When I see an Oriental Chop Chop or a Secret Asian Man, I feel … weary. Because the language of the Asian salad is revealing of the dangers of bland, disembodied generalization: When you fail to see countries and cultures as discrete entities, what kind of consideration could you be expected to give to individual people?
–Bonnie Tsui, author of the essay, Why Is Asian Salad Still on the Menu?
The other night in Portland I ate a downright delicious thing called the Crispy Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich. Along with the pleasantly moist chicken with a crackly crust, the condiments hit all my favorite notes—creamy, tangy, savory, spicy—and the bun held the sandwich together without getting in the way of its filling. In the sandwich’s menu description there was a list of elements and they included, among other things, “Asian-style coleslaw.” What?
I haven’t been able to get the “Asian-style” part out of my mind, and keep thinking about the article by Bonnie Tsui, Why Is Asian Salad Still on the Menu?, which I quoted above. The part about “[failing] to see countries and cultures as discrete entities” is particularly relevant to my quibble, and I take issue both as an eater and a writer. “Asian-style” is too vague a descriptor for a continent replete with a vast diversity of cultures; in short, the use of “Asian-style” is lazy from a copy standpoint and not helpful to me as an eater.
To be fair, some parts of the sandwich description were more specific in their nod to Korean food in this fusion dish. There was Korean fried chicken, kimchi aioli, and pickled cucumbers (which I’ve encountered in many a banchan). So what is it about the coleslaw that makes it “Asian-style”? Was it the ingredients—ginger and/or scallions (flavors the west often associates with the east), or the umami-rich Kewpie mayonnaise? Was it the preparation? Inquiring minds want to know.
Asia is a pretty big place; the food cultures of Korea, Thailand, India and Kazakhstan are all very different from one another; and I’m not even going to get into the vast regional differences in each country. I certainly wouldn’t expect to see “European-style” used on a menu when it comes to describing something French, so why should “Asian-style” be acceptable? I’d be equally startled to see “African-style” as a descriptor due to the massive nature of the continent and the vast flavors you’ll find from Egypt to Namibia, Senegal to Ethiopia.
I would have preferred the “Asian-style slaw” descriptor replaced with something more relevant like “gochujang spiced slaw” or “Napa cabbage slaw”—something that is specific to and supports the flavor profile of this sandwich with connections Korean food. And if they are trying to mix in elements of another Asian culture, why not indicate what flavors are being used? The restaurant seems dedicated to good service, providing creature comforts, and preparing some seriously tasty food (I liked everything else I tried that evening), so why not bring the menu copy in line with that same striving for excellence evident in other aspects of the business?
Bottom line, I believe American restaurant-goers deserve something more informative than simply “Asian-style” when it comes to describing food on the menu. Don’t gloss over a dish with a “bland, disembodied generalization”; take the opportunity to be more specific about the flavors and ingredients you’ve chosen to use. Today’s eaters are more accepting of nuance than they have been in the past. Give them a chance!