Many Asian cultures, like that of the Chinese, value fortune, luck and harmony. Although this is not necessarily what I’m referring to in the title of my column today, it’s a nice Easter egg. The new HBO Max food docuseries “Take Out with Lisa Ling” is fortuitous in that it came out and I’m reviewing it at a coincidental time for Asian culture in America. Each episode of the series focuses on the food of a particular Asian culture and how it has evolved in the United States. The six episodes feature Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, Japanese and Korean culture in America, and I hope Ling returns for a second season to highlight even more.
In terms of coincidences: yesterday was Lunar New Year, which is mostly celebrated by East and Southeast Asian cultures. It is often interchangeably called Chinese New Year, as the Chinese ascribe zodiac animals to every year of the 12-year cycle. Those whose zodiac year it is — so this lunar year, people born in the year of the tiger — are said to experience more luck in their lives.
Another coincidence: Asian culture, from media to food to the very people, are becoming even more prominent, thanks to the push for more representation in the United States. K-pop, anime, Asian fusion food and more traditional dishes are more popular than ever. Asian culture has often been reduced to its food, and both have been reduced to a monolith. However, in recent years, distinction between Asian cultures has proliferated more authenticity and pride among Asian people who have feared speaking their native languages or eating their food.
And another — although perhaps not as positive — coalescing is that Ling’s series comes amidst a time of heightened discrimination and violence against Asians in America. Although discrimination against Asian people in America historically stretches back to the Chinese Exclusion Act from the 19th century, this spike stems in part from the COVID-19 pandemic. The discrimination contrasted with the previous item of increased celebration of Asian culture reminds me of a paradoxical fallacy. Is more awareness being drawn to these issues because of Asian culture and people’s rising prominence, or are Asian culture and people becoming more influential in order to combat this discrimination? Either way, as a Chinese-Filipino immigrant, I’m grateful for the increased representation of Asian culture and people in all aspects of life, and not the stereotypes I’ve grown up with. Some states have started to require more robust education about Asian-American history, which I never would have thought would be an issue enough people cared about.
Long introduction aside, “Take Out” is yet another piece of Asian excellence to add to the growing collection of Asian-inspired media, including the novel and film “Crazy Rich Asians” and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Seven Rings.” As you may know, I love watching anything related to food, whether it’s competition shows like “The Great British Bake-Off,” docuseries like “Chef’s Table” or fictional movies or shows centered around food like “The Hundred Foot Journey” and “Chef.” Like a masterfully crafted dish, “Take Out” perfectly balances what I’m looking for in a food series: a charismatic and earnest host, an authentic exploration of the food the episode focuses on and perhaps my favorite part, the historical context behind the featured culture. Ling is vibrant in her discussion of the food she eats, the people she speaks with and the history she shares.
Since I am prone to looking up everything to know about something I’m watching or reading, it’s refreshing to launch into something without much prior knowledge. When I first booted up “Take Out,” I was pleasantly surprised the first episode is about Filipino food. What’s unique about this food docuseries versus others is that Ling specifically focuses on the Asian American experience, visiting areas of the country significant to a particular culture, like Chinatowns or Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb in which many Korean Americas have settled. Filipino food is comforting and familiar to me, so I enjoy learning a lot of the Filipino American history I barely knew about. Filipinos were the first Asians to settle in America, setting down roots in Louisiana. Filipino cuisine and the first Filipino settlers are largely influential in the bayou shrimp industry.
Immigrant stories are an important part of Asian American history, so Ling chronicles the history of how each ethnic group arrived in America and the challenges and fortunes that shaped their influence in the fabric of the country. Despite diving into a show about food, the context behind it helps one appreciate more. So besides learning about Filipinos in New Orleans, I appreciate how Ling touched upon Japanese internment, how Bangladeshi people are often conflated with Indian people and how Asian Americans may very well feel isolated during childhood and seek to assimilate. I enjoyed the guest appearance of Korean American Michelle Zauner, singer of indie pop band Japanese Breakfast and author of memoir “Crying in H Mart,” because I love her music, and also because her discussion about biracialism is important representation for other people grappling with their biracial or Asian identity.
This column was perhaps more about culture and history than food, but what is food without culture and history? That’s why I think media like “Take Out” are so important. Not many people have the initiative to explicitly learn about Asian or Asian American culture and history. (That’s why I’m glad some states are requiring this education.) So why not learn them in context of something we all understand: food. At the very least, learn about some Asian American dishes you should try when you get the chance!