The lunchbox is a fraught cultural object in Asian American communities that many have sought to reclaim. It is also the subject of a viral TikTok in which a creator named Chaheti Bansal describes being made fun of as a child for bringing Indian food to school. The video begins with a shot of a tiffin, a round, stackable lunch box, and transitions into a cooking montage of Indian lunch foods. All the while, Bansal relays thoughts about learning to not be ashamed of her cultural food.
This TikTok is one of many videos I’ve come across during the pandemic that follows a consistent template of synthesizing a cooking montage, background instrumentals, and a story about the Asian American experience. The story isn’t just the narrative the creator tells us in the voiceover; there is also a story in the creator’s relationship to the food. By creating this relationship, the food is anchored to lived experience, whether explicitly mentioned or not. In one video, a creator cooks fish soup as she details the complex relationship she has with her mother; in another, a story about gaining empathy across a generational divide plays over the making of steaming budaejjigae. The voiceover storytime is a fixture of the app, but this particular iteration of Asian Americans sharing stories about identity, culture, and the foods associated with that nexus has become its own notable trend.
What I find most compelling about this trend is the range of stories related to the Asian American experience that creators choose to share. Some videos chronicle family histories, others are about joyous life achievements, and some reveal feelings of deep ambivalence tied to the Asian American experience — what Cathy Park Hong calls “minor feelings.” Asian American stories about family and culture have been increasing in visibility, and this trend encourages TikTok users to explore these topics through the framework of food.
Joanne Lee Molinaro (@TheKoreanVegan), a Korean American lawyer, food blogger, and author of a vegan Korean cookbook, doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Asian Americans are gravitating toward this trend. “Many immigrant families and many immigrant children have grown up in a tradition of storytelling because of language barriers,” Molinaro said. “That disparity brings us a latent urgency to that oral storytelling tradition.”
In one TikTok, she recounts a story about her father’s mistreatment at the hands of her grandfather. We watch Molinaro cook a kimchi soondooboo jeongol as she tells us about how her grandfather repeatedly used a cruel tactic of waking his son in the dead of night and forcing him to make an arduous walk to a nearby cemetery. Her father was mocked each time he made the journey, and his fear of the dark never left, even long after the walks ended.
Countless frank and poetic stories like this one accompany Molinaro’s recipes. Some videos are similar retellings of her parents’ lives as immigrants. Others are glimpses into her own life as the daughter of immigrants, who, at times, struggled to connect with her parents. She pulls inspiration from the stories passed down through her family. Like food, storytelling is a generational tradition that can provide solace.
“Food is the most fundamental source of safety and security to any human being, and when you add the elements of family and stories and heritage and roots…what can be more secure?” Molinaro said.
The feeling of security is something she knows is rare at this time. The structure of a story — a beginning, middle, and end — acts as a palliative when there are so little resolutions to our political problems. Molinaro does not shy away from speaking about social issues like anti-Asian violence and abortion restrictions in her videos, and she feels that storytelling can create a collective space of empathy and connection, even just briefly.
“What that end [of a story] is designed to do, at least for me, is to provide some hope in the face of immense despair,” Molinaro said.
How Asian American TikTok is Building Conversations Through Asian Food
The pairing of food and storytelling distinguishes this trend from the traditions of food media, which has historically championed the ingredients and flavors of non-Western cuisines but presented them through a lens stripped of cultural context. While these culinary traditions come from specific cultures, the tendency has been to integrate them into mainstream American gastronomy.
This inclination has rendered non-Western ingredients popular but untethered in a trend of “polyglot internationalism,” as Navneet Alang puts it in Eater. But on TikTok, Asian Americans are presenting food with a story, and therefore, providing a specific connection between food and culture. The food shown in the video isn’t always the main point; sometimes, it’s just a vehicle for beginning a conversation.
Take Molinaro’s kimchi soondooboo jeongol TikTok. The audio ostensibly has nothing to do with the food being shown. The voiceover could be removed, and the video could stand alone as a montage. Yet, the voiceover imbues meaning into the visuals, transforming it into an emotional vignette that couldn’t work without either sensory component. As the narrative progresses, Molinaro confers a sense of linearity to the construction of the dish, as if the food itself is a story being assembled before our eyes. By the end, the disparate elements at the beginning of the video — the ingredients, the feelings about generational trauma — converge into a satisfying denouement.
“I always imagine my videos are like inviting people to my house like ‘hey, have a seat in my kitchen, have a seat on my dining table,’” Molinaro said. “While you’re eating with me, we’re going to talk about things.”
Besides deepening the audience’s understanding of the relationship between food and culture, this trend can also influence a creator’s own sense of connection to their culture.
Emily Paluska, a botanist and creator who goes by @eunaeemily on TikTok, is a Korean American transracial adoptee who began her cooking account to share her experience of discovering her Korean heritage. Since she posted her first video in October 2021, she has told stories about searching for her birth mother and preparing for her first trip to South Korea, as well as answered questions about transracial adoption.
Before TikTok, Paluska had been on a private journey of learning about her heritage for two years and wanted an outlet to express her emotions. She had been reading books and studying the language, but needed something more tactile. She chose food as the avenue to create a dialogue with her audience because its immediacy had also been her way of connecting to Korean culture.
“I felt like I was going to explode if I wasn’t able to put it somewhere,” Paluska said. “It’s made me feel less alone.”
The response to her videos has been largely positive. She attracts other adoptees, immigrants of various backgrounds who relate to her feeling of not belonging, and people who are just intrigued by the recipes. Paluska reflected on how much more curiosity the general public has for Asian cultures now in comparison to when she grew up. She attributes the interest, particularly around Korean culture, to the impact of cultural phenomena like “Squid Game” or BTS.
“Korea [is] being marketed as a thing, not just the country … anything of Korea is cool. I think that has made people receptive to everything, and that includes food,” Paluska said.
How Asian American TikTok is Reclaiming Asian American Food Culture
The popularity of non-Western food in the public imagination has typically hinged on American culture’s ability to exoticize and appropriate it. In the 2010s, there were frequent highlights of the distortion of non-white food when presented by white chefs and recipe developers. In 2020, years’ worth of controversies over appropriation and tokenization reached pressure-cooker heights and erupted into a reckoning.
As someone who was active in the San Francisco food scene, Paluska is familiar with the ‘culinary rebranding’ Soleil Ho wrote about in 2014 in which food is recontextualized to fit a mainstream aesthetic. From 2014 to 2015, she was the assistant general manager of the Michelin-star restaurant SPQR. She noticed then that Asian food was becoming more common in American food culture, even as representation among chefs wasn’t growing.
“You would see white chefs do a spin on some Asian thing, on pho or ramen or whatever buzzword was [popular] at the time,” Paluska said.
Food media has long assumed that white people must be the ones who introduce non-Western food to a Western audience. Yet, the virality of Asian food content creators indicates to Paluska that audiences have always wanted to see diversity, and social media has merely changed access to new stories. Asian Americans have seized this recent shift on TikTok.
“I think that we have a lot to say,” Paluska said. “We watch other people tell their stories, and there hasn’t been a lot of people that look like us.”
Other creators have also found that TikTok is a way to expose people to their culture. Monica Singh, a first-generation immigrant from India, initially began her account @therealmonicasingh in May 2021 to pass down recipes to her daughter. The account bio includes the line, “Legacy for my daughter & Zillennials,” and the description is fitting. As her recipes have made their way to thousands of viewers, Singh has ensured that new generations will learn Indian cuisine.
Although Singh’s content is more recipe-based and does not incorporate narratives, her videos make me feel like I’m watching the tradition of passing down recipes unfold. She often starts her videos off by mentioning her daughter, such as stating that the recipe is one of her daughter’s favorites. Viewers evidently feel the same: one pinned comment reads, “I feel like … you and your daughter are best friends.”
What implicit story is there about a mother-daughter relationship? This trend emphasizes that food is elemental and a reflection of people’s lives and the world around them. Contrast that against the way food media has typically elided the specific, cultural nature of food in favor of strict professionalism. In fact, one obstacle Singh faced in creating her videos was approaching cooking with a level of precision that she didn’t normally apply in her everyday life. Singh has had to specify exact measurements and cooking times so that her directions are clear to viewers. Yet, she often reassures anxious commenters that the recipes are roadmaps, not prescriptive rules.
“People say … ‘can I skip one thing?’ It’s cooking, of course you can skip one thing. It’s not going to change, right? Who made recipes? You and I thousands of years ago,’” Singh said.
Her perspective echoes what Cathy Erway writes in Grub Street about recipes as “inflexible formulas.” Erway asks, “How many of our immigrant parents use recipes? Not mine.” The rigidly instructional nature of the recipe is a product of what happens when food is not treated like cultural and social expression.
The erasure of non-Western culture comes down to whether or not food is seen as political. Mainstream food media’s approach to food has been to divorce it from cultural context, so as to render it neutral and obscure how whiteness shapes the industry. But the virality of Asian TikTokers is proving what food writers of color have been saying for years: There is an appetite to hear from people outside the realms of institutional power. Additionally, collecting the gastronomic traditions of different cultures in the melting-pot ideology of white corporate media while being resistant to providing visibility to those actual cultures is inherently political.
Since I first discovered this trend during the pandemic, my love for Korean food has deepened. The stories I’ve heard from TikTokers about reclaiming culture, inheriting recipes, and finding your passion have led me to treasure the memories I associate with my favorite foods. When I started college in fall 2021 and had to acclimate to living without Korean food on a regular basis, these videos became a source of comfort (and cooking inspiration). More than anything, they taught me how valuable food is to understanding culture, history, and identity, and how those aspects influence how you interact with the food in front of you, whether you grew up with it or not.
“Information about something only deepens your connection to that thing,” Molinaro said. “It’s not going to make it diluted; it’s going to make it more concentrated.”
Cover image: Vicky Ng/Unsplash
Last modified: August 12, 2022