Walk through lower Manhattan’s Hester Street in New York City, through a collection of city blocks that combine small Chinese bakeries with quaint new cafes, and among the mix stands Fung Tu, with glass doors that look in on the sleek tables and rustic décor reminiscent of New American gastropubs next door on the Lower East Side.
Nestled in its little spot, the restaurant provides a gateway to more modern times, perhaps giving a glimpse into the future of New York Chinatown’s many little eating parlors.
This evolution of culture defines director Grace Lee’s “Off the Menu: Asian America,” which premieres nationally on PBS on Dec. 8, tells the stories of Asian-American communities through food, including cuisines whose traditions are still relatively unknown to many. In a cross-country journey from Texas to Hawaii, Lee examines the ever-changing nature of food and the evolving stories that illustrate Asian-American identity.
With so many communities and experiences at stake, the question of how to represent all of “Asian America” led Lee to reflect on authenticity. But the concept of authenticity can also lead to a divisive question: how is someone or something “Asian enough,” yet “American enough” to be part of the Asian American community?
“Raising these questions was important because it asks people, what do these labels mean?” Lee told NBC News. “An ‘authenticity of spirit’ matters here because it talks about the experiences of Asian Americans and how their own personal interactions with their culture shapes [identity].”
This “authenticity of spirit” launched the creation of Fung Tu in Manhattan’s Chinatown by Jonathan Wu and Wilson Tang, who are featured in “Off the Menu.” Fung Tu relies not on the popular fusion dishes springing up in many locations around the U.S., but extends way back to the Wu’s and Tang’s own childhood and their own personal experiences with Asian cuisine.
“The way that I delved into [designing the dishes] was to talk to my mom and ask her about the food, to the dishes that she made,” Wu told NBC News. “It was remembering the dishes that my mom made and trying to reverse engineer them in a way, and also interpret them in my own style.”
But these same stories also call on memories and traditions, many of which were from way before the current generation’s birth. “I was talking to a older relative who grew up in Shanghai pre-Cultural Revolution and I asked him about the foods of their childhood. [He] described black, smoked dates stuffed with red bean paste, coated in egg whites and fried,” Wu said. “So there’s a familiar narrative, there’s also a cultural context [that] speaks to the Cultural Revolution. There’s this very traumatic event, the eradication of culture and it was across the board, whether in the arts or the culinary, that huge migration of cooking talent to Taiwan.”
Lee also highlights the story of how food brought about hope and healing for a Sikh community in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Lee’s trip to Oak Creek for “Off The Menu” revisits the site of a deadly 2012 shooting at a Sikh gurdwara where six people lost their lives when a gunman attacked the temple as the community was preparing langar, a traditional Sikh communal meal prepared for the enjoyment of everyone at the temple regardless of their background.