Multicultural diversity in the U.S. has led to some outstanding Asian food being served in both homes and restaurants. You can look close to home and still enjoy an exotic food journey, by visiting neighborhoods where locals can point you to authentic Asian delights.
Traveling is fun, but the pandemic has made it impossible for many people to visit other countries for a variety of reasons. One of the glorious aspects of the multi-culturalism of the United States is that you can enjoy what other cultures offer without leaving the country. If you are one of the fortunate, you do not even have to leave your neighborhood. In honor of Asian History Month, let us talk about some of the authentic Asian foods cooked in homes and restaurants, and sold in marketplaces scattered throughout local neighborhoods. From Boston’s Chinatown to a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston, TX to Asian street food sold in a North Carolina market, there is irresistible food close to home that might even believe you are eating in an exotic place.
Nuances of Asian Food
One of the things that is noticeable about eating Asian dishes made with authentic recipes is how good they taste compared to the Americanized versions. Have you tried spring rolls hand-rolled with fresh vegetables dipped in fish sauce? Soft hot dumplings that seem to melt in your mouth? The naturally fermented spicy kimchi far outdoes kimchi made in food factories. Well, finding these delights is not so difficult in most areas today, because of the growing Asian population from Thailand, China, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other countries.
Is Asian food all the same? Decidedly not! Some differences are nuanced, but there are differences just the same. Sometimes it is the spices that create the nuances, or perhaps the fire-breathing difference. Korean jjamppong is a Korean noodle soup made with spicy seafood. Think of Bok choy, mussels, noodles, shitake, ginger, and gochugaru or Korean chili pepper flakes all mixed together. Compare the fresh hot spiced soup to Cantonese foods such as dim sum, a South China regional food. Dim sum is made with light seasonings, meaning almost anyone can enjoy this food. Both jjamppong and dim sum are quite different from Japan’s tsukemono or salted vegetables.
Around the Corner to the Restaurant
All too often, people go to a chain restaurant in the belief they are tasting authentic Asian food – but also all too often, these places are serving from giant pots of food, offering “Asian fusion” - or are Asian restaurants where there are no Asian owners or cooks. Many restaurants serve Americanized versions of food called Asian but dishes that were really invented in America, and people do not even know it. For example, one dish sold in restaurants today, “egg foo young”, was actually invented in American-Chinese restaurants in the mid-1800s. It surely has some roots in Chinese cuisine, but no one can prove it. This is not to discourage supporting small or local businesses, but this discussion is about authentic Asian food - which means cooking food just as generations of family cooks did. Authentic Asian street food means using cooking methods, spices, and other ingredients that the original recipes used.
So where do you find authentic Asian food? The most likely place is the small family-owned restaurant that says it is authentic Korean or authentic Vietnamese or authentic Chinese. Neighborhoods around the country are filled with small cozy restaurants offering Asian fare that will ruin you for the other options. For example, the Boston suburbs hold the China Pearl restaurant, serving traditional Cantonese cuisine. The Bai Tong restaurant in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle serves authentic Thai foods such as Panang curry and drunken noodles. These restaurants are often unpretentious, but this is because they focuses on the food.
The Wonders of an Asian Market
When you step into the Hometown Supermarket in Homewood, Alabama, you step into a spectacular array of foods. There are long aisles filled with fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, sauces, and packaged goods. This is an international market, but Asian foods rule. Connected to the market is Mr. Chen’s Chinese Restaurant, serving authentic Chinese food made with fresh market ingredients. Located in a strip mall, the market is unassuming in the front, but step inside, and it is awe-inspiring. There is Daikon radish, duck eggs, Tai Wan cabbage, choy sum, prawn crackers, lotus root (ngau or renkon), lemongrass, purple sweet potatoes, fiddleheads, dulse (seaweed), and so much more. There are sauces too, such as fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, chili sauce, curry pastes, and much more. Get brave and try an unusual sauce, like padaek, a Laotian unfiltered fish sauce. Even the noodle aisle is a marvel, with dry noodles in every shape imaginable.
These kinds of Asian markets are located in so many neighborhoods, and many also serve food in an attached restaurant. They offer an opportunity to try authentic Asian food in comfortable settings. They tend to be unpretentious and are always friendly. These local places allow you to step into a cultural experience where people speak different languages and can explain the unrecognizable food items. You could even purchase ingredients and try your hand at cooking authentic Asian recipes for yourself.
When you visit these neighborhood markets, go with an open mind, because it is truly a cultural experience. There will be many foods you do not recognize, and many packages are not in English. The volume of options is enormous, but the added benefit is that prices are often lower than foods in a regular supermarket.
The Culture Around You
One of the joys of living in a country with so much diversity is that opportunities to enjoy that diversity are often just around the corner. It only takes a willingness to explore and think outside of the typical restaurant. Look at nearby options in your area. Shop an Asian market and bravely try vegetables or fruits you have not heard of before. Turn cooking authentic Asian recipes into a cultural family event at home. Once you enjoy authentic Asian food, there is no doubt that you will insist on it going forward. Your neighborhood most likely has an Asian restaurant you really need to try, and try you should.