Identity Bingo!

Illustation of bingo card with cookbook themes as slots
How I almost became an Asian-American food memoir cliché

By Wei Tchou

Art By Michael DeForge

It’s a brightly colored, well-designed time for Asian-American cookbooks. I was at a bookshop in Manhattan the other week and pulled eight or nine. This bumper crop includes First Generation by Frankie Gaw, The Woks of Life by the Leung family (who writes a popular blog of the same title), My Shanghai by Betty Liu, and Korean American by Eric Kim. They were easy to locate in the cookbook section, as the shelves were helpfully organized by ethnicity! The “Asian” section encompassed Chinese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, Taiwanese-American, and Chinese-American cuisine. Japanese and Korean cookbooks were mysteriously separated out, but adjacent.

The cookbooks mostly begin with sentimental preambles about an author’s immigrant upbringing and the confusion of cross-cultural experience. There’s always a gauzy photograph of a cute Asian family: the cook in his or her youth. A predictable inventory of themes and anecdotes emerges: go back to China, grandmother’s cooking, a death in the family, not white enough, too white, survival, food as language, gross American food is actually good, my beautiful mother, taking your family for granted, immigrant trauma. The food itself acquires an uncanny rhyme: scallion pancakes, pork dumplings, and lu rou fan.

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