Dirt Cheap Asian Food and the Orientalist Narrative

Lynn Chen

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Content Warning: Discrimination

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In the world of gastronomy, from everyday food to fine dining, Asian cuisines get the short end of the stick. It seems that all there is to Asian food is cheap Chinese takeaway, cheaper Vietnamese Báhn-Mì’s, even more bang-for-your-buck Thai food, or sushi rolls if you’re feeling a bit more fancy. Regardless, Asian food is food that most people can buy without checking their bank balances.

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Now we hit our first problem: the societal norm to amalgamate Asian cuisine into one great big melting pot, as if it was void of nuance and complexity. While we all understand Italian cuisine as vastly different from French cuisine, the Western eye seems set on generalising all Asian cuisines as an ambiguous mix of soy sauce, honey, ginger, and chilli. And while people are willing to pay upwards of thirty dollars for pasta, they wouldn’t dare pay the same amount for noodles. This begs the question: is there a double standard at play?

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Why is it so cheap?

Let’s wind back the clock to when early Asian immigrants set up shop in a white-dominated restaurant market. The first generations of Asian-Australian restaurants fought to survive within an insular and racist society — hello White Australia policy and ‘yellow peril’ propaganda. The restaurants were made to adapt to the non-Asian palate. Like its American counterparts, it evolved in the only space it could exist: cheap Asian food, a one-stop shop to buy a cacophony of fried rice, sizzling beef, and orange chicken, all for ten dollars. Despite newer generations of Asian restaurants challenging the cheap-Asian-food/expensive-Western-cuisine binary, its remnants still subsist in the popular imagination. 

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Cheap = Unrefined? An Orientalist Narrative

The 2020 season of MasterChef Australia has been lauded for its inclusion of Asian cuisine. Yet, something that did not stick well with me and many people in the Asian community was MasterChef’s new judge, Jock Zonfrillo, and his comment that, “Asian food doesn’t lend itself to fine dining”. Zonfrillo’s comment echoes a Eurocentric elitism that permeates the larger Australian society. It embodies an Orientalist ideology, in which Western societies hailing from Europe are depicted to be culturally superior to the ‘primitive East’ — a perspective, which has persisted since European imperialism and colonial regimes. 

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While modern-day Australia has attempted to deconstruct this presumed superiority, we see it covertly living on through the inaccurate presumption of Asian food being unrefined because it is quick and cheap. Despite the millennia of refinement behind each Asian cuisine and its staple ingredients, it continues to be disregarded, since it is different to what high-quality western food entails (take the French-originated Michelin guides, as a notable example). The Eurocentrism within the definition of ‘high-quality’ food becomes even stickier when we consider the increase of Asian-fusion fine-dining restaurants, in which the Western/white influence on traditional Asian cuisines suddenly makes it refined. This trend of Westernisation embodies the larger problem of Orientalism within Australian and other Western societies, in which traditional ethnic cultures are still seen as less developed and that the best trajectory for its progression is to follow the ideals of Western civilisation. 

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Bubble Tea, Mochi, and Honouring Cultural Heritage

While the ‘mainstreaming’ of Asian food products is great for cultural recognition, the fact that mainstreaming entails popularity within a Western-dominant society poses problems. When non-Asian businesses recreate an Asian product while failing to honour and respect its cultural heritage, it does become offensive to the previous generations of Asian restauranteering, who had to work tirelessly to sustain themselves within a Eurocentric market.

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Let’s take a look at a newer food trend: bubble tea, which emerged from a niche Asian buyer market onto the mainstream international stage within the past few years. In 2020, a Canadian bubble tea store in Montréal, which marketed its bubble tea with the slogan ‘nofakeshit’. Under the guise of being ‘healthier’ and improved, the slogan ‘nofakeshit’ presents the idea that traditional Asian bubble tea uses substandard ingredients and that, by way of its Westernisation, is inherently better for you. This echoes the Orientalist perspective shown in fine-dining cuisine and its fixation with Asian fusions. 

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A better case is the ‘mainstreaming’ of Japanese mochi. This is partially thanks to its frequent appearance in ASMR YouTube videos. It has even found its way into the European and British supermarket chains through the new business ‘Little Moons’, which is founded by two Asian siblings from the UK. The product marketing respectfully recognises the traditional Japanese heritage of mochi, and instead of using a crassly designed slogan, Little Moons presents itself as healthy in terms of its low-calorie content and vegan friendliness. Yet the minimal Scandi packaging of Little Moons does suggest a whitewashing for its Western audience. This reveals a continuing strain between recognising traditional heritage and the existing cultural markers of difference that are still unappealing to non-Asian audiences. 

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An Important Elimination

This is not just a discussion of food but a conversation about valuing cultures as equal and viewing each culture as nuanced. The solution is clear: recognise the Orientalist biases that we, as a society, have internalised, and take conscious steps to unlearn them. Understand that a bowl of Vietnamese pho involves as much skill and refinement as a French cheese soufflé. If you’re willing to pay twenty bucks for an Aperol spritz, you should expect to pay more than just fifteen dollars for a meal at an Asian restaurant.