One Friday night at a bar in San Francisco, I took a look at the menu and found myself face to face once again with the curious modern-day ubiquity of the Asian salad. The “Asian Emperor Salad,” with its “31 ingredients representing the tastes, textures and flavors of Asia,” stirred something other than hunger in me.
I tried to identify exactly what that was. I made a halfhearted joke to my husband about just which Asian emperor this salad was honoring. I thought about its grand imprecision, which irritated me as a Chinese-American. And I wondered, who cooked up this thing?
I was reasonably sure it wasn’t anyone Asian, but I did some investigating to find out.
In many American restaurants, the Asian salad is right up there next to the Greek salad and the Caesar salad. You might think this is progress — cultural inclusion on a menu. And yet the Asian salad is often the one that comes with a winky, jokey name: Oriental Chop Chop. Mr. Mao’s. Secret Asian Man. Asian Emperor. China Island. Chicken Asian Chop Chop. Chinese-y Chicken.
In the weird cultural geography of the casual-restaurant menu, half-century-old jokes about Asians and long-discarded terminology jostle up against chicken tenders and nacho plates.
The persistence of these names — let’s at least call them “questionable” — on the American restaurant menu underscores how non-Asian-Americans have been making up their own version of Asianness for a long time now. While the Greek salad has some integrity — by this I mean that in Greece you will actually find a salad that looks like this — and the Caesar is a creation attributed to the 1920s-era restaurateur Caesar Cardini, the Asian salad stands apart as a strange kind of fiction.
As early as 1906, top New York restaurants were serving something called “Oriental salad” for 80 cents a pop, but it wasn’t clear what distinguished it. As this newspaper observed that same year: “You could save on the salad. Oriental, Russian and mixed salads are nearly all the same thing.” Recipes for “Chinese chicken salad” started appearing in American newspapers in the ’30s, but their components ranged far and wide, from mayonnaise and gelatin to pineapple chunks and celery and, in one case, French dressing.
At the time, it seemed that “Chinese” was merely a synonym for “new” or “different.” The tie to Chinese cuisine was already weak, since people in China did not generally eat uncooked vegetables; more common were cold chicken dishes with the vegetables blanched or stir-fried. In 1960s America, with the lifting of the cap on immigration from Asia, dressings using actual ingredients from Chinese cooking — sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger — entered the rotation. Chinese chicken salad grew popular. Pretty soon there were competing claims of origin.
By the ’80s, “Asian fusion” was the name applied to what high-minded chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Roy Yamaguchi and Jean-Georges Vongerichten were doing with the marriage of traditional Asian and French ingredients. Mr. Puck’s restaurant Chinois on Main, in Santa Monica, Calif., was credited with pioneering fusion cuisine in the United States. One of his most popular dishes is the Chinois chicken salad: it features a sesame-soy-mustard vinaigrette, Napa cabbage, romaine lettuce and shredded roast chicken.
Mr. Puck himself resisted reductive terms for his cooking — “It’s not as simple as adding ginger and soy sauce — and voilà, Asian fusion,” he told The Huffington Post — but that is, in fact, what happened. When the Asian salad fad exploded, something that was cooked up by non-Asians became, well, “Asian” in the popular imagination. A single Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest Cafe or Applebee’s could sell 500 Asian salads a week. Each chain punched up the name to seem foreign yet familiar.
So what’s my problem with Asian salad? It’s not the salad itself, though it’s not my favorite. It’s the words — which, I think, matter. In many ways, the broad, generic terminology used to refer to an entire continent is the heart of it. Applebee’s menu features an “Oriental chicken salad” with the following description: “fresh Asian greens tossed in a tasty Oriental vinaigrette.” The “Asian greens” and “Oriental vinaigrette” are so laughably vague as to have no meaning at all. When I asked Applebee’s for more specifics on what made its Asian greens Asian and its Oriental vinaigrette Oriental, a spokesman told me the company was unable to “provide a thorough response.” No kidding.
Am I taking this too seriously? The casual racism of the Asian salad stems from the idea of the exotic — who is and isn’t American is caught up wholesale in its creation. This use of “Oriental” and “Asian” is rooted in the wide-ranging, “all look same” stereotypes of Asian culture that most people don’t really perceive as being racist. It creates a kind of blind spot.
And what I’ve come to understand is that the salad names are where that blind spot reveals itself. Even as the actual cuisines of Asia influence and sometimes appear to dominate American food culture — David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, Roy Choi’s Kogi barbecue-fueled empire, ramen joints and izakaya and Mission Chinese Food by Danny Bowien — these stereotypes persist and control a lot of what’s on the menu in Middle America.
In the ecosystem of the American restaurant menu, the dish checks a box for geographic and flavor diversity outside what company marketers understand to be the norm for their customers. To a white audience, it reads as diverse. To actual Asian-Americans, it reads as ridiculous. The blindness to this reality, I emphasize, is not restricted to the Asian salad (see Applebee’s “Fiesta lime chicken,” served with “Mexi-ranch” dressing).
When I see an Oriental Chop Chop or a Secret Asian Man, I feel … weary. Because the language of the Asian salad is revealing of the dangers of bland, disembodied generalization: When you fail to see countries and cultures as discrete entities, what kind of consideration could you be expected to give to individual people?
As for the dish itself — whether it’s called Asian, Chinese or Oriental — well, it’s acquired a life of its own, apart from actual Asians. The other day I tried a version of a “Chinese chicken salad” made by Wise Sons, a Jewish deli in San Francisco. The owners, Evan Bloom, Leo Beckerman and Mr. Bloom’s brother Ari, are three guys from Southern California who grew up eating Chinese chicken salad just about everywhere. Mr. Bloom’s early exposure to it? Wolfgang Puck.
The salad has become a nostalgia trip for a whole generation of Jewish deli-goers. Mr. Bloom says that the recipe came from nowhere in particular. Sesame oil, soy sauce, mayo, sugar, sesame seeds; Napa cabbage, red cabbage, frisée, red onions, shredded carrots, thin sliced celery, chopped sushi ginger, orange segments, fried wonton skins, a little cilantro. It’s a riff on an idea, what Mr. Bloom himself tells me is “that sweet Asiany flavor that is a familiar taste to a lot of people, from Benihana or a Chinese restaurant — it’s been around for 30 years.”
I find something bittersweet in this nostalgia for a fake fusion cuisine. Something created in the name of Asians by non-Asians has become a touchstone for non-Asians. I understand that it’s possible to feel fondness for a dish that is deeply inauthentic and I don’t resent that one bit. It has become its own thing. Just don’t call it Mr. Mao’s Chicken Surprise.