In the opening scenes of “Always Be My Maybe,” Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) makes herself a lonely dinner. But soon, she leaves for her best friend Marcus’s (Randall Park) house, where his mom makes kimchi jjigae, the classic, spicy stew brimming with kimchi, tofu and more. My mouth watered at the sight; it reminded me of all the times my own mom made kimchi jjigae, which was (and still is) the only way she could get me to eat kimchi.
Food is central to the new Netflix rom-com “Always Be My Maybe.” Sasha herself is a chef, but even then, food is a way for characters to reconnect (as Sasha and Marcus do at a Chinese restaurant) or become hyper-aware of their differences (as Sasha and Marcus do at an upscale restaurant that serves questionably pretentious food). Food is more than just what’s set at the table: Food tells a story, shares a history, is a culture.
(Side anecdote about how food is more than just food: before a meal, Koreans say something that roughly translates to a conveyance of gratitude for their meal. When I say this out loud, I sometimes remember that Koreans didn’t always have easy access to food, especially after the Korean War. As my parents told me, there was a shortage of rice after the war, and flour was cheap because Americans sent flour as aid — guess it was the least they could do after splitting the Korean peninsula in two. Koreans started making a ton of noodle dishes to keep their stomachs full like my favorite, kalguksu — if you haven’t seen Netflix’s “Street Food” yet, which features this dish in its “Seoul” episode, then go watch it.)
As I watched “Always Be My Maybe,” I was not only taking in the beauty of Ali Wong and Randall Park excelling at their comedy and being sexy and funny and all the things that might not check the boxes of your stereotypical Asian-American character; I was taking in the food and the conversations around it. There’s a scene toward the second half of the movie where Marcus confronts Sasha about her high-end restaurants and how she caters to rich white people, abandoning the authenticity of Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines.
This is another example of how food is more than just food and how it can often get tangled in identity politics. It made me think of all the times in Washington, D.C. last summer that I walked past fast food fusion Asian places. Growing up, my mom and I drove forty-five minutes on the New Jersey turnpike (a nightmare) to go to the nearest H Mart and to a street in Palisades Park that was dotted with Korean-owned, traditional Korean restaurants on every block. So when I saw fast food fusion Korean places in D.C. catering toward white middle-class Americans, I was surprised and maybe, admittedly, a little annoyed.
Maybe I was annoyed because these places catered to an audience who, in my experience moving to a predominantly white neighborhood, only ever turned their noses to exotic foods like mine (I’m that classic Asian-American kid who never brought Korean food to school again after another student made a comment about it). Maybe I was annoyed because these places didn’t show the less glamorous dishes that I ate nearly every single day (Korean food isn’t just nicely plated, colorful bibimbap and sizzling KBBQ) (not that many Americans know the kinds of various meats that go into KBBQ) (it’s not just one type of meat, y’all) (by the way, did you know that we use the bones of meat for our broths?) (talk about exotic and not wasteful!).
Maybe I was annoyed because I (wrongly) assumed that all of these businesses were owned by white people trying to make money off of more “approachable” or “clean” Asian food — the most recent example of which was Lucky Lee’s in New York, whose owner marketed “clean” Chinese food that didn’t make you feel “bloated or icky” (guess she didn’t know, or chose to ignore, the history of Chinese restaurants being called “nuisances” and full of “stench” as part of anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 1800s — hello, Chinese Exclusion Act! — and early 1900s). Another golden example: remember when The New York Times “discovered” boba?
But I soon found out that some of these chains were Asian-American owned, and I felt slightly embarrassed by my original thoughts but also felt better about these places — though this opened up a new set of questions. Were these owners abandoning authenticity and caving to the average white American’s palette (as Marcus accuses Sasha of doing)? Or was it more complicated than that?
As I contemplated this question, I thought of my mom’s budae jjigae, which includes American cheese. You can’t get more American than American cheese, and it wasn’t like it suddenly turned my mom’s dish into an inauthentically Korean one (who draws the line, anyways?). I certainly felt Korean while eating her budae jjigae. Besides, cultures — and foods — change all the time.
It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be either you’re authentic, or you’re not. As this Refinery29 article shows, Asian-American fusion food is more nuanced than meets the eye. Asian-American chefs who grew up in America ate traditional foods from both their heritage and classic American dishes; Priya Krishna, a Bon Appetit contributor, would eat her mother’s roti pizza, saag paneer with feta cheese and dahi toast with sourdough bread. Her family had to make do with the grocery stores available to them (we can’t all have an Asian food market near us!) to bring to the table their favorite Indian foods.
“Always Be My Maybe” is part of this conversation around food, and authenticity and identity. While Marcus is initially angry at Sasha for her restaurant’s inauthentic menu, he’s awed by the place when he visits for the first time. And though Sasha’s first two restaurants serve less traditional Asian food, the third restaurant she opens at the end of the movie is an homage to Marcus and his late mother, the center of which is his mother’s exact kimchi jjigae recipe. Sasha can move between all three restaurants, serving both “authentic” and “inauthentic” food. She’s not stuck in some binary — she’s all her own.