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No, Asian food does not have to be "cheap"

By Kim Pham

“You know this spot can’t be good. Look at how expensive their pho is!"

It's not atypical to hear folks in our community bemoan the rise of “pricey” Asian restaurants. For many, we see cheapness as a signal of “authenticity” - we fondly recall memories of these hole-in-the-walls we grew up eating at, that our parents ran, and where we used to work summers.

Perhaps it has become even a point of pride, an attempt to reclaim a way of eating and dining out that we were initially embarrassed by growing up. 

While it may feel like a reclamation or ownership of our humble roots, claiming that “good Asian food can only be cheap” perpetuates stereotypes and inequality that have long hurt Asian communities and business owners. 

It’s important to understand the origins of the “cheap” Asian restaurant in America, much of which are rooted in racial bias and systematic discrimination. The first Chinese restaurants in the US appeared in the 1860s to cater to the influx of Chinese immigrants building railroads out west. Lacking economic + negotiating power, these laborers were historically paid less, earning an estimated two-thirds of what white workers made. As a result, restaurants popped up to feed these communities cheaply.

Well into the 20th century, the American mainstream perpetuated the stereotype that Chinese cuisine (and as an extension, most Asian cuisines) are low brow, cheap, and arguably even “dirty.” For many, these cuisines are relegated to food courts, middle American strip malls, and cheap takeout/delivery.

This stereotype is slowly being reversed after many years, due to the inventive + tireless work of regional restaurants, chefs, and media showcasing both the quality of ingredients and the highly technical craft employed in many Asian cuisines.

Call it a renaissance, call it a rediscovery, or call it de-colonization - Americans across the nation are opening their eyes to the vast breadth + wonder of Asian cuisines.

Still, many experts argue that the true root of a cuisine’s perception in the American eye is ultimately tied to the country of origins’ economic power. Essentially, the wealthier an immigrant group’s country, the more expensive the cuisine is allowed to be in the American dining ecosystem.

While Italian and Greek cuisines (initially perceived as “ethnic” based on immigration patterns in the late 1880s) have largely transcended this stereotype, most Asian cuisines (aside from Japanese cuisine, which is an interesting case study) remain consistently undervalued in the American mainstream.

As Asian Americans, we only further contribute to this harmful perception by proclaiming that Asian food cannot be anything but cheap or served in a “hole in the wall.” 

This not only economically undervalues Asian food (and thus, Asian stories + cultures in the mainstream), but it also discourages creativity + innovation from mainly POC chefs and restauranteurs who are mercilessly held to this arbitrary standard of “authenticity.”

    Step 1 of unlearning some of these harmful notions is to recognize that Asian food (and therefore, culture) can exist and grow in many ways - outside of this outdated box of “cheap and fast.” In the same way that Asian Americans are breaking the mold across sports, media, and fashion, we are bringing that same innovation into food - and this doesn’t come cheaply.

    As Omsom Tastemaker and chef/owner of Madame Vo Jimmy Ly says, "you would pay $20 for a burger, but you wouldn't pay $16 for a really well made bowl of pho?"

    When we say a dish is “too expensive,” we actively undervalue so much more - we dismiss the sourcing of high-quality ingredients, a long legacy of technique, the cost of labor + rent, etc. There are many variables in the algorithm that culminate in the cost of a dish. 

    Beyond the mere functional components of a dish, there are the larger implications of this "bamboo ceiling" (ugh) in the food world. As a community, it becomes difficult to change the narrative and get 👏🏽 our 👏🏽 coin 👏🏽 if we cannot champion + value our own dishes and cuisines.

    Confining our food to a certain pricepoint sets the tone and signals to folks how they should (or shouldn’t) value Asian food + culture on the mainstream.

    Obviously, this is hugely complex and multi-faceted - from who gets to be considered an authority in a cuisine to how the notion of “authenticity” itself is a loaded notion (if not a burden). (See: Always Be My Maybe and Marcus’s problematic opinions on how Asian food cannot be “elevated.”)

    We’re seeing a new generation of restaurants and chefs challenge, push forward, and re-imagine what it means to eat as an Asian American - and it doesn’t have to look (and be priced) one particular way.

    The richness and depth of Asian American work, cuisine, and culture needs to be reflected in what we're willing to pay.

    This post is based on assumptions the Omsom team has heard time and time again through the journey of starting the brand. We welcome any #foodforthought as we work to better understand, unpack, and work through many of these stereotypes in an unfiltered and personal way.

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