“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.”
˗ Jonathan Safron Foer, author
In mid-January, when I was about twelve years old, my friend Emily and her parents took me to a grocery store in Dallas that sold only East Asian goods and delicacies. They were seeking out ingredients and treats for their annual Chinese New Year festivities and had invited me along on their daytrip. They had lists that required red envelopes and bok choi, seaweed and strawberry-coated Pocky sticks, and I was more than curious as to where we would find such specific products. But, they led me into the mart and I stepped out of the city of big hair and big egos and into a cacophony of senses of which I can only try to make sense. I saw brilliantly colored fruits I had never seen at my local Brookshire’s, pricked my finger on the rough, thorn-covered husk of a durian, held my nose to the sea-drenched scent of the tank of crabs and prawns, heard the slapping of meat and thuds of knives on wood as a butcher cut duck or pig or rabbit, and tickled my taste buds with sample sauces galore. It was extraordinary. That day I turned to Emily and vowed that I would never again say no to trying a new food, a new experience.
Food is indeed an experience; not merely sustenance, but an accumulation of nature and creativity that can douse the taster in nostalgia or just pure enjoyment. In Dallas, it is so incredibly easy to find culturally rich and incredibly tasty Asian delights if one is willing, like my twelve-year old counterpart, to just try something new. You can get a taste of any culture you can think up; if Japanese is what you’re looking for, the “Big D” holds myriad sushi and ramen shops, despite being thousands and thousands of miles away from Japan, where sushi and ramen originated. Texan pescetarians can find delicious tuna and crab rolls just as readily as the Japanese, who, centuries ago, were introduced to sushi and Buddhism simultaneously due to the religion’s meat-free dietary guidelines. The realm of ramen readily welcomes Dallasite noodle slurpers; shops in Deep Ellum, Downtown, Addison, and beyond all welcome the messiness your mother might have shunned in your formative years. These hubs of delicious noodle soup encourage the open and untidy traditional ramen eating, as in Japanese culture, it is rude to not make sounds when eating noodles.
Of course, Japan is not the only Asian culture represented on the Dallas food scene. From Kimchi Stylish Korean Kitchen to the Vietnamese cuisine of Bistro-B, all of Asia can be tasted at local joints. If you catch yourself attempting to decide between Korean and Thai or Chinese and Vietnamese, just keep in mind the following guidelines: Thai food is characterized by its high level of spiciness and its staple of fish sauce. If you like the fishiness of Thai but are standoffish to spice, Vietnamese gives you milder options. Chinese food is less spicy (unless the cuisine is Szechuan Chinese) and uses meat or rice as its base. Korean pairs pickled flavors with heavy heat. Each Asian culinary experience is more than just noodles and soy sauce; aspects of dishes reveal clues to the culture’s interaction with its geography, its natural resources, and its religious beliefs. Japan, Thailand, and Vietnam all have very intimate relationships with the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the fish that swim inside them—thus, Japanese sushi, pad thai, and Vietnamese pho hinge on the use of fish, whether raw or in sauce form. The Szechuan province of China has cuisine much spicier than the rest of the country due to the relatively booming supply of Szechuan peppercorn and chili peppers. Korean food characteristically contains pickled cabbage and other fermented vegetables because, historically, salt was difficult and expensive to obtain, so fermenting vegetables in clay jars underground would preserve harvests.
While food’s components and creation are indicative of a culture’s habits, history, and values, so are the methods by which food is consumed. The aforementioned method of slurping noodles in Japanese cuisine is the “proper” way to consume ramen; making noise shows respect and enjoyment. Japanese etiquette also includes waiting until everyone’s order has been received before saying the phrase itadakimasu, meaning I gratefully receive. If the meal is one that is best eaten immediately, the polite phrases to use are “osaki ni dōzo (please go ahead) or osaki ni itadakimasu (allow me to start before you). Small bowls should be lifted closer to the mouth when eating Japanese dishes, and when dining from shared dishes, proper etiquette includes dedicating opposite chopstick ends to moving food and eating it. In Chinese chopstick etiquette, chopsticks are treated as extensions of a diners’ fingers—it is impolite to wave them around or point them at other people. In Thai cuisine, once you are done eating, leaving food in the bowl is acceptable. If you empty your bowl or plate, your host will continue to serve you food.
No matter the cuisine, there is a joint sensory and cultural experience to be had when dining. Whether you are eating Japanese food at Tokyo Hayaci or tasting Korean kimchi, there is identity and history in every bite. I discovered the sensational wonders of the east Asian grocery store at age 12, and my taste buds have been changed for good. Now, whether you are participating in the Crow Collection of Asian Art’s 31 Days of Asia or you just have a hankering for some slippery and slurpy ramen, Dallas can be your guide to tasting your way through new experiences, much like my friend Emily did so long ago.
To attend any of these events, please register by visiting the following links.
Bistro-B-Vietnamese cuisine in Dallas
Wednesday, May 6 from 8 AM – Midnight
Enjoy Japanese Hibachi at Tokyo Hayaci
Monday, May 11 from 11 AM – 11 PM