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New Documentary “Off the Menu: Asian America” by filmmaker Grace Lee explores how food how food reflects stories of varied communities

Lee has seen a change in Americans' awareness of Asian cuisine over the past few decades since she grew up in Columbia, Missouri, one of a very few Asian families

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"Off the Menu" explores how Asian cuisine spices up America's melting pot. Image source: VOA

For much of the 20th century, for many Americans, Asian food meant chop suey or chow mein or other Chinese-style dishes. No longer – Americans may now choose from restaurants featuring Japanese, Thai, Korean, Indian, Burmese and other Asian cuisines.

In her documentary Off the Menu: Asian America, Korean-American filmmaker Grace Lee traveled off the beaten path to explore how food reflects an evolving Asian Pacific America. “How food tells the story of our communities and that’s what we were going for with the film,” she explains.

Lee has seen a change in Americans’ awareness of Asian cuisine over the past few decades since she grew up in Columbia, Missouri, one of a very few Asian families. “We sort of kept our kimchi to ourselves in our basement refrigerator. And we never exposed it to anybody. But now kimchi is so popular. As we say in the film, (chefs are) putting it on quesadillas, on burgers, it’s like a condiment like sriracha.”

For "Off the Menu," filmmaker Grace Lee explored Asian-American cuisine in 4 U.S. cities. Image source: VOA
For “Off the Menu,” filmmaker Grace Lee explored Asian-American cuisine in 4 U.S. cities. Image source: VOA

Tofu in Texas, curry in Wisconsin

Tofu is another recent popular addition to the American menu, showing up in unexpected places – like Texas, where Gary Chiu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, runs Banyan Foods, the oldest tofu factory in the state. “In 2000 we started doing tofu eggrolls,” he told Lee, “In 2005, we started doing tofu tamales, which is an Asian Tex-Mex fusion.”

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Lee says Chiu’s family business is an example of how Asian Americans have adapted to other cultures. “It may not be authentically Chinese or authentically Mexican, because of the ingredient of tofu, but it does reflect their existence as Asian Americans in Texas where there is a Tex-Mex culture, Tex-Mex food, and actually in the factory most of the employees are Latino. So they’re also sort of fusing together their cultures.”

At the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Lee visited the scene of the 2012 shooting, where a gunman killed six people during a racially motivated rampage. When the tragedy occurred, the Sikh community was preparing for langer, a communal meal open to everyone.

Members of the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, prepare a communal meal for the community. Image source: VOA
Members of the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, prepare a communal meal for the community. Image source: VOA

Today, temple members continue to make and share the free communal meal. They say it’s helped to heal the community and also feed it spiritually. “We believe that the reason why food is important is because you can’t pray, you can’t be in tune in with God, unless your belly is full,” one temple member says in the film. Another explains, “We are not scared of anybody coming to gurdwara (temple). So still our doors are open, our hearts are open, our langer is open for them. And we feel honored when they come to us and join with us in our langer.”

Off the Menu ends its journey in Hawaii, where most of the state’s food is now imported. But it wasn’t always like that. These days, some Native Hawaiians continue to gather food just like their ancestors. Hi’ilei Kawelo learned how to do it from her father, Gabby Kawelo. She says being able to carry on their cultural traditions is an important part of her identity, and preserving their island way of life means a lot to her family.

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“When we do family luau, we still gather everything ourselves,” she said. “The whole point of a luau is that a family comes together and you’re pulling the resources that’s either grown or harvested. And so when you eat it, you’re eating the essence of all the skills passed down from generation to generation. And you take that bite of that food and you’re eating that. Food has mana (spiritual power). … You can taste the love and the history behind that food.”

Food as a connection

Off the Menu: Asian America captures the role food plays in peoples’ lives, connecting family, culture and community. Broadcast nationally on PBS, the film is now available on DVD. It is also being shown internationally, as part of theAmerican Film Showcase. Co-produced by the Center for Asian American Media(CAAM) and the San Francisco public TV station KQED, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, filmmaker Grace Lee hopes Off the Menugives people a better understanding of the evolving experience of Asian Pacific Americans. (VOA)

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The Dining Table Starts Turning To The DIEning Table, Is Eating Alone Healthy?

Orchestrating a family meal, day after day, was a chore that no one wanted to undertake and so the dining table witnessed a different kind of evolution. It became lonely.

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My version of a happy home is as delineated through my own experiences, so I am less than amused by this change. It is here that my perceptions of the halcyon days gone by conflicts with today's reality. Pixabay

I have grown up in a typical Punjabi household. The place was Patiala. During the peak of any season, our oddly planned, 50’s built house would be such a cacophony… the din

created by us all…family members of all age groups and sizes. For a child, the craze in those days was that of play, play and more play interspersed with food, food and more food.

And this household had generosity writ all over it. A buzzing, bustling kitchen with Biji (grandmother) ruling the roost, her palpable charm and grace was always as warm as the
sugar laden tea she offered you first thing, should you be our guest on any day, forget just a good day!

Sunday was the day for special indulgences where brunch was almost always outsourced Poori Chana Aloo (fat be damned) from Mota Halwai. Sonorous conversations happened
around the dining table. Eating together was therapeutic too because a lot of problems were solved across kitchen counters and dining tables.

food
We sat at that table for hours, far beyond the meals, just talking and laughing. The benefits went beyond health. It was nourishment of the soul and the body alike.
Pixabay

We had it all. Our generation, and the ones before us. We may not have had the sophisticated gadgetry of today’s times nor did we have the knowledge of the world on our finger tips but we did have our own small happy world knit together. We sat at that table for hours, far beyond the meals, just talking and laughing. The benefits went beyond health. It was nourishment of the soul and the body alike.

The dining table was then the deciding table. Indeed.

Nothing changed in my world as I graduated from my teens to my 20’s except the fact that I was now married with children. Life in the 90’s was simpler. Sunday was still an open
house… a family and friends communion of sorts. Feasts became larger because the number of loved ones grew tremendously. And since the humble mixie could no more churn out the humongous lassi portions fast enough, it was irrefutably replaced with a dedicated washing machine with its rattling rhythmic buzz, perched right within the large kitchen.

Yes you heard it right. To churn lassi in bucketfuls. Sounds like privileges that are beyond the ordinary? Stuff that legends are made of probably! Even if it was just one big cauldron of home cooked mutton curry served with a “never-counted-never-ending” supply of tandoori rotis and raita, there was always more than enough for everyone. Those were the days when the dining table had enough scratches on it to prove that it had been a witness to countless feasts and fights, drinks and the drunk, the romance of meals à deux, love and lovers, in different measures. We may not have had it all together, but together, we had it all.

The dining table became the defining table. Indeed.

But that was then when life was comparatively simpler and eating together was the centrepoint of the day. The turn of the century turned the tables, literally and figuratively. The size of the family started to shrink as did the size of its generosity. Best friends and cousins were non grudgingly replaced with gadgets and communication was now happening via Skype and video chats. Visits became few and far fetched.

food
Dinners saw less and less of “you have to
eat all vegetables” kind of phrases and not many young mothers seemed to be sourcing recipes for Bottle Gourd or Panjiri anymore. Pixabay

Orchestrating a family meal, day after day, was a chore that no one wanted to undertake and so the dining table witnessed a different kind of evolution. It became lonely. Just like
the people who were eating on it somedays. The table was now mostly used as a work station, the laptop siting on it, once too often. Where once food garnered positivity and
camaraderie, now the simple, neatly laid out daily meals were replaced with quick “on the go” breakfasts and “at work” lunches. Dinners saw less and less of “you have to
eat all vegetables” kind of phrases and not many young mothers seemed to be sourcing recipes for Bottle Gourd or Panjiri anymore.

The parental engagement fostered around the table was fast depleting. Did we even need a full-fledged dining table? The practical acceptance of its now defunct utility and
importance was directly related to the disappearance of the family size and family meals. It was no more the centre of distribution for anything at all.

And the dining table started to be the DIEning table instead. Indeed.

My version of a happy home is as delineated through my own experiences, so I am less than amused by this change. It is here that my perceptions of the halcyon days gone by conflicts with today’s reality. When my children left home to pursue their dreams and lives, the first thing that felt really different was the dining table. My shared meals became limited to the Langar (community meals in gurdwaras) and social events. Food has always defined my existence and our mutual love for each other often evokes wistful sentiments of a once full family life.

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With an increasing focus on eating food that benefits our health, we have definitely moved towards nutritionally better meals but from a psychological perspective, is eating alone healthy? Healthy enough? No amounts of supplements can infuse a rush of endorphins, like a happy chatter around the dinner table can. Once the unifier, the table stands alone
today. When did it become just a piece of furniture really? Maybe it’s time to create a home, all over again, around the diening table. One meal at a time.

And bring it back to life! After all there is nothing half as good as a household bonding over a meal. (IANS)