Netflix’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Takes Food Conversations Beyond Borders
David Chang’s ambitious culinary travelogue, Ugly Delicious is a cross-continent education in food. A meeting place, if you will, between food and cultural identity.
Released on Netflix, Ugly Delicious approaches everything that’s determined about traditional food cultures, and turns it on its head (well, almost). Be it the conventional pizza, American barbeque, or Mexican tacos. There’s nothing sacred in Chang’s world. “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state, it’s something that I think has been overvalued, but the reality is that it hasn’t been scrutinised enough,” he announces in the first episode, ‘Pizza’.
Chang, owner of the Momofuku empire - his Korean-American noodle bar chain, questions the elitism of the food originating from France or Italy. “Why is Korean or Chinese food not counted among world cuisine?” remains his perennial battlecry. Or why is a Chinese fine-dine restaurant not considered a penultimate gourmet experience?
Ugly Delicious zips across continents to give a taste of cross-cultural cuisines with a different topic in each of its eight episodes. A variety of guests including prominent chefs, comedians, actors, and critics add flavour to the food documentary. Along with sampling delicious cuisines, they bust myths and commonly held misconceptions about everything on your plate and how it got there.
But Chang and his long-time collaborator and former The New York Times restaurant critic, Peter Meehan’s food documentary is about more than just exploring great food. The duo has also co-founded food magazine, Lucky Peach, the aesthetics of which have found their way into the show.
Consuming Identity Through Food
Chang gives us a taste of this experience in the fourth episode, Shrimp and Crawfish - where he takes a boat to traditional New Orleans and immigrant-rich Houston - giving us a first-hand view of what resistance and acceptance to new ideas really looks like. Where New Orleans remains steeped in its cultural traditions of how crawfish is “always cooked”, he finds that Houston is more open to better techniques of cooking it. Chang speaks to some of the best chefs of New Orleans on trying better ways to cook crawfish and is met with staunch opposition.“We don’t change something... that hasn’t been done before,” they tell a baffled Chang, whose experimental style defines his Momofuku food chain.
Houston, a diverse and dynamic food city of America with a large Southeast Asian population, tells a different tale. Chefs in the town like to suffuse different cultural cuisines with the traditional, essentially making it ‘immigrant cooking.’ The rise of Viet-Cajun crawfish - a popular dish inspired by the Vietnamese living in town is a good example of migrant and refugee-born food in Houston.
All this talk about Viet-Cajun isn’t for nothing, though. Viet-Cajun cuisine provides a historical perspective on how they met with resistance when they first arrived on the shores in America during the Vietnam War in 1971. Chang leads with the big question when he asks a second-generation Vietnamese living in America if he’s accepting and empathetic of refugees pouring in from the Middle East.
Ugly Delicious lays great emphasis on food as a bridge to - understand, have an honest conversation and embrace - different cultures. It provides an incisive commentary on immigration through the food lens.
Throughout the eight episodes, Ugly Delicious pushes boundaries, challenges traditions, and opens doors to make food more accessible. On his visit to Puebla in Mexico, Meehan traces the history of Greek and Middle Eastern-style shawarma being used in the preparation of Arab tacos and tortillas. On the other side of the world, Korean-American immigrant Roy Choi’s Kogi, has brought ‘street tacos’ to the town of Los Angeles, America.
Chang shares the story of Cristina Martinez, an illegal immigrant who runs the nationally acclaimed Mexican eatery, South Philly Barbacoa in Philadelphia. Meehan meets award-winning chef, Eduardo Lalo García at his restaurant Máximo Bistrot in Mexico. Eduardo spent 27 years in America before getting deported back to his hometown. Now considered to be one of Mexico’s top chefs, he’s known for modernising Mexican food. And guess what? He’s banned for life from America.
Racism in Food
Being Korean-American, Chang also speaks about how the “lens is always white” while viewing Asian food in America and the European nations. The Momofuku chef mentions his own painful experiences as a child where he had to endure bullying because the food in his kitchen would “smell”. Though, Chang tackles many serious issues along the way, his tone remains casual and tongue-in-cheek. But the message always hits home.
Chang sheds light on the history of the association of fried chicken and the African Americans - that fried chicken is a veiled racist remark towards the Black community. Chang dives headfirst into conversations about “coding racism” and its resulting implications in the episode ‘Fried Chicken’.
Is it better to play up the stereotype to your strength, or shift away from it? Once again, Ugly Delicious takes on the big questions.
With food conversations centred around these ideas, Ugly Delicious paves the way for a constructive dialogue surrounding food, culture and identity.
Aside: Chang gives many pro-tips to ensure first-timers can get a wholesome experience when trying new cuisines. In the ‘Fried Rice’ episode, for instance, which focuses on Chinese dishes besides fried rice, Chang says that the more curt the service is in a Chinese restaurant, the more authentic the cuisine is going to be. There’s ALWAYS a secret menu. If the Chinese restaurant is packed with Chinese folks, then you’ve definitely picked the right places. In the ‘Tacos’ episode, Chang says find a place where you do not understand some of the items on the menu to eat Mexican food.