Once branded as “cheap eats,” Asian cuisine is finally getting the awards it deserves

The recognition and acclaim for Asian cuisine is long overdue

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published June 29, 2024 1:29PM (EDT)

Asian Appetizers, Dumplings, Spring Rolls, Shrimp, Wontons, Dry Ribs and Sauces (Getty Images/LauriPatterson)
Asian Appetizers, Dumplings, Spring Rolls, Shrimp, Wontons, Dry Ribs and Sauces (Getty Images/LauriPatterson)

Chef Christina Nguyen kickstarted her restaurant career in 2011 when she and her husband Birk Grudem opened Hola Arepa, a food truck serving platters of Venezuelan street food. Three years later, the pair opened its brick-and-mortar location in South Minneapolis and, in 2018, added Southeast Asian restaurant Hai Hai to their résumé.

Hai Hai marks Nguyen’s first foray into Asian cuisine. The daughter of immigrants who fled Saigon during the Vietnam War, Nguyen is a self-taught chef who grew up eating many of the dishes she now shares with local patrons. There are water fern cakes (Bánh bèo), steamed rice cakes topped with mung bean, shrimp floss and fried shallots that are served alongside nước chấm, a dipping sauce made with fish sauce. There’s Mì Quảng, a turmeric rice noodle soup embellished with chili jam, herbs, banana blossom, peanuts and sesame-shrimp crisps. And there’s Vietnamese crepe (Bánh xèo), a childhood favorite of Nguyen’s that features a crispy turmeric and coconut milk rice flour base stuffed with either pork belly & shrimp or Shiitake mushrooms & spring pea puree.

These are just a few of the many meals Nguyen ate at family celebrations, in Vietnamese Sunday school basements and during trips to the homeland. But at Hai Hai, Nguyen doesn’t serve only Vietnamese fare. Diners can also enjoy Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean and Laotian flavors. Nguyen describes Hai Hai as her “playground” where she invites Minnesotans to savor the lesser-known regional dishes of Southeast Asia along with the traditional dishes Nguyen adores.

Six years after opening her business, Nguyen was named “Best Chef: Midwest” at the 2024 James Beard Awards in Chicago. In her acceptance speech, Nguyen thanked her parents, who she said “taught me that anything is possible, to not be afraid.” She also thanked the James Beard Foundation for recognizing “the value of immigrant food.” 

“When we started our restaurants, the most that a Southeast Asian restaurant could ever hope for was ‘best cheap eats.’ And I feel like we've come a long way,” Nguyen said. “So this is an honor. Thank you.”

Indeed, Asian cuisine has come a long way. The history of such foods in America varies from one fare to another, but they are all rooted in immigrant communities who came to the States in hopes of finding prosperity. 

Compared to many Asian foods, Chinese has long been the most popular and well-known cuisine in America. Chinese food was first introduced to the States following the First Opium War, when many Chinese laborers left an economically depleted China in hopes of making a fortune amid the California gold rush. Rampant discrimination and limited labor opportunities prompted many immigrants to open Chinese-style restaurants, which became a newfound source of income and community. In 1882, a growing anti-Chinese sentiment plagued California, leading to the passage of the “Chinese Exclusion Act.” Although the law restricted immigration into the United States, it still allowed Chinese business owners to obtain “merchant status,” which enabled them to sponsor relatives who were immigrating from China. This ultimately led to more Chinese restaurants being established, particularly on the West Coast.

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As explained by PA Food, a family-owned Asian food manufacturer, Chinese restaurants initially catered to the Chinese community. That’s because the “prevalent culinary style of the time was derivative of French/European fine cooking — heavy in body and using dairy products, very much the opposite of the Canton style served at the time.” Chinese cuisine grew in popularity during the 20th century and many traditional dishes were tweaked to cater to the American palette. For example, egg rolls, invented in 1930s New York, became an American rendition of the traditional spring roll. Same with General Tso’s Chicken, a sweeter variation of a Hunanese chicken dish. By the late 1960s, changing attitudes toward Chinese food along with the abolition of the Chinese Exclusion Act ushered in a new wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S. Additionally, the number of Chinese chefs nationwide increased and new regional styles of cooking were introduced.

In the same vein as Chinese food, Japanese food surged in popularity due to certain dishes being “Americanised.” But that wasn’t the case for Korean food, which was marketed solely to the Korean community. Korean food first made its way to the States in the 1970s following a wave of emigration from South Korea to the United States.   

“Food was used as a means of feeding the community with something that reminded them of home,” per PA Food. “From the 1970s to 2000s Korean food had fallen beneath the mainstream radar since it remained staunchly traditional and out of reach from what mainstream American food culture was comfortable with.” That changed in the late 1990s when American-Korean fusion — embraced by chefs like Roi Choi — became a highly sought-after cuisine.

In more recent years, Thai food has established itself in American food culture thanks to Thai restaurateurs who introduced new spices and cooking techniques. Same with Malaysian food.

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Despite the proliferation of Asian food establishments within the States, the cuisine itself has been excluded from mainstream culinary awards for years. The first James Beard Awards were presented on May 6, 1991, and featured not a single Asian restaurant or chef on the winners list. Two years later, Japanese-American celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi took home the award for “Best Chef: Pacific Northwest” for his work at Roy’s. He was the only Asian chef to make it on the winner’s list that year.

The James Beard Foundation has received criticism for disproportionately honoring white male chefs in the past. Last fall, the foundation said it would make some big changes to its awards process in an effort to “increase gender, race, and ethnic representation in the governance and outcomes of the Awards,” according to a statement obtained by Food & Wine.

At this year’s awards ceremony, Nguyen was joined by several Asian chefs on the winners’ list, including chefs Masako Morishita of Perry's, Atsuko Fujimoto of Norimoto Bakery, Lord Maynard Llera of Kuya Lord and Hajime Sato of Sozai — just to name a few.

At Hai Hai, Nguyen said she wants diners to “feel happy, to feel connected and to feel good.”

“We try to make it so that it just feels like you're somewhere else, like you're transported,” she said. “I want people to be excited to dig into more of the different foods and cultures that our menu represents.”

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.