Dear Green Ginger,
Hello! I just moved to the neighborhood. From Google Maps, I see that you’re an Asian Fusion restaurant, but I’m not sure if that means your menu is a mix of dishes from Thailand, China, and Japan. But it doesn’t really matter.
I have never been to you, but I can guess what you’re like because I’ve seen it on menus of restaurants like you before. Patrons can order a California roll with a side of satay. They can ask for extra Kikkoman on your fried rice, even though it’s already salted. They don’t need to ask the chef to omit the fish sauce in your green curry — it was never there to begin with. And of course, the spicy mayo flows abundantly. Spicy. Fucking. Mayo.
Before I get ahead of myself, I know there are arguments for and against this type of restaurant, this type of food. But I am tired of this conversation.
I’m more interested in the name. Green Ginger. Specifically, the “Ginger” part. Why ginger? Is it supposed to automatically evoke bamboo shoots and chopsticks? Am I an idiot that this wasn’t automatically clear to me, a bamboo-chomping Asian woman myself?
It seems to me, slapping ginger onto a restaurant or food product is an easy way to exoticize it, market, and sell it for a couple of extra bucks. It’s a way to punch up a powdered tea mix and present it as a geisha, with brushstroke lettering as a finishing touch. The price of adding ginger, or ginger flavor, is minimal. But the value of selling a mythologized, pan-Asian experience can be lucrative. Look at Arizona Ice Tea. One of their most popular flavors is the Green Tea with Ginseng (ginger’s fancier cousin). On the bottle, Cherry blossoms frame the words, printed proudly in mao bi-inspired font. AN ASIAN TEA. From Arizona.
One of my teachers actually loved this tea. He taught American History at my high school in Taiwan, a school where the curriculum and classes were American, but the students were Taiwanese. The idea was that if you taught us the history, the accent, and the language, we could pass as native once we moved to the U.S. for college. It’s an experiment still in progress, at least for me.
He spoke at great lengths about his love for this ginger-flavored Arizona Ice Tea. It was baffling, because in Taiwan, we love tea, and we love ginger, and we love ginger tea. I could not understand why this man would miss this mass-produced (canned no less) American tea, when he could walk down the street and buy the finest loose leaf jasmine infused with young ginger — the best in the world.
Perhaps he missed the illusion. Perhaps he missed the story of Asia, as told by America, although he was living in Asia. Maybe he wanted to sip his beloved Arizona and think of Buddhist monks meditating in kimonos, instead of walking the hot, sweaty block to his local tea shop, where a teenager will narrowly miss his foot with a scooter, and the smell of fermenting curiosities sticks like sweat to the street. Maybe to him, ginger is myth and escape while relaxing in a garage with AC colder than a mean auntie’s tit. His American dream of Asia.
To me, ginger means something else. It is the root (and it is a root!) of almost every one of my grandmother’s recipes. Yet, curiously, the word “ginger” is never mentioned in a single one of these dish’s names. Ginger is just a fact. The Shitake Mushroom soup starts with ginger to build its broth. The Clam Soup, mild and near-translucent, is flavored only with ginger. The Three Cup Chicken — in many ways an ode to ginger — doesn’t even include it as one of the “cups.” Unlike with Arizona, Green Ginger, or the plethora of Asian-inspired teas, sauces, and dressings in American grocery stores, ginger is never named. It is experienced in the sharpness of its bite, the spreading of its warmth from your tongue to your throat. It doesn’t need to be named because it is assumed.
Ginger is the flavor of my childhood. It was my first medicine, my first taste of family, when my parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, grandparents, and I all gathered around a table. Ginger touched every corner of that lazy Susan every Sunday. Ginger is the base of the best fermented curiosities. Ginger is subtropical heat and the sting of monsoon rain on your skin. Ginger is personal. Ginger is Asia, but more specifically, my Asia, my hometown, my kitchen, and my recipes. Ginger is memory. Ginger is therapy. Ginger is not green. Ginger doesn’t have to be named, and in this way, the name remains sacred.
I’m not saying you should change your name, I just have a request for you. Tell your corporate parents to quit using the name “Ginger,” especially as code for a mythologized Asia. For your new siblings, maybe they can be named something more honest. Like “Green Spicy Mayo.” I think that has a nice ring.