’s pillowy and just a touch sweet, and meat so tender and perfect.

Lisa: Mine would have to be lau lau, which is a native Hawaiian dish of pork (sometimes chicken or beef) and fish wrapped in taro and ti leaves and steam-cooked. Our grandmother would always bring some over from Maui whenever she'd visit us, and to this day, the smell of lau lau reminds me of her and of my childhood.

Diana Emiko Tsuchida, writer/web contributor, forthcoming profiles on chefs
My favorite food memory (and likely one of my earliest memories in general) is with my dad. Aside from Spam fried rice and excessively buttered grilled cheese sandwiches, he's not much of a cook. Yet one thing he used to do is fix me a bowl of udon for dinner, take me outside on our front lawn, and point out the planets and stars as I ate. I must have been three or four years old, was barely old enough to remember anything else and certainly nothing of the constellations. But this quiet, father-daughter moment was completely impressionable and remains one of my most nostalgic. 

Off the Menu: Asian America
premieres on PBS Monday, December 8, 2015. Check local listings.

Momo Chang is a freelance journalist and Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media.


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