By Long Do Hoang
One of the most heated debates I ever had was with a dear friend of mine about whether or not her “Krispy Chicken in Sweet and Sour Sauce” could really be regarded as authentic Asian food. “The food is cooked by Asian people! If it’s not regarded as authentic Asian food, then what in the world would you describe it as?” she shot at me. I gave the matter a little thought and finally responded: “It is the skill of smart early Asian immigrants to mask German food as Asian food to make profit out of it!”
When my father immigrated to Germany during the 1980s there were absolutely no hip and fancy Asian grocery stores or even Asian restaurants to begin with. Thank god my father brought the most essential Vietnamese cooking ingredients from home – airport border control was not that strict in the 80s – a bottle of fish sauce, some dried fish, and wrapped up in a local Haiphong newspaper, some essential herbs and dried bamboo shoots. Equipped with all the ingredients he needed, my young father started to prepare his dinner. But coming from a third world country in the 80s where the average person practically had to start an actual fire to cook food, my father did not know of the existence of an extractor hood. So, on his first evening in Germany, he blessed his whole neighborhood with the authentic smell of what our beloved Vietnamese cuisine had to offer. Right before he could even taste his meal a neighbor of his started banging on the door, shouting he should open the door right away. When my father did, the German lady – getting right to the point as Germans will – declared that the smell that my father had produced in the kitchen was a strong violation against her well-being and that he must never cook with whatever witchcraft he was cooking, ever again.
Disheartened by the comments and complaint of the mean lady, my father thought he would never be able to eat Vietnamese food again until a good friend of his decided to open an “Asian” restaurant called “Golden Dragon”. So, excited at being able to eat familiar food again, my father visited his friend only to discover that his friend served completely unfamiliar food. The appetizer: “Mini spring rolls” filled with only vegetables and the size of one finger of a toddler. The main dishes were filled with western vegetables like red bell pepper and broccoli which look like a miniature form of actual trees. On top of that were two pieces of deep-fried chicken cutlets which were more similar to German Schnitzels than anything my father had ever eaten in Vietnam. And since the appetizer and the main dish were deep-fried, it came as no surprise that the dessert, too, turned out to be deep-fried as well! As dessert – a privilege people from Vietnam did not know about during that time – his friend served him three pieces of hot, gooey and of course breaded banana balls. As perplexed as my father was by the food, he could not help but realize that all the German customers that were surrounding him seem to thoroughly enjoy their food. And they did, because on the one hand the food was exotic enough – the biggest contributor of that was the foreign man who served the food – but more importantly, the food was not too exotic. They still knew all of the ingredients in the menu but were excited and ready to pay money to see their well-known local ingredients being prepared in a giant wok, a utensil that is used more for show than authenticity.
Now, you might wonder why my father’s friend did not just use authentic ingredients to serve authentic Vietnamese food and nowadays, he might do so. But then, back in the late 1980s, authentic Vietnamese flavors like fish sauce and herbs – the aromas that horrified the mean neighbor of my father – remained unpopular with most Germans. We are talking about a time where taking a bite of an Asian pear was considered experimental, if not dangerous. There was simply no demand for authentic Asian groceries and so Asian people who wanted to open a restaurant had to use groceries that were available in German supermarkets. But once these immigrants had the ingredients, they actually had to come up with a method to cook them. If you ever had the chance to travel to Vietnam, you might have realized that Vietnamese people oftentimes eat their vegetables and herbs raw or use them in soups. We do not usually use a giant wok to stir fry them. But as some of you might be unfamiliar with how to prepare South East Asian ingredients, my father’s friend was very unfamiliar with how to prepare Non-South East Asian ingredients. What he discovered was that everything could easily be stir fried. And with that, a new cuisine was born: westernized and not authentic, but tasty “Asian” cuisine. Also, he started to deep fry meat because buying meat in huge quantities was much cheaper and deep frying it prevented it from going bad quickly.
A lot, of course, has changed in the last 30 years. Germans have become more open to trying foreign food and Asian ingredients and groceries are much more accessible now than they used to be. And even Vietnamese cuisine, with its fish sauce, shrimp paste, and fresh herbs is gaining incredible popularity in Germany. But the “Golden Dragons”, “Asia Woks” and “Bamboo Gardens” are still going strong and define the idea of Asian cuisine for many Germans. The westernized Asian food scene has become one staple here and it is hard to imagine that authentic Asian food might one day replace it. Westernized Asian cuisine is a product of an important part of immigrant history of this country. It shows the troubles but also the creativity and hard work of Asian immigrants that went into inventing these dishes. They were responsible for our economic survival.
Also, as a Vietnamese person myself I have to admit that, although extremely unhealthy and not authentic, this cuisine is quite delicious! But it is not a valid representation of what South-East Asian food really looks and tastes like. It might also take a while to convince the broader German population to challenge their view on Asian food. Until then, my statement stays! Germans do not love Asian food but a westernized version of it.