“Asian Flair”: A Case Study of the Culinary Middlebrow

Darryl Campbell notices a lazy linguistic trend propagated by Food Network hosts, dieting experts, and Coolio.

bowlBehold Rachael Ray’s version of lo mein: spaghetti noodles, chicken breasts, pork chops, eggs, assorted vegetables, ginger, garlic, coriander, covered in a sauce made from three tablespoons each of hot sauce, hoisin, and tamari—you know, to give it a certain je ne sais quoi that usually goes by the name “Asian flair.”

The term “Asian flair” first appeared in the mid-nineties, in lifestyle magazines like Vegetarian Times and Los Angeles Magazine, but it took the current crop of Food Network celebrity chefs to elevate it into a culinary catchphrase. In a typical day of programming, viewers might see Rachael Ray prepare a “a speedy meal with Asian flair” (yum-o!) or Robin Miller serve up something resembling pad thai, complete with tabasco and a bit of fish sauce to give it some you-know-what. Fans can buy Barefoot Contessa-branded Indonesian ginger marinade (“Add fresh Asian flair to chicken, pasta, fish, and vegetables”) or Bobby Flay’s cookbook Burgers, Fries, and Shakes, in which he provides a recipe for Chinese five spice powder (helpfully re-dubbed “Asian seasoning”) so that grill aficionados can flair up their fries, potato chips, or onion rings. From ingredients that might be completely alien to the average American palate (lemongrass, taro, nam pla) to ones that are probably in any well-stocked pantry (ginger, garlic, lime) — all fall under Asian flair’s ever-expanding lexical umbrella.

As the Food Network goes, so goes the cooking public. Some commenters on the Food Network website, for instance, praise recipes like Tyler Florence’s duck with roasted pears or Paula Deen’s Asian chicken salad for their adequate flair-ness. Occasionally, however, even these domestic divas get hoisted on their own petard. One Susie from Crown Point, Indiana, for example, declares that Sandra Lee’s wonton soup recipe “is not even remotely close to having any Asian flair.”

On the other hand, professional restaurant critics, who have been singing the praises of Asian and Asian fusion restaurants for decades now, seem to consider the phrase déclassé. The New York Times’s Frank Bruni never once remarked about the flair quotient of any of his meals; his predecessor William Grimes did only once. Pat Bruno, of the Chicago Sun-Times, used the phrase twice in the last ten years, and the former Boston Globe restaurant critic Alison Arnett used it a whopping four times in her fifteen-year tenure, a record among major American newspaper critics. A typical Zagat guide, in comparison, will use the phrase three or four times each issue.

It’s the same with cookbook writers. “Asian flair” is featured prominently in general-purpose books like The South Beach Diet, The New American Heart Association Cookbook, and Cookin’ with Coolio, but the only Asian chefs who use it are explicitly on a mission to bring their cuisine to the wary home cook — for example, Annie Wong and Jeffrey Yarborough, co-authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Asian Cooking, or Corinne Trang, author of The Asian Grill and Noodles Every Day, whom The Washington Post called the “Julia Child of Asian Cuisine.”

Still, there are only so many times that one can hear a white, middle-aged host talk about “Asian flair” (or refer to hoisin as “Asian barbecue sauce”) before wondering whether the home-cooking industry has become a bit, well, culturally tone-deaf; as Andrea Nguyen, blogger at Viet World Kitchen and author of the cookbook Asian Dumplings, writes, “We don’t all look and cook the same.” Yet there doesn’t seem to be any room on for-profit television networks for chefs to try to encourage home cooks to make the kind of food that one might find in Chiang Mai, Manila, or Hong Kong rather than the food court at the local mall; public television seems to be the main refuge for the next generation of Martin Yans and Ming Tsais. Conversely, the Food Network’s only Asian chef, Masaharu Morimoto, is not quite franchise-ready: his reputation rests mostly on his culinary ability rather than his television presence (unlike, say, Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri), and he has no show of his own and no big endorsement deals (only one cookbook, no knives, no pots and pans, no eponymous “garbage bowls”). In fact, given his heavy accent — he’s usually subtitled when he appears on Iron Chef or other Food Network programs — he might be a little too Asian for prime time. (Meanwhile, Brian Boitano has his own show?!)

A friend of mine (who hails from America’s garlic capital, and who consequently knows a thing or two about food) pointed out, quite rightly, that the whole idea of “Asian flair” is meant exclusively for the teeming masses rather than culinary cognoscenti. After all, the Rachael Rays of the world aren’t trying to please professional chefs, upscale restaurant owners, and Chinese grandmothers — their base consists of home cooks with the right equipment and a well-stocked pantry, but a limited sense of adventure.

So the routine appearance of coconut milk, whole cardamom pods, and hoisin sauce (as long as it isn’t called “Asian barbecue sauce”) in the arsenals of non-Asian non-chefs like Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri might be a sign that Asian food of all kinds is finally edging its way onto American dinner tables, and not just in a take-out box. Even if the buzzword “Asian flair” teeters a little too close to cultural insensitivity on the one hand and plain old overuse on the other, this is still a big victory for those trying to expand the American palate. After all, only a bare majority of Americans actually cook for themselves anymore, and even then, only if the definition of “cooking” includes ingredient assembly of any kind, like making a cold-cut sandwich. If such mainstream attention is not enough to inspire pilgrimages to New York City just to eat at Momofuku Ko, at least it is prompting some people to buy fish sauce and rice noodles from their local megamart in order to give pad see ew a first, unsteady shot.

Image courtesy of Joe Pitz

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.