Unbeknownst to everyone except my friend Galen, I have been kicking around the idea for a documentary about Thai food abroad. It would explore the ways that Thai restaurants adapt to the environments around them, be it in Europe, in the Americas, on a remote island, and in other parts of Asia. It wouldn’t be a finger-wagging exercise in authenticity, I hasten to add — just a sincere exploration of how we all alter ourselves in order to appeal to people who are not us. I imagined the Thai food as a metaphor for me myself: an Asian transplant in a mostly white town, tucking away the fish sauce and the shrimp paste into little corners of herself to make her palatable to a different world. The Thai restaurants and I were one and the same.
So imagine my consternation — but also admiration, OK? — when I learned that Lisa Ling had already done this very same thing, except broadened to several Asian cuisines. It’s a good idea! And like me, Lisa Ling has grown up having to adapt and evolve, assimilating yet losing a part of herself in the process. Because don’t get me wrong: however delicious these restaurants can end up being, they lose parts of themselves in the process, sloughing off the bits that would make their own stomachs happy in order to fit into preconceived notions of what those foods should be: takeaway, cheap, fast, unskilled, maybe even a little bit “dirty”.
Then when those notions get mirrored back to us, we inevitably absorb them, believing our own food to be dirty and cheap (do you know of a Thai person who has NOT complained of paying too much at a nice Thai restaurant or, dare I say, Jay Fai?) In writing of this, I am thinking of the news story in which a random judge is supposed to decide whether a restaurant is serving Mexican food or not (due to zoning restrictions, two Mexican restaurants cannot be next to each other in this city).
We all know a “Santa Fe” salad is not Mexican food; or do we? Do we know that California rolls are not Japanese? Or that crab rangoon is not Thai? Therein lies the conundrum for “ethnic” restaurants everywhere. How do Mexican people feel, realizing that throwing beans and jalapenos on something makes it Mexican? And what are the accompanying “signifiers” for Thai food? (Peanuts and chilies, no doubt). If I, a 50-year-old menopausal mother of two, take on the signifiers of a hot girl (long blond hair and big boobs), will guys actually take notice of me? This case opens the door to a whole host of questions.
As the first Asian restaurants to take root in North America (and probably all over the Western world), the Chinese have dealt with these questions for at least a century. Yes, there are some enclaves in which Chinese communities are booming and their restaurants emerge relatively unscathed from the ravages of assimilation (consider Vancouver or Auckland). But most of the older ones, established for decades, have had to create a completely new genre of food in order to appeal to their new customer base: think chop suey, chow mein, cold sesame noodles, and that bewitching deep-fried dish known as “General Tso’s chicken”.
Chinese-American cuisine has developed fans in its own right, even in Bangkok, where a handful of restaurants cater to Asians like me with colonized tongues and a hankering for sweet and sour fried meat. For some, it’s the taste of their childhood; for me, having grown up in a family that loved to drive for hours in search of “authentic” Cantonese cuisine, it’s the taste of rebellion, eating the forbidden stuff that made up “bad” Chinese food.
So when my friend Janet mentions Tai Tung, the oldest Chinese restaurant in Seattle, I want to go immediately. It has everything I am looking for: a history, an immigrant story, a retro vibe, and of course good food.
Unlike many of the other Chinese eateries in Seattle’s compact-but-vibrant Chinatown, Tai Tung is not the door into a meal in Asia. Instead, Tai Tung leans into its own unique sense of kitsch. Started by “Grandpa Quan” in 1935, the restaurant’s decor seems unchanged from its heyday in the mid-1900s, as does most of the staff. Janet, a longtime customer, tells us there was a longtime customer who posed as a host at the entrance to the restaurant, greeting everyone (but mostly women) as they came through the door. We did not get to see him today.
The menu itself is a piece of food history, showing what Seattle-ites expected of a Chinese restaurant in the 1930s; for example, there are two big sections titled “Chop Suey” and “Chow Mein”. At the last minute I, someone who has never had either dish, inexplicably wimp out, which is vexing in hindsight given that I was called “Chow Mein” throughout most of my childhood. Instead, we order some potstickers (I cannot resist fried dumplings) and Janet’s recommendation, a delicious stir-fry with bitter melon, as well as some stir-fried pea shoots in season and stir-fried “Chinese-style” squid (meaning ginger and garlic, apparently the signifiers for Chinese food). As a nod to Chinese-American food, I order sweet-and-sour chicken.
Everything is as good as we could expect from even the most highly regarded Chinese restaurants in town, like Jade Garden. Well, except for the sweet-and-sour chicken, funnily enough; it bears the one-note flavor of honey and nothing else. The squid, somehow, is the most tender I’ve had anywhere, even in Thailand. Someone get this chef some salted egg yolk or some Thai basil and chilies! The meal as a whole is nowhere near “bad” or even in the realm of the inauthentic; in spite of the kitschy surroundings, it’s a surprisingly straightforward Chinese meal. For some reason, I am slightly deflated by the results, maybe because, were I to be reincarnated in restaurant form, my food would be nowhere near as good.
When we left, the lion dancers were out in full force for the new year, roaming through the Chinatown streets and randomly throwing firecrackers on the sidewalks. I cried out that it was a lawsuit waiting to happen, but Janet said no one would sue here in Chinatown. I heard another person say that only in Seattle could firecrackers ring out and alarm no one (except me and a nearby toddler sitting on his dad’s shoulders). Every time the sharp loud bangs flashed, I cowered in the corner with my hands over my ears, like a true Thai. As much as I’ve had to adapt, it is in these instances where my DNA shines through.
I hope to go again, with adventurers who are willing to try out the chop suey and chow mein (if you’re wondering, this is me asking you, Janet!). It’s a story that has yet to be finished. But I look forward to darkening those doors again, and maybe even running into that customer who thinks he’s a host. It’s nice to try to travel back in time, once in a while.