Growing up my mom always made a point to tell me that our family lived through our recipes. I can make my wela’s refried beans, and now I can make my mom’s rice, and my wela’s tortilla recipe is like a sacred text my tia holds on to. But when you step back, our food doesn’t just connect us to our family, but also to our communities and the histories that have come before us and that are still impacting everything today. Take Out with Lisa Ling uses Asian-American cuisine to reconstruct histories that have either been erased or untaught throughout the United States.
Over 6 half-hour episodes, Lisa Ling chronicles histories of Asian-American communities that are both distinctly Asian and distinctly American. Episode one focuses on the importance of Filipino immigrants in building Lousiana culture and its seafood industry. Ling brings audiences into a part of Louisiana that is dedicated to preserving its Filipino roots despite parts of it being destroyed by a hurricane. She takes audiences into homes to eat meals and to learn about the roots that don’t often come up when talking about Cajun cuisine and culture.
In episode two, Lisa takes us through an intimate journey of her own family history; the shame she once had in being Chinese-American, and the importance that Chinese restaurants played in giving her community upward mobility. But more importantly, she explains how loving her identity has been a journey. She tells her family’s story and uses it as a doorway to show audiences the pressures from whiteness to shun parts of who you are.
Episode three takes viewers to SoCal’s Little Saigon and chronicles the intergenerational trauma that comes from fleeing war and the American patriotism that thrives in the Vietnamese-American community. Here, Ling showcases the duality of the community—one that is very focused on American pride while at the same time scared of losing their culture and home entirely after being forced from their homeland.
Episode four showcases the importance of the Bangladeshi community in New York City and how assimilation and ignorance has erased their cuisine and identity, and how the current community is fighting proudly to bring it to the forefront. Ignorance caused Bangladeshi restaurant owners to open Indian restaurants over the decades to simply just get by. Ling speaks with people who have had to reduce their identity to something “similar” just to not ruffle feathers and I’m reminded of my Peruvian friend in high school who, for the sake of not having to explain in a majority Mexican-American city that Peruvians were not Mexican, just went along.
Episode five travels to Boyle Heights in LA to look at how the Japanese-American community was essential to building it, and how upward mobility afforded them the opportunity to leave. Additionally, Ling brings viewers through how Japanese and Mexican-American cultures have blended to create something unique.
In episode six, Ling allows us into her life again by showcasing the Korean-American community in DC, where her husband grew up. Here, Ling brings the story full circle by chronically people who have refused to assimilate, and more importantly, the young Korean-Americans who are proud of their culture. But here, looking at the Korean-American community is more of a vehicle to show how millennials and zoomers are feeling pride that Ling didn’t feel when she was young.
With this episode, Ling ends on hope, using the popularity of Korean culture in popular culture now to showcase how things are changing for the next generation of Korean-Americans. But even in this, we get moments that show that anti-Asian racism is still there through the overt moments, through assimilation, and through Americans distilling an entire culture down to its cultural exports, erasing the multitude of diversity in the process.
The entirety of Take Out with Lisa Ling explores identity and history through food. But the series isn’t about cuisine, so much as the act of sharing it with others. It’s about how food culture carries marks from the places it’s been, where it’s going, and how it changes as it finds a new home. Food is a vehicle to teach audiences about histories that many don’t know, including herself.
More importantly, Take Out with Lisa Ling is able to avoid a common documentary flaw in only catering to those not a part of the community being covered. Instead, much of Take Out with Lisa Ling feels like she is speaking to other Asian-Americans and saying “I see you.” And by that way, she highlights the importance of cultures left out of the narrative of American history. The ones that don’t fit into a racial binary. Those that are often overlooked when we talk about how our nation was built.
Finishing Take Out with Lisa Ling left me thinking of my favorite fusion restaurants, the Korean-Mexican BBQ restaurant downtown, the brisket tamales we order every Christmas, and the hot cheeto chicken strips served in my home city. It made me look for the connections and the histories in my own food hold and for that I’m thankful.
Take Out with Lisa Ling is available now on HBO Max.
The Take Out with Lisa Ling
The Take Out with Lisa Ling is able to avoid a common documentary flaw in only catering to those not apart of the community being covered. Instead, much of The Take Out with Lisa Ling feels like she speaking to other Asian-Americans and saying “I see you.” And by that way, she highlights the importance of cultures left out of the narrative of American history.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.