In the opening scenes of “Off the Menu: Asian America,” a documentary that explores Asian American culture through food, filmmaker Grace Lee mentions that as a child growing up in Missouri in the 1980s, her family had a refrigerator stashed in the basement for kimchi and other Korean ingredients “so they wouldn’t overpower the delicate milk and butter upstairs.” Fast forward to 2015, and gochujang, the Korean fermented chile and bean paste, may as well be the name of an Instagram filter. This makes her documentary, which airs tonight at 6 p.m. on PBS SoCal, and will be available to stream online on the PBS website, an especially timely one.
In “Off the Menu," Lee discovers Flamin’ Hot Cheetos sprinkled on sushi rolls in Houston; visits New York City to talk to Fung Tu chef Jonathan Wu and partner Wilson Tang; explores a communal langar meal at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., where a gunman killed six people in 2012; and delves into fishing and farming communities in Oahu, Hawaii.
We spoke to Lee about “Off the Menu,” what Asian American food can teach us about Asian America and the dangerous idea of food authenticity.
How did this film come about? Why focus on Asian American food? The Center for Asian American Media asked if I had any ideas at how to look at Asian America. I immediately said, “We should do food.” A lot of people have access, or think they have access, to Asian culture through Asian American food. But what do they actually know about the people, the stories, the cultures behind it? You could be the number one Yelper on Thai food, but do you know anything about who’s making that food for you, or where it comes from?
A lot of my films take a very banal idea, like “The Grace Lee Project” [in which Lee seeks out other women named Grace Lee], and try to go deeper. And so I thought food would be another way to do it.
How did you choose to focus on the four stories featured? It was difficult because we only had an hour, and how can you possibly cover all of Asian America in one hour? And so I just decided we would try to be as inclusive as possible, geographically and ethnically.
Mostly, they all reflect what I’m interested in: how food tells a story, not just as a personal expression for a chef, but, like in the case of Oak Creek, how food can be a spiritual practice. I insisted that we had to have a Midwestern story, because I grew up there, and nobody ever thinks about Asians in the Midwest, or they feel sorry for me because I grew up there. Yet you go to the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, and it’s the most amazing community and food you’ve ever tasted. These hidden stories are what I wanted to bring out.
If you had a few more hours, what other city would you have liked to visit? I think Minneapolis would have been interesting. Maybe a California story.
You probably could’ve done an hour just on L.A. I always say, you could do an hour on one mini-mall in Koreatown.
So many of the stories in the film are about what happens when you remove a dish from its original context and place it in a new one. Is that something you intentionally tried to address? It sort of arose naturally. When I realized that Koreans are making sushi in Texas.
And you had a judgment about that. I did have a judgment about it. But at the same time, how is that different from Jonathan Wu (chef and owner of Fung Tu in New York) making this weird egg roll that looks delicious? I don’t have a judgment about it when it tastes good. I think I wanted to just raise the question and expose how there are a lot of contradictions when we talk about authenticity.
I’ve shown the film a couple times, and audience members sometimes ask, “Well, don’t you find it’s a little dangerous if we start diluting what the actual food is?” And my answer is, if you’re talking about Asian food as if there’s only one way to think about Asian food, that’s dangerous -- as if there is only one Asian American.
Which feeds into the myth of the Model Minority. Right. You get into all these questions of identity. Most people don’t even know what the Asian American concept is. I think having this discussion opens the door to constructive things, and we’re free to decide who is part of Asian America. And since I made the film, I included Sikhs and Hawaiians.
There‘s a lot here about immigrants and second generations adapting, and re-adapting. Yes, adapting, improvising, making something out of nothing. Independence, autonomy, being able to pursue who they are [is] really important for the people in these stories. That’s what I find most interesting, especially with younger Asian Americans in the food world. Like what Jonathan Wu does: he embraces the past but puts his own experience on top of it and it really becomes an authenticity of spirit. I really identify with that. I think everybody in the film somehow connects to that.
In the communities you visited, did you sense any conflict about the current popularity of Asian and Asian American food? I grew up in the Midwest, where nobody even knew what Korean was, and where kimchi was just this really strange thing that we kept in the basement refrigerator. Thirty years later, I’m living in L.A., and it’s on everything. It’s the hot ingredient, thanks to people like Roy Choi and David Chang, and others who helped popularize it. I find it really interesting that things I thought were very personal to me are suddenly mainstream. I think it’s cool.
The beginning of the film has a hilarious montage of the lengths people will go to, just to take a photo of their food. Yeah, they’re like selfies. The food isn’t me, but I ate that, so it is me.