Eating Ramen Around the World: Immigrant Food as Fads and Culture

In Budapest, my very Indonesian Chinese family could have eaten a Hungarian dish called chicken paprikash, a chicken stew with a ton of paprika and a cream called tejföl. It smelled good when I took a whiff of it outside a restaurant. I’m always down for national foods, what citizens believe to be food that represents a national culture.

Unfortunately, Asians aren’t interested in eating any more than rice or noodles. We went past the touristy restaurants that claim to serve authentic Hungarian food and instead entered Biwako Ramen, a little Japanese restaurant off the corner in the metropolitan district. It was owned by a Japanese couple if I remember correctly and we ordered a bowl of ramen. Digging in, I was surprised that it was kinda decent. Usually, the ramen stock in other countries tasted bad as if the soup was powdered water. But it had taste and texture. The pork belly melted in the mouth. And the noodles were definitely handmade. All I can say was, “Damn, that was a pretty darn good bowl of ramen.”

Biwako Ramen was also doing some spring cleaning and selling old secondhand Japanese novels. I want to remember this weird experience of having good ramen in Hungary of all places, so I bought some books. Today, だれかのいとしいひと and 人形館の殺人 are gathering dust in Chicago as we speak.

Sapporo-styled ramen in Singapore

Memories like this remind me that East Asian food is seen as an exotic retreat on the dinner table. If you don’t feel like having some steak, you might consider Korean barbecue with friends for dinner. If it’s snowing, you might head out to Chinatown and eat some Sichuan food to warm your body up. And anywhere you look, there is always a store that sells sushi right from a barely working fridge. This is great for immigrants who haven’t adjusted to the food cultures and tourists as fussy as my parents, but it does present us some unique problems on what it means to be a citizen of that nation.

For example, Orientalism.

I find it hard to ignore Orientalism in food. I’ve lived and traveled around the world; I’ve eaten varying types of immigrant and national foods, sometimes as a tourist and sometimes as an immigrant myself. I don’t belong to cultures or subcultures; at most, I am an observer and find great satisfaction and frustration from the highs and lows of cultures all over the world. I don’t believe I have the right to call myself Indonesian nor Chinese — maybe I shouldn’t call myself Asian either — but I do respect immigrants and their cultures. My extended family is filled with immigrants to the brim and we love people who try hard to assimilate into cultures their own way. So I got the opportunity to observe and live the immigrant’s life in many cultures and countries.

Orientalism bothers me the most due to its pervasive, “inoffensive” nature. No one seems to be bothered by it. Asian cultures, especially the Chinese and Japanese cultures, seem to get the worst of the lot as people like to commentate on how decadent or collectivist they are. Only if appropriated by the West could such heresy be eliminated.

It is inevitable that we all admire, fetishize, and appropriate several aspects of cultures we find “exotic” and interesting into our own lives and cultures. That is what transcultural diffusion is all about. Even Asian countries like Japan are notorious for “cultural borrowing” and reworking ideas and concepts into their own. There are also many examples found in media (Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest to Kurosawa Akira’s Yojimbo to Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars). We can also talk about how Zen Buddhism is incorporated into the New Age subcultures in the United States too. And the new influx of video games on Steam influenced by retro Japanese games deserves its own post altogether.

But these arguments are too abstract and not down-to-earth for me. Immigrant food is something you can visualize and taste. They are real and Orientalism is everywhere in how immigrant food is portrayed and cooked. You can’t just shake those away like you could do with media.

Of all the types of East Asian food out there in the Chinatowns and beyond, Japanese food intrigues me the most. And it’s not because I love my Japanimations. Korean cuisine involves a healthy dose of kimchi — something you have to develop your taste towards — and herbs like ginseng can throw many people off. Few people can cook it well too. It won’t be a while before we’ll see that food culture get Orientalized. Chinese food has been bowdlerized for the American tastebud and a new culture called American Chinese food is born. That will be the end result for immigrant food. But with the rise of Japanese food, its pretensions to a mythical Japanese culture so advertised on television are unmistakably an act of Orientalism. I’ll talk about Chinese immigrant food as well, but Japanese food is on another league. It is so exotic that even Asian cultures find it worthwhile to see it as the most foreign culture possible.

Take the case of the Indonesian fast-food chain HokBen, previously called Hoka Hoka Bento. Hendra Arifin, the founder of HokBen, was interested in developing a new form of fast food not thought of by other Indonesian entrepreneurs: Japanese food was his answer. HokBen emerged as a Japanese McDonalds in the country: you can pick what kind of bento food you like from a menu the same you can order a cheeseburger from the value dollar menu.

Like many Indonesians children, when I was six, I always ate in HokBen. I always picked the chicken katsu meal because the skin was delectable and not oily like the KFC here. The rice was also Japanese rice and its puffiness went well with the chicken. I did have one quirk while eating this. I didn’t like spicy food when I was younger, so I dipped my chicken into the Japanese mayo on top of the coleslaw and ate it with the rice. I didn’t eat the coleslaw because I hated vegetables then, but the chicken with the mayo was paradise. I still eat like that today when I do get the chance.

Nothing about that was terribly Japanese, but it felt Japanese. And that’s the most important part. HokBen went beyond chicken katsu. If you look at the menu today, they offer all kind of tempura and teriyaki beef at a low cost. Even more intriguing is the Japanese writing, which makes no sense howsoever. They even forgot to put a シ for シンプル (sinpuru as in simple); it’s just a ンプル (npuru as in -mple).

Is this a particularly good representation of Japan? ‘Course not, but it undoubtedly introduced many to Japanese food. I thought HokBen was Japanese myself at a young age and when I went to Japan, I looked hard for it. Being unable to find it in Japan was my first experience of how bizarre and strangely offensive cultural appropriation can be.

Kazan ramen in Singapore

The same goes for instant noodles, huge franchises like Ajisen Ramen (popular in the United States, China, and Singapore especially), and whatever American sushi bars are supposed to be.

Instant noodles in the United States in particular are constantly referred to as “ramen”, which will always confuse me. When I think of ramen, I think of the Japanese version of the Chinese la mien — literally pulled noodles. These noodles are handmade and there are different types of stock and broth to choose from. Ramen is derived from that dish and ramen too has many variants. Regional variants of ramen are what I live for. Toppings can also differentiate the ramen style too: arguably, Wakayama ramen is a “Tokyo-styled ramen in a Tokushima soup” with a “boiled runny-egg yolk instead of a raw one“.

Unfortunately, this kind of categorization is confusing for someone who just wants “Japanese” the same way someone would just want some “Chinese food”. The biggest difference in Chinese food is that some folks do know the difference between Sichuan and Shanghai cuisine. I’d be surprised if anyone but the Japanese and ramen connoisseurs know the difference between Tokyo-style and Sapporo-style ramen. For many people, ramen is just ramen. It’s from Japan. Who cares?

Others may be more “general” and prefer to describe Japanese food as a subset of one giant collective known as Asian food. So ramen isn’t just from Japan but from the whole continent of Asia itself. Which is, of course, wrong. It doesn’t help some restaurants would offer ramen in “Asian” restaurants too. Ramen becomes a typical noodle dish no different from la mien, no different from pho, and no different from any other type of soup noodle dish prepared by distinct cultures of Asia.

But no one wants to correct that. They just go along with it and make the plainest ramen ever. The noodles try to be the least “offensive” to Western sensibilities. It is literally noodles with some flavored soup in people’s mind. The more aware of consumers thinks of it as Japanese, but they don’t situate it in any part of Japan. It’s “Japan” in quotation marks.

The ramen the chefs are serving representing do not come from where they are. They come from a “fictive nation” and system of signs known as Japan as imagined in Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs. The thing is with Barthes, he is actually aware this is an intellectual exercise of Orientalism. Most people don’t.

BBQ Ramen in a Whole Foods Market

In order to meet demands for Japanese-but-not-really-Japanese food, people have started cooking stuff like BBQ Ramen. Japanese food thus joins the league of “diaspora” food fusions where immigrant food meets the American frying pan. The idea of a food fusion is what concerns writers, thinkers, and chefs the most when they look at the cultural power of food because food is one of the best ways to introduce a culture to anybody.

You can find people like Chef Alex McCoy whose intentions are well but misplaced. He wanted to transform an old Chinese restaurant to a Thai restaurant and this was his philosophy:

When you travel in Southeast Asia you have two experiences: the cultural experiences with the temples, food, and people—and then a phenomenal traveler’s culture too. We want to introduce people to Thai cuisine, but frame it in the eye of a traveler.

The Washingtonian also reports that he will be “draw[ing] on expat traditions, like beet and grilled pineapple-topped “Aussie burgers” that one finds among the many “Australian travelers” or “Balinese dishes”.

In Ruth Tam’s Washington Post blog on immigrant food, this “leaves a bad taste in her mouth.” She praises white Americans “gravitating toward ‘new’ cuisines” and when fusions are done well,

immigrant food can provoke discussions about personal history and shared diasporas. I’ve seen this happen at restaurants such as China Chilcano, which describes the history of Chinese and Peruvian fusion that influences its menu, a bare minimum that many restaurants ignore.

But the treatment of immigrant food as some sort of “ethnic” food is infuriating:

In the United States, immigrant food is often treated like discount tourism — a cheap means for foodies to feel worldly without leaving the comfort of their neighborhood — or high-minded fusion — a stylish way for American chefs to use other cultures’ cuisines to reap profit. The dishes of America’s recent immigrants have become check marks on a cultural scavenger hunt for society’s elite.

Why does this happen? For starters, preparing “authentic” food like Ruth Tam’s dad’s ngau lam is seen as an example of “Chinese grossness”. Neighbors complain about the smell. “The comment,” she writes, “clung to me like the smell in my home.” As a result, some Asian chefs took it upon themselves to prepare food elsewhere as if what they’re doing was illegal.  I concur with Tam when she says, “The lengths to which immigrant families have gone to hide the way we feed ourselves break my heart.”

But when chefs like McCoy cook “authentic” food, it’s fine. Tam notes:

This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as “authentic” on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here. Fashionable food from foreign cultures may satisfy a temporary hunger, but if you’re trying it for shallow reasons, you’ll be culturally unfulfilled in the long run.

While Tam documents the higher ends of restaurants committing this sin, Asian immigrants feel the pressure to do this too. After all, it isn’t uncommon to find Japanese ramen in a Thai restaurant in Chicago that also serves Korean too.

But America isn’t the problem (for once). The whole world is to blame. An Asian food frenzy has taken the world by storm for now and it’s so fashionable to eat Japanese food nowadays that even drinking Japanese green tea is worth bragging about. Immigrant food at the moment is a “fad”.

We are treating the food of immigrants — food cultures people live in — as if they are fashion trends. Unlike ripped jeans, these people can’t just throw away their food for a more fashionable food at once. Rather, they’re clung to them like beads of rice on a bowl.

JAL Business Lounge in Narita Airport

The more ethical-minded consumer will thus look for authenticity in immigrant food. Maybe they’ll read the reviews on Yelp and Google. Words like “authentic” are splattered all over the reviews. Television ads and newspaper clippings show the Japanese restaurants that this was based from. Information on how ramen is made is on the menu. This helps people make better decisions on where and what to eat.

In theory, anyway.

This new emerging culture of “authenticity” is a step into the right direction. Unfortunately, that is going to end up being a fad as well. A deceiving fad that implies they have the real deal when they don’t. It doesn’t mean shit if a restaurant is merely using the Japanese brand’s name and is a part of a franchise. Authentic gourmet food is an oxymoron. This appeal to “authenticity” is nothing more but a trap for the gullible minded, a “trendier” way to sell the same crap they’ve always been selling with focus-tested words.

“Authenticity” is a mere buzzword people throw around in restaurants to make them sound better, reminding me of the localization debate with video games nowadays. What they believe is “authentic” Japanese is a plain, bland version catered to the “exotic” taste of Western audiences. The Japanese tourism industry preys on this behavior with “Cool Japan”. It is an unfortunate albeit unintended consequence Japanese immigrants face every day when they cook food they once loved but had to dumb down in order to fit the narrative of cultural hegemonies.

Ironically, these “fads” of cultural appropriation are necessary evils if people want more interaction between immigrants and other people in a shared culture. The unfortunate Westernization of Japanese food will ease their tastebuds to accepting actual Japanese food. This is what Chinese food had to undergo in order to get accepted in Western cultures.

For the many Asian tourists and immigrants who crave their favorite local food overseas, the minute they try these food, their comfort food reminds them they are not at home. They are in an environment where people ignore them if they don’t fit into their societies. Immigrants especially feel like they are tourists in homes they’ve lived for years.

It is rare to find immigrant food that actually feel like you’re back home again. There is this ramen store I would sometimes eat in Chicago and I would feel awkward when I see Japanese mothers trying to feed their homesick children food. Am I helping to contribute this mess?

This is something I have pondered over the years as I travelled and lived on different countries. Why do I sometimes feel the need to eat Indian food in London? Spanish food in Singapore? Chinese food in Switzerland?

Switzerland may not be the first country you’ll think of when it comes to immigrants, but there is a sizable population of Chinese people. My Swiss relatives live there and so I got to know people who opened up Chinese restaurants there.

When asked why they opened their restaurants in the first place, they say, “I want to cook for people like me.” They don’t mean just immigrants and tourists like me who are passing by the small country of Switzerland. Others too. People who have lived in the country for ages. Chinese restaurant owners may have to cook French fries on the side, but it’s for a good cause: they want to make as many people feel at home as possible.

I can’t say if the same logic applies to Chinese restaurants outside Switzerland or broadly speaking any kind of restaurant that serves immigrant food. But it is an opinion some people have. I may not agree with it completely, but at least I know where they are coming from.

They are from the culture they live in. Their food is not Chinese or Asian in their mind. They have renounced their background belonging to such a culture. Their food is Swiss.

In that sense, that kind of food is more authentic than most “authentic” food in restaurants.

Dried gourd sushi roll in Tokyo

But I don’t believe every restaurant that serves immigrant food should go that path. It is tempting to see Japanese food disavow their heritage since their heritage today is more or less a product as seen on TV. Yet, that will erase the whole idea of immigrant food: food cultures that people bring in all over the world.

For me, it is important that Japanese food and other immigrant foods are given the respect they deserve. It is one thing to learn to appreciate the smells and tastes of food cultures you’re not accustomed to. It is another to actively look for this. You don’t need to find “authentic” restaurants on Yelp. Most of the time, the restaurants that are brimming with real authenticity are smalltime restaurants on the corner of the road. Look inside to see if there are old timers there. Bonus points if the elderly talks to the staff. This is a local restaurant worth visiting to.

It also means you have to abandon trendy aesthetics and sometimes tolerate the drab wallpaper these restaurants have. Even the toilets may be gross too. These restaurants don’t have money because they serve to a specific audience: other immigrants and tourists. And they do quite fine, even if they are not making big bucks like the fancy restaurant across the street.

Restaurants on the higher end can also be authentic if you look into the chefs and staff. These kinds of restaurants are training grounds. Celebrity and experienced chefs who treat their cultures with respect would open up a restaurant to not just cook but teach student chefs too. This is done in the hopes that student chefs can bring more authentic food onto the table in other kinds of restaurants.

Cultural food tours in cities all around America and Europe go beyond Chinatowns and dive deep into the histories of these immigrant communities. In New York City, an organization called League of Kitchens brings curious minds to immigrants’ homes to learn how to cook their own food and immerse themselves into the culture.

If that is too much to ask, then I would at least want people to question the “foodie culture” that has become popular in the world recently. Food porn, luxury gourmet food, and other dumb terms should make some room for immigrant food in the Instagram and Twitter webspace. You can read articles like Chris Dwyer’s “Any Given Sunday” in Roads and Kingdoms to learn about Hong Kong maid food culture and learn that there is food beyond the Grubhub and Uber Eats menus.

And of course, eating and writing about food help propagate information more.

When the Asian food bubble burst in the future, it will be a shame to see all of the good local restaurants by immigrants disappear because people just don’t feel like eating Asian food anymore. It’s not fashionable.

Food is not a fad. It is part of a culture that many people belong to. It’s fine if you don’t like sushi or whatever; that is part of your taste. That doesn’t mean Japanese food — or Asian food — can be dismissed entirely. They feed into the growing and changing concept of a Japanese culture in another country and I find it interesting how their food is questioned in their identity all the time.

That behavior should be encouraged, especially in immigrant communities who are trying to understand what it means to assimilate into the societies they have chosen to live in. It is an immigrant question — do we belong here and if not, how do we belong? — that anyone can understand without going to a class on cultural studies or political theory. Novels and television shows may poke holes at this question, but how someone cooks may answer this existentialist question without being ambivalent one bit.

For the Hungarian-Japanese immigrants in Biwako Ramen, it seems they don’t have to abandon their cooking and taste to fit into the city culture of Budapest. They just have to abandon the romance and crime novels that are taking up space in their attic.

6 thoughts on “Eating Ramen Around the World: Immigrant Food as Fads and Culture

  1. Ice June 25, 2017 / 10:05 pm

    I wanted to ask about whether you had a similar experience like this: Getting burned on yelp when trying to find asian restaurants to eat at in a non-asian country (US in my case i guess)

    There’s a lot of times when i visit a new area that i am not familiar with to just eat some non-asian food all the time. Problem is, i’m asian and i love asian food. Especially the “authentic” feels like china/japan/korea kind. Though i probably have a wrong impression as i haven’t really had canto/jp food here better than the ones i’ve had in HK or Japan. But anyways, searching on yelp always fucked me over. I’m from Cali but i’ve had to stay at various other states and when i find some high rated asian restaurant(this applies to some restaurants in my local area as well), i’m immediately skeptical. When i do choose to go to one, the food doesn’t remind me of anything close to what i’ve had in the other countries and worst of all,(this applies more to american chinese food than korean or japanese ones) it tastes so terrible. How do people even eat americanized asian food and how did this restaurant get a 4 star or higher???? I just don’t get it. A ton of the japanese sushi restaurants are also owned by koreans. I can immediately taste the difference. It’s different i guess but i know it’s not authentic or similar to what i had. This makes me wonder whether authenticity is actually overrated or not. Should i stop looking for it and just separate restaurants between good or bad?

    I really feel that thing sometimes with small shacks in the wall being authentic though i am not sure if i can drop the aesthetics and stylish designs. I think if it’s clean enough though, i can probably go. Makes me wish real ethnic food can sell.

    Various people have just told me that it’s cause white people rate the asian restaurants on yelp and to just find a good restaurant, just go to a place where most of the customers and staffs are asian and speaking in the language of what kind of food they are selling. This is easier in places like SoCal, and New York i guess. For korean and chinese, it’s really easy. Japanese is pretty hard on the other hand.

    • Ice June 25, 2017 / 10:20 pm

      Forgot to mention this, but i see that you mentioned ajisen ramen. I’ve always felt that their ramen was off and tasted more like chinese noodle soup to me than japanese here in the USA. I only ever order the tsukemen there since the ramen is just weird to me (authentic or not, i hate the soft and small noodles and the soup does not have that much flavor).

      How do you determine whether a restaurant is authentic or not? You mentioned to look at the staff and chefs but are there any red flags that i should watch out for when i’m looking? How would you know a ramen is authentic or not? The only way i know is if the food tastes really bad or weird to me, it’s probably not very authentic but that’s definitely not a reliable way.

      • Kastel June 25, 2017 / 11:41 pm

        If I have to eat Ajisen Ramen — a punishment from the heavens — it will probably be extremely spicy. It’s kinda Chinese-ish, I guess, but unlike HokBen it actually comes from Japan. You are right though: the soup isn’t that flavorful.

        When it comes to ramen, the only way is to honestly compare them to actual ramen from Japan. I’ve eaten it so much I can tell which parts come from the culture and which parts aren’t. Actual ramen has some clean stock and the noodles are handmade. It never feels like you are drinking oil or something fattening, even with the fattiest of pork. You can also tell from the ingredients if they are following any particular style. Usually, American ramen is just whatever looks ramen-ish. But there is a category for ramen. I recommend looking into the link I provided for different categories of ramen.

        I’ve mostly given up on authenticity when it comes to immigrant food nevertheless. It’s more important if you get that homesy feeling that many restaurants do not have. Immigrant and local food fascinate me because this is what everyday folks eat. Not McDonalds or Zugat five star rated restaurants. Just ordinary people trying to fill their stomachs up. Whether you are an immigrant or someone who has been in the culture long enough, immigrant food should make you feel as home as much as local food. That’s what my approach is.

    • Kastel June 25, 2017 / 11:33 pm

      Yelp! is extremely bad for non-local food in countries in general. I’ve eaten in the worst five star rated Chinese restaurants in Chicago and the worst American burger restaurants in Singapore. I will only recommend it if you want the local stuff.

      Otherwise, it is a crapshoot. In America, Yelp! is of course dominated by white reviewers who are judging food by their taste. When they say authenticity, don’t expect their taste to match up with others. I’d even be skeptical of ABC’s since I’ve been burned before. Just look at the reviewer’s profile.

      I don’t believe authenticity is overrated, but it is also an ideal you will never be able to find in immigrant food. I personally think it is better to look for the small time local restaurants that have their own style than try replicating some exotic cuisine or get Westernized. For HK food, cafes seem to be a better shot at it. But really, it’s just guesswork. Nobody knows until they dig in.

      I recommend watching Jennifer B. Lee’s TED Talk titled The Hunt for General Tso for an introduction on American Chinese food and why people like them.

  2. Greg Taniguchi July 29, 2017 / 9:26 pm

    Wow, I just read what I thought was half way into the post, but on my phone I was barely 1/5th of the way down. I need to read the rest later tonight, but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading what I have read so far.

    • Kastel July 31, 2017 / 4:01 am

      Thank you very much!

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