By Momo Chang
This blog is an edited version of an article that appeared on the Center for Asian American Media’s website.
Award-winning director Grace Lee’s “Off the Menu: Asian America” explores the stories of people behind the food, focusing on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
From the Gulf Coast of Texas to Wisconsin’s heartland to New York’s Lower East Side and beyond, “Off the Menu: Asian America” delves into a wealth of stories, traditions, and unexpected characters that explore what it means to be Asian-American today.
Lee chats about what was learned through the year-long process of traveling across America to hear stories from the people behind the food.
What is “Off the Menu?”
Grace Lee: I would describe it as a road trip through the United States, where we get to meet folks that reflect an evolving Asian America and a wide-ranging relationship with food. We liked “Off the Menu” as a title because it had many different meanings, one of them being that we’re telling stories off the beaten path.
When I say I'm doing a documentary about Asian-American food and culture, some people get excited because they think they'll learn where they can get the best ramen or pho. But "Off the Menu" is not a cooking or travel show, even though there is cooking and travel in the film. The focus is something much deeper about what it means to be Asian American, which in itself is hard to pin down.
How did you choose those locations and stories for the documentary?
GL: We put out a call for story ideas. We got a lot of suggestions from a community event at KQED. That generated an opportunity to jump-start the research. Obviously, it was very hard to narrow down the stories because how can you summarize all of Asian America in one hour? You could do a feature film on one minimall in Koreatown in L.A., but we tried to reflect a diversity of ethnicity and geography and the way food plays a role in people's lives.
What was the most profound moment when you were traveling around and talking with people?
GL: I had heard about the Langar, a communal meal practice in the Sikh tradition. And then I immediately thought about how a tradition like this would have been affected in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where the local Sikh temple was the target of a racist shooting attack in 2012. We just reached out and discovered how Langar is such an important part of the community and its resilience, both before and after that event.
When I think about the stories you have in the documentary-when we think about Asian-American food, people know ramen and dumplings and celebrity chefs and people get excited about that. But the stories you chose are still mostly invisible to most of America.
GL: I guess for me, the best dumpling or best Asian dish is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in it as a consumer, but as a storyteller, I’m looking to find something deeper. Food is an accessible entry point for a lot of people. If you can pique people’s interests or whet their appetite—excuse the terrible pun—through a food story, maybe they’ll consider who are the people making the food, or behind the food process.
What did you learn after traveling across America and talking to Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders about food?
GL: I knew that food would be a great way to talk about a wide variety of stories related to Asian-Americans, but I wasn’t expecting how readily people would open up as we would sit down over a meal. Or how much pride and love they had for this important aspect of their lives. In many ways, we just scratched the surface. To really do the topic justice, we’d probably need an ongoing series. On a practical level, I learned how to grate a raw coconut and how to make chapatis.
Is there anything else you want to add?
GL: As a documentary filmmaker, I feel very lucky to meet and talk to people about what they do. The different roles that food plays in peoples’ lives is fascinating. I would never think someone restoring an ancient fish pond in Hawaii would be in the same film as a sushi test kitchen (in Houston), where they’re making these concoctions that feature cream cheese and Flaming Hot Cheetos. I just really appreciate the diversity of the community, which was fun. A lot of fun.
Grace’s Top 5 Foods
“I will never get tired of eating these foods.”
1.) Doenjang Jjigae (Korean fermented bean paste stew)
2.) Carne asada tacos (or any Mexican food)
3.) Caesar salad
4.) Pain au chocolat
5.) Chirashi sushi
Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) website, a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media. "Off the Menu” is a co-production of CAAM and KQED for PBS, with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For more stories about food and culture, visit the Off the Menu website.
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