Off The Menu at the Asian American Showcase

Along with Made in Japan, we saw Off the Menu, another movie presented with the Asian American Showcase at the Gene Siskel Film Center a few weekends ago. Off the Menu was only an hour long, but Naoto and I have been talking about it since we left the theater. The film explores Asian Americans’ relationships with food and how their traditional foods have evolved over time in America. There were six stories featured in the movie, and each one brought a different layer to the conversation. After the movie, a panel of Asian American chefs from Chicago discussed their reactions to the movie. It was all so interesting that Naoto and I had a great dinner discussion about Asian American food culture.

The filmmaker, Grace Lee, begins the film telling her own story of growing up in her Korean family in Missouri. She talks about having a basement refrigerator that held the kimchee and other “stinky” traditional Korean foods, hidden away from their “Wonderbread existence” in the Midwest. (I wish I had written down the exact line from the movie because it was brilliant.) This was in the eighties, long before kimchee and other traditional Asian foods became the popular fare they are today. (Have you seen this book on fermented foods? It’s one of many published in recent years.)

With her voice sprinkled throughout, Lee shares the stories of the six people. A few stood out for me:

The first, Glen Gondo, is a Japanese American who is known as the “sushi king of Texas”. His business provides sushi services for the largest grocery chain in Texas. He has a research and development team (headed by two Korean chefs) creating sushi rolls for the American palate (or maybe more specifically the Texan palate?)–sushi with barbecue sauce, sushi with jalepeños, sushi with crumbled Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on top. The film asks the question, “Is this really Japanese sushi if you water it down so much for American tastes?” Lee is sort of taken aback when she sees that alongside the Japanese sushi are spring rolls and pot stickers. Lee points out that those aren’t Japanese. Gondo replies no, but they are best sellers. Lee admits that sometimes she questions eating Korean food made by non-Koreans. Naoto and I exchanged glances during this moment in the movie because we are totally guilty of this! Our favorite Japanese restaurants are owned by Japanese (or Japanese-Americans.) I think this is partly due to the fact that Naoto enjoys speaking to the chefs in his native language, but also that it feels more…authentic? (I should also admit here that I am very much a traditionalist. Sleek, trendy sushi restaurants have never been my scene.)

Next, the Kawelos, who are catching octopi, a traditional food in Hawaii where most of the food is imported. Hi’ile, the daughter, is trying to reconstruct an 800 year old fish pond to keep the tradition of catching fish for her community alive. Hi’ile and her father share that food is “mana“, a native Hawaiian term with an abstract meaning…power, an energy in everything, a life force. Naoto, who grew up in Hawaii, even had a hard time explaining it to me. I sort of took it as food connects people and generations in a way that nothing else can and keeping that tradition of catching fish alive in Hawaii was Hi’ile’s way of connecting Hawaii’s past with its future.

And, in the most touching part of the movie, Lee visits langar at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. This temple was the site of a horrible hate crime in 2012 when a white supremacist stormed in to the temple and killed seven people. It is so amazing to see all of the women in the kitchen at the temple cooking and the men serving a huge meal to people sitting on the floor. Although langar is centered around the food, it really is about the community preparation and sharing of the event. I got a little teary-eyed when they talked about how a neighboring temple came in and prepared langar for them in the days after the shootings. A simple gesture, but I can just imagine how cared for and supported the Oak Creek families felt in that moment.

Food, how we share food, is mana.

P.S. If you read my Made In Japan post, there is an update to Tomi Fujiyama’s story:

The Grand Ole Opry invited Tomi to play! I have to think the movie influenced this decision, right? She is playing on the Opry Stage TONIGHT. The show begins at 7PM and it looks like Tomi will hit the stage during the 8:45PM (Central Time) segment. (Scroll down on this link to listen to the live stream on WSM 650 AM. Naoto and I will be listening!)


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