Sake, Donuts, Noodles and a CAAMFeast: Celebrating Asian Culture and Cuisine

Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang, still from Wayne Wang's Soul of a Banquet

Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang arrived in San Francisco in 1959 to spend time with her sister, who had just lost her husband to cancer. During her first visit to the city, Chiang secured a lease (impulsively? fatefully?) for some friends who wanted to open a restaurant. When that partnership fell apart, Chiang, with little previous business experience, became an accidental restaurateur. Unable to break her lease and unwilling to lose the $10,000 she had put toward the deposit, she decided to go ahead and open the restaurant in a small location on the north end of Polk Street. After sampling what then passed for Chinese food in the U.S. (chop suey, egg foo young, dishes she had never tasted before in China), Chiang opened The Mandarin to little fanfare in 1961, determined to introduce real Chinese food to the American palate.

Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang, still from Wayne Wang's Soul of a Banquet
Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang, still from Wayne Wang's Soul of a Banquet

After gaining (apparently) well-deserved and hard-earned notoriety, The Mandarin moved to a larger location on Ghirardelli Square, and Chiang began her mission in earnest, adding classes in traditional Chinese cooking to the restaurant’s menu. Alice Waters attended a handful of these lessons and became a lifelong friend, eventually comparing Chiang’s influence to Julia Child’s, who Chiang also schooled in the art of Chinese cuisine. When Waters’ famous Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse celebrated its 40th anniversary a few years back, Chiang paid tribute to their decades-long friendship by preparing a traditional Chinese banquet, which was captured on film by Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Chan Is Missing). That project blossomed into Wang’s Soul of a Banquet documentary celebrating the restaurateur’s life and influence.

Now, with San Francisco so famous for its cuisine, it is almost impossible to imagine what food in the city must have been like back in the day. We will never understand the influence of pioneers like Chiang. We cannot know the world as it was before them, but must be careful to remember their efforts as we enjoy the fruits of their labor.

It is interesting to consider how changes in thinking about food magnify, ripple and ultimately modify the culture. Food is so basic to identity, which is why the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) began its CAAMFeast a couple years back. CAAMFeast celebrates “the ways cultural memory and storytelling are passed down through food.” I thought it intriguing that the Center for Asian American Media was spotlighting chefs instead of filmmakers and asked Debbie Ng, CAAM’s Development and Communications Director about the connection between food and media. Ng replied, “As a cultural institution, we have always told stories about bridging and bonding — and food is a primary vehicle for that.”

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Indeed, the CAAMFeast, a multimedia event honoring 96-year-old Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang, along with internationally renowned chef and entrepreneur George Chen (Betelnut, LongLife Noodle Company) — who started out as a waiter at The Mandarin, by the way — and chef Brandon Jew (Bar Agricole, Mister Jiu’s) for their contributions to Asian American culinary achievement, is a huge celebration that leads directly into CAAMFest, the 34th annual celebration of Asian American film, music and food. The festival is truly a BEAST, with 11 days of film screenings, music events, panel discussions and social gatherings in multiple venues all around the Bay. This post would quickly become unwieldy should I attempt to cover the breadth of CAAMFest’s ambitions (the festival screens 123 films from around 20 countries).

The theme connecting culture and cuisine is on vivid display in the film festival’s presentation of Family Ingredients, an engaging cooking-travelogue-history show exploring the traditions behind popular Hawaiian dishes with celebrity chef Ed Kenney. The two episodes featured in the festival are a sneak peek at a series that has already won an Emmy for its pilot episode and will begin airing in earnest on PBS this July. The first episode begins with Kenney's personal relationship to poi, a staple made from taro root that is often the first solid food Hawaiian children are fed. Kenney reveals the many permutations of poi, visiting a farm that raises heirloom varieties, a community center that celebrates the making of poi as a communal practice, and profiling a couple of chefs engaged in expanding the vocabulary of the dish (poi pie, poi hummus, poi cheese). The second episode begins with pipikaula (salted dried beef) and ends up tracing the history of the paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) back in time to the Bay Area.

A featured documentary, Kampai: For the Love of Sake, follows three sake connoisseurs on a trip through Japanese culture toward a better understanding of the present-day sake industry. Kampai (Japanese of ‘cheers’) is one of those lush, multi-layered journey films — a gorgeously photographed and lovingly constructed portrait of three men and the passion for sake that almost fatefully unites them. How did a young, seemingly aimless engineering student from Cleveland, OH become an international sake evangelist? How did the scion of a sake company go from avoiding the family business to revolutionizing it? How did a rural Brit become one of Japan’s most respected sake makers? These questions get answered over the course of the documentary, but as they do another arises: Do you choose your path or does your path choose you? Meanwhile, how is sake made? We get to see the process in glorious detail. Make a reservation at a local sake spot; you will want to experience the drink's many complexities when this film comes to an end.

Still from Noodle Deli
Still from Noodle Deli

Two shorts, Noodle Deli and Donut Shop offer loving profiles of immigrant entrepreneurs. David Liu’s Noodle Deli documents the process of making Shanxi knife-cut noodles while Temple City, CA noodle shop-owner Jeffrey Zhifeng Yang tells the origin story of one of the world’s oldest noodle-making traditions. In Robert Riutta’s Donut Shop, Sam Ath Eath recounts his youth on a poor Cambodian farm, his struggle to get educated, how he became a doctor and then, after the rise of the Khmer Rouge, how he ended up the owner of a donut shop in the Bay Area. Against the current immigration debates, it is an important reminder that we may never truly understand the struggles that lead people out of their homes and into foreign lands.

The Center for Asian America’s Feast and Fest both celebrate this continuing journey. It is hard to imagine Chinese food today without Cecilia Sun Yun Chiang’s pioneering contributions. In Family Ingredients, chef Ed Kenney says, “The person that prepares the food gives a little of themselves.” CAAM celebrates those contributions in their many forms. Get out and celebrate those who blazed the trails that lead to where we are now and those clearing the way for where we are headed. Kampai!

The 3rd Annual CAAMFeast is presented by One Kearny Club, Saturday, March 5, 2016, 6pm-9pm. For more information visit caamedia.org.

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The 34th Annual CAAMFest runs March 10-20, 2016 at venues across the San Francisco Bay Area. Get your tickets now at caamedia.org.

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