Cooking Asian Food at Home

Why don’t more people try their hand at Asian cuisine? It might have something to do with high school French class.

There’s a common stereotype about American cooks—at least, those not of Asian descent—that I hear all time: “Americans will go out for Asian food but they won't cook it at home.”

As a non-Asian guy who writes a lot about Asian food and home cooking, hearing this is a little demoralizing. It makes me feel like Campbell Scott in the movie Singles, when his idea for a Seattle commuter train is callously dismissed by Tom Skerritt.

(This hoary analogy came to mind because as of mid-July, Seattle has a commuter train; it is completely fabulous and there is a taco bus parked at one station. Good work, Campbell.)

I don’t know whether the stereotype is true or not. But it bugs me enough that I started thinking about why people might find cooking Asian food intimidating. It might have something to do with high school French class.

Learning a second language is, at least some of the time, scary and overwhelming. It’s not just the verb conjugations (sorry to dredge up bad memories) or the subject-object-verb ordering or the grammatical particles…it’s all of the above, and then some. Berlitz guide notwithstanding, you can’t have even a rudimentary conversation in another language without drinking from the firehose of knowledge, as anyone who has tried to use their high school French in France knows. (My experience: 90 percent of the time, a shopkeeper recognized my American accent and started talking to me in English; the other 10 percent, they spoke to me in rapidfire French that I could only barely understand. I’m not sure which was more disappointing.)

So when the average non-Asian cook thinks about cooking Asian food, or even a particular national cuisine, it’s easy to think the experience will be all-encompassing and never-ending like learning a language. If you’re talking about “learning to cook Chinese,” it certainly will be fraught with endless new and delicious idioms. But there’s a different way to look at it.

Over the past few years (starting, no doubt, with the birth of my daughter), I’ve become enamored of the unambitious vacation. On the unambitious vacation, you can go to whatever destination you like, but when you get there, you don’t try to do much. You stake out a neighborhood or town and pretend to be a local. Since my favorite thing to do on vacation is walk around, shop in local markets, cook, and eat in restaurants, this fits me perfectly. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that I do not have to hit the top ten tourist destinations, that there are no Vacation Police checking my passport to make sure I went to the Eiffel Tower.

The home cook can approach Asian food (or, of course, any cuisine) the same way. It doesn’t have to be like learning a language; it can be like the unambitious vacation. You don’t have to learn to cook Korean food, which would be a lifelong (and highly rewarding) project. It’s fine if you just want to learn to make great bibimbap and stop there. There’s no Korean food passport. Although there should be.

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