Courses of hand-carved ceramics rotated around a golden plate at Corey Lee’s Benu, yet my favorite moment came with a simple bowl of white rice.
Despite a fine dining sprinkle of dehydrated alliums and careful sourcing, this bowl resembled the others that have made up my childhood and life. Sky-high mounds of rice doused in soy sauce by my Caucasian classmates provided an early indicator of cultural difference. Worn-down “china” at the family’s go-to restaurant first held only a few pieces of fish but eventually proudly supported sea cucumber and tendons. I even recalled the health-conscious phase when I sampled a microwavable quinoa and red rice mix. Some (like this guy) might argue that food’s greatest value is an ability to evoke emotion and memory. For the first time, I saw a key symbol from my life at the highest level of American food.
Uni and fish eggs accompanied this bowl of rice. The server granted me the freedom to mix the elements as I wished, honoring rice’s role as a sponge for flavorful sauces and a source of endless textural experiments. Benu valued not only this Asian ingredient, but also how Asians eat. Instead of borrowing flavors and ingredients from a grouped-together Asia, Benu reinterpreted dishes with careful attention to cultural context in a new movement of pan-Asian cuisine. While steam-table Chinese food might push fried rice and noodles in the hope that more calories and flavor convey value, Benu’s white rice served its intended role as accompanist. Cantonese children might remember being called a fan tung or rice bucket for their preference of bland rice to more adult and diverse flavors. I felt validation of my childhood palette and memories.
Other courses recognized different traditions including banchan and the assembly of ssam when eating Korean BBQ. Fresh greens often found in San Francisco salads stood in a vase alongside house-made pickles for enveloping grilled meat. A neighboring table received a detailed explanation of how to dip a soup dumpling after revealing their inexperience. While Asian cultures have long pursued knowledge about wine and European culinary traditions, this exchange reversed the cultural hierarchy. A custom plate placed irregular holes underneath each dumpling and ensured clean separations in a more elegant fashion than a parchment liner. Poking at these dumplings with a fork seemed as inappropriate as biting into an expensive steak without harnessing a sharp knife. Everyday foods received respect through specially-made dinnerware and a narrative surrounding how to eat them.
Ligaya Mishan commences her piece on the rise of Asian American cuisine in front of the thousand-year egg from Benu. To her, the egg’s slimy texture represents a new period of Asian American cooking where chefs assert aggressive textures and flavors. Mishan imagines these chefs arguing “It’s food that celebrates crunchy cartilage and gelatinous ooze, that openly stinks, that declares: This is what I like to eat. What about you? Do you dare?” However, I found inspiration in the elevation of the everyday–dumplings, white rice, and pickles. While the confrontational nature of presenting gelatinous food is important, Asian American cuisine also elevates and celebrates foods Americans may have met briefly but not truly valued.