“Authentic” or not, Asian food is fast, filling, delicious and affordable – and usually nearby

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Several years ago I was teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) courses. On my break I went to a local teriyaki place for a quick lunch. As I was leaving, I ran into one of my Japanese students. “Getting a taste of home?” I blurted out.

“Oh, no” she answered, “Teriyaki isn’t Japanese – it’s American.”

It turns out that most “Asian” foods that Americans know (and usually love) are barely, if at all, Asian. ”Chop Suey” is a purely American invention which loosely means “chopped up left-overs” and that American favorite at the end of a Chinese meal, the fortune cookie, was actually first developed in San Francisco.

And yes, those egg rolls. All Asian cultures seem to serve a form of egg rolls, small tubes of meat or vegetables rolled in a wrapper. You might think of them as a (usually smaller) Asian version of the Mexican tortilla.

Chinese, and most Asian cultures, don’t use much bread, so these “rolls” are amazingly handy.

Historic/traditional Chinese spring rolls are light and small and come in translucent wrappers. The bigger egg rolls deep-fried in a thicker skin were invented in America.Even General Tso’s Chicken, the iressistble dish of fried chicken pieces coated with a sweet and savory sauce, among the most familiar and popular Chinese menu items, is primarily American. There really was a General Tso, a Qing Dynasty leader in the 1800s, but it’s not a dish that the general ever ate or even heard of. It was introduced in the US in the mid-70s and popularized in the 1980s. Like many dishes catering to American tastes, sugar was added. Most of us who have encountered real Chinese food  (in China) consider Americanized Asian cuisine as ‘dumbed-down’ Asian food - blander, thicker and sweeter – and usually vastly more expensive – at least in sit-down restaurants.

And orange chicken? Yes, that is American too.

It would be easy to make a convincing argument that Chinese food was the original “fast food” – and Asian, mostly Chinese food, is the ultimate take-out food.

I have no idea what this poster from Paldo Market on South Tacoma Way is advertising - or why the woman is distinctly non-Asian, but it all adds to the exotic global "vibe" of the entire market. Photo by Morf Morford

I have no idea what this poster from Paldo Market on South Tacoma Way is advertising – or why the woman is distinctly non-Asian, but it all adds to the exotic global “vibe” of the entire market. Photo by Morf Morford

For several years, teriyaki places seemed to be everywhere. They were cheap, fast, filling, non-descript and on almost every corner – even tucked away in or alongside gas stations.

But have you noticed that there are not as many as there used to be just a few years ago?

About a year ago, I ran into a woman who had just moved here from Oklahoma. I asked her what the biggest difference was between Tacoma and her home town in Oklahoma. She told me that her home town, and most towns in Oklahoma, had few or even no teriyaki places.

Just as teriyaki places are fading from northwest cities and neighborhoods (even Seattle) they are becoming more common across the country – even Oklahoma.

Teriyaki—a combination of Japanese words for “shine” or “glaze” and “grilled” or “boiled”—became an all-purpose term for cheap, filling, and delicious fast food. Low budget cooks use the term to describe a pan-Asian (white) rice base which might feature a regional flair, including Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Hawaiian flavors or accents.

One of the continuing debates is over what is “real” or “authentic” Chinese food (1*). This argument is not limited to Asian food of course, few of us would consider Taco Bell or even Taco Time as “authentic” Mexican food, but for most of us, most of the time, it is close enough.

The ultimate irony of the near ever-presence of Chinese restaurants – both large and small – is that they exist precisely because the government tried to limit Chinese immigration to the US.

As with current immigration laws, immigrants decades ago were welcome – and could even get a green card (permanent residence) – if they started a business and employed US citizens.

We currently call these EB-5 visas (2*) and anyone can get one if they “plan to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers.”

In other words, in 2018 or a hundred years ago, money talks.

Back in the 1880S and ’90s, Chinese would-be immigrants pooled their money, came to the US and started restaurants – by the thousands.

Asian influenced food trends like teriyaki, sushi, take-out boxes, dim sum or pho may come and go, but love them or hate them, they are deeply embedded in virtually every community – and almost every convenience store or gas station.

As much as most Americans like Asian food, for whatever reason, most of us can’t picture ourselves eating Asian food for breakfast.

You probably won't find these at your local take-out place. They are sliced lotus roots - a tasty potato-like tuber. Photo by Morf Morford

You probably won’t find these at your local take-out place. They are sliced lotus roots – a tasty potato-like tuber. Photo by Morf Morford

A couple years ago I was in Southern China (in and around Shanghai and Hangzhou). For breakfast, each hotel put out a dizzying array of thoroughly unidentifiable foods – no cold cereal or scrambled eggs in sight.

One constant menu item was a wide selection of pickled vegetables and pickled eggs. It took some getting used to, but after a few days, this traditional Chinese breakfast of hot soy milk, (no coffee!) pickled vegetables and tea-soaked fermented eggs was the highlight of my day.

I even felt vastly better. It turns out that fermented foods are wonderful for your digestive system.

On my return home, my standard American breakfast seemed boring.

Yes, I’ll admit that for the average non-Asian, the first encounter with an authentic Asian market may be a bit daunting,

Whole fish, pig’s feet and a variety of living sea creatures squirming in glass aquariums might not stir your appetite.

Packaged food with not a word in English might be a bit more of an adventure than you were expecting.

But you just might find a new favorite snack or quick lunch.

If you drop by before noon you are likely to see a mix of delicious menu items in the deli.

These are almost all fresh and prepared on site. Compared to specialty stores, their prices are very reasonable – and since most Asians have a tradition of buying produce to be used that day, fresh produce tends to be riper – and cheaper – than standard grocery stores.

If you have not been there before, check it out. It’s a lot cheaper than a flight to Asia.

 

(1*)     More on the debate over “authentic”VS Americanized Chinese food can be found here – https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/american-chinese-food-opinion/index.html.

(2*)    You can see details on this program here – https://www.uscis.gov/eb-5.