The first Japanese immigrants who set foot in Los Angeles came to the city in the 1890s, and numbered over a hundred thousand. Right out the gate, these newly minted Americans had to figure out how their side of the East could take root in the West. How does one properly settle in this strange, new land full of both promise and anti-Asian sentiment? These immigrants needed to foster a sense of community while being able to comfortably trade with each other. So they set up a row of business and restaurants that came to be known as Little Tokyo.
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John Nishio, descendant of one of the first Japanese immigrants of LA, grew up in Little Tokyo. That space was where he could root himself in the culture of his ancestors, most especially through food. But time passed. And the restaurants he grew to love ended up closing down. Nishio is no chef, no restaurateur. But the story he shares with Gary Takle, host of the show United Plates of America, is that he spent hours in the kitchen trying to recreate the dishes he grew up eating. He wasn’t just chasing flavor. He was helping a memory find its way home.
This is not the kind of story you usually hear in any cooking show, unfortunately, even though it is the kind of story that needs to be told more. But United Plates of America makes the effort of tracing these narrative paths, the fine threads that weave the greater tapestry of American cooking. In the show, Takle visits a major city of America and uncovers the ways its immigrants (read: the non-whites) influence the culinary landscape of each city. Which is to say: more than we think we know.
UPA goes high and low with its expeditions. It taps a cavalcade of sources, such as professional chefs, tour guides, food bloggers, and even laypeople like Nishio, to cover a lot of scholastic ground. Takle approaches each of his subject with openness, well aware that any dish or cooking lesson he’s about to experience is beyond the scope of what he knows.
The show isn’t primarily concerned with subversion though. In an episode about Japanese food, you’re inevitably going to come across the food everybody knows, like sashimi and wagyu. But UPA’s on-the-ground approach, which is trusting the locals to know where it’s at, lets it uncover delicacies that escape the eye of the mainstream. In one episode, Takle goes to San Diego to excavate the hidden gems of Mexican cuisine. After all, the Spaniards of 1542 didn’t step foot on San Diego shores to serve up Taco Bell quesadillas. UPA gives you the real good stuff, like blood orange tea mixed with hibiscus.
You can tell the show tries to give love to each city it goes to, when it samples San Diego’s brewery scene by sampling its various craft beers. Each city has its own identity, after all, and UPA makes it its mission to peel off the mask.
UPA seems engineered to appeal to the kind of audience that loves food but doesn’t know a lick of food history. Those who watch this show might be surprised to learn that the robust Cuban culinary scene in Miami, Florida is due to immigrants who fled the Cuban revolution in search of greener pastures. Florida wouldn’t be the same without them, without the community who happens to make the best damn coffee found along the Atlantic coast. That’s not the sort of thing you learn from a Yelp review.
Veering the spotlight away from high end restaurants and toward on-the-ground locals isn’t new. The late Anthony Bourdain championed this grassroots approach to food TV, trusting grandmothers and hole-in-the-wall joints more than Michelin-starred spaces to show him the heart of whatever country he’s navigating.
But Bourdain looked abroad and elsewhere. Takle keeps it squarely in North America, giving the American cooking world a long overdue inward gaze. We all low-key know that American food is obviously more than just bacon and cheeseburgers, but not a lot of people are ready to admit that immigrants and foreigners are the real heart of the west. Imagine the first generation kids, the kids of immigrants, who went to school with their lunches only to be met by white sneers. Only now is food TV waking up to the fact that what they’ve dismissed as strange is actually great, and UPA is keeping pace. Every plate has a story to tell.
United Plates of America is shown every Friday at 10:30pm on ANC, with replays the following Tuesday at 8pm.