Photo by Alicia Cho for Thrillist
Lisa Ling is a dream dinner guest. The award-winning journalist has carried an insatiable curiosity around the world, as a reporter on First Channel Newsa host of National Geographic Explorerand a special envoy for The Oprah Winfrey Show. She covered everything from the civil war in Afghanistan to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea.
In his latest HBO Max docu-series, Dating Lisa Ling, the storyteller explores the Asian-American culinary communities that have shaped the identity of the United States, ranging from the bayous of Louisiana to the tiny Saigon of Orange County. She tastes everything from Bangladeshi hilsa to hot Cheeto-crusted Japanese musubi, while delving into her own family history as the granddaughter of Chinese restaurateurs.
We caught up with Ling to chat about her new show, changing perceptions of Asian cuisine, and her favorite Night Market memories.
Thrillist: Can you share what it was like to be raised in a restaurant family? How do you think this shaped your curiosity about food?
Lisa Lin: My grandmother learned to cook in a restaurant because when she immigrated to the United States, the restaurant allowed my grandparents to create a semblance of the American dream. Despite the fact that they were both highly educated – my grandfather had an MBA – he couldn’t be hired in finance and neither could she be hired in the professional world.
Restaurants were therefore one of the few ways in which Asians, specifically the Chinese, could have a business. So they opened a Chinese restaurant in the 1950s without knowing how to cook. One day, one of the restaurant’s cooks fell ill. So my grandmother, who worked in the kitchen, sort of supervising him, had to put on the apron and start cooking herself. And she learned to make these foods that appealed to non-Chinese people, like egg foo young and chop suey and so on, but she never cooked those foods at my house.
She cooked much more authentic meals at home, and what I would say about growing up in a restaurant family, especially a Chinese family, is that I never learned to cook. because because for my grandmother, the Chinese restaurant was a means of survival, and she wanted better for me.
Do you think American attitudes towards Asian cuisine are changing for the better?
For me, it’s a no-brainer. Despite the discrimination faced by Asians since their arrival in America, Asian food has managed to transcend this discrimination. I mean, there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Wendy’s combined. And these days, you’ll probably find all kinds of Asian restaurants in even the smallest towns in America. So food is, I think, the best way to understand a culture that has been misunderstood in America for too long.
Now it seems that people are looking for more authentic Chinese dishes, rather than those designed for non-Chinese clientele.
Oh yeah. I mean, the American palette has become so much more evolved. And I think Asian foods and flavors are so much easier to acquire these days, with the proliferation of all the restaurants, the various food parlours, and the ease of access. With all these delivery services, you can now have authentic Asian food delivered to your doorstep. I think all of these things have contributed to the evolution of the American palette and the desire to experience the most authentic types of Asian food, as opposed to the egg foo young and chop suey of the past.
I’d love to hear about some of your own experiences experiencing different Asian dishes on your travels around the world.
Growing up, when I was taken to Asia with my family – I visited Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong – nothing excited me more than going to the night markets. I mean, when I was a kid, it was a late night, first of all, and the night markets were like this social hub. I usually went to Asia in the summer because that was when I was out of school and the days were excruciatingly humid and hot. And so the cities came alive at night when the temperatures cooled down a bit. Taiwan’s night markets, for example, literally stayed open all night and were made up of entire city blocks. And you could get the most exotic things. The socializing, the communal nature, it was all so much fun.
What does “street food” mean to you and what do you think are the misconceptions that are often associated with it?
From an American perspective, I think the perception exists that night markets aren’t clean and you may have to spend the next day next to your toilet bowl. And even though I’ve had some of these experiences after eating street food [laughs], the night markets I have visited in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and even Thailand, have been very, very clean. Things are made on the spot, in the open air, on the market. There is an exciting flavor in every stall.
Is there a food you discovered in a night market that blew your mind?
I remember sitting on these little stools with polystyrene bowls filled with oyster noodles. I remember loving these tomatoes lightly seared and stuffed with dried plum. And there would be, like, three on a stick. So you have this kind of very savory, very sweet, sour and hot flavor. Never far away would be the grilled squid, which was always something I loved as a kid and still love today, and could be smelled a mile away. And, of course, Taiwan’s stinky tofu that no matter where you go to the night market, you can smell. And I like to eat it too [laughs].
Why do you think Asian street food in particular is so conducive to events like night markets? What makes cooking so good “on the go”?
I actually don’t consider them “takeout” because, to me, it’s such a common experience. In Taiwan’s night markets, for example, you can sit in front of the stalls and eat. It’s the overall experience of hanging out all night and having little bits. What’s great about night market food is its bite size. You don’t get those plates full of anything. There are only these small polystyrene bowls or sticks, so you can consume in a plethora of stalls before the evening is over. At the end of the evening, you could have eaten 12 or 13 small dishes.
And there is no formality involved. I mean, it’s just super laid back. With these stools you are literally so close to the ground and it doesn’t matter which side your crotch is on. That’s just the essence of communal, laid-back experiences.
Through your show, have you heard of other night markets in the United States?
I just learned for the first time that of Little Saigon. But when 626 opened here in LA, I couldn’t have been more excited.
Interestingly, we don’t really have a late-night eating culture in the United States, other than, perhaps, the 24-hour diner. Do you think he will make his way here soon?
I think that’s starting to change. There are these pockets, in Las Vegas, San Diego and much of the San Gabriel Valley here in Los Angeles, of these little mall restaurants that are all Asian. I mean, they don’t stay up too late, but there are definitely places you can stop in one mall and visit five or more for different tastes. Wherever there is an 85°C bakery [laughs]there’s usually some kind of small community hanging around.
Do you have any tips for navigating the night markets?
Don’t eat too much before you go and don’t eat too much at someone’s booth. You definitely don’t want to burn yourself out on one thing, because there’s so much to experience. Get ready for your taste buds to have an orgasmic experience all night long, and totally varied to boot.
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