Chef and Tiktok star Jonathan Kung on creating identity through third culture cuisine
Jonathan Kung is a Detroit chef and TikTok personality known for his food and cooking videos. Before the pandemic, Kung ran an underground kitchen in Detroit’s Eastern Market. Kung describes himself as a “third culture cook” – referring to the space in between where different cultures meet and, through cooking, create a new identity. Kung is currently working on her first cookbook with Clarkson Potter.
“Third culture cuisine” is a term I thought related to the term “third culture kid” – also known as global nomads. A third culture child is someone who has an established culture at home – the culture of their parents, the culture of their family, the places they live – but who is then alienated from it in their larger world, in the sense that his house may belong to one culture, but the country in which that house resides is completely different.
For example, all Americans of Chinese, Mexican or Nigerian descent are certainly American children, but it can get more complicated than that. There’s this separation, where you never fully fit into one place, which isn’t necessarily bad. People like us, for example, have a greater capacity for empathy because we are so used to different forms of communication.
If you grew up in a household where a parent often cooked the food of their heritage culture, you will understand the tastes, flavors and ingredients even though you may not be able to read the label on the jar. But you might be able to recognize the jar. And if you’ve ever been to an ethnic grocery store, say 15 years later, and you see this jar, and you’re like, “I don’t know what this is, but this was my house before.
I was raised in Toronto as a Canadian, and eventually moved back to Hong Kong during high school. I went from a place where people didn’t look like me to a place where almost everyone looked like me, but at the time, I didn’t identify with them. I still had a missing piece, a strangeness. That’s not to say my experience in Hong Kong was bad – it was amazing. But I didn’t feel like I was part of a place where my home was, wherever I lived. And so those are really pretty typical common feelings that third culture kids have.
Thus, third culture cuisine is like an informed fusion of cuisine. I don’t like the term ‘fusion’ too much because it got a bit smeared with food coming out of the 90s. Third culture cuisine is more informed and nuanced because it comes from someone with a deep understanding of two types of cuisine that this person is trying to combine. I think the most exciting type of cuisine comes from very diverse countries, like the United States and Canada, where people are interested in cultural exchange.
When the United States was going through its own kind of culinary renaissance with gastropubs and neo-American restaurants, it was mostly run by white men. What they were doing was choosing from surface-level interesting things from various sources inside the country. When I was younger, and everything that was going on, it triggered certain emotions in me – protectionist, guardian feelings that I felt strongly. Then later, as I matured as a cook, I realized that what I should have done didn’t stop them from doing what they or they were doing. I should have been Do what they were doing and then using my base in Chinese cooking as my own complement.
Participating in the diversity of the American culinary landscape is not something that only white people should have access to. Every cook in every culture in this country should have access to it. That’s why I wanted to show these intercultural dishes that I was making, but at the same time share my vision so that other people who have their own cultures, and who have similar stories to mine, use it as base with their own cultural dishes – as a starting point to try something different. Third culture cuisine simply requires someone to look for connections between different people. That’s what makes it a lot of fun and that’s what makes it kind of familiar.
I came to this conclusion following a creative identity crisis. I have often returned to Hong Kong for a while and seen what it is like to cook Chinese food there. I learned that my perception of Chinese food – traditional Chinese food, banquet food and stuff like that, which I taught myself – was not what Chinese food meant there. I was learning such old fashioned and old-fashioned things, and people there were doing much more interesting things, but still staying in the realm of traditional Cantonese food.
I was a bit embarrassed by my idea of myself as a Chinese cook versus reality. I had to learn a bit about the culinary history of Chinese cuisine in America to realize that I was the one trying to chase authenticity and traditionalism. It was never going to happen from here to Detroit because I wasn’t willing to go back to Hong Kong to learn about it. So what can I do here, or who can I learn from here that would set me apart from people there?
I wasn’t really interested in learning from great restaurants. I was more interested in learning from people who, even if they don’t look, talk or cook like me, have a similar experience to mine. Having that feeling of that connection is a good place to start. I set out to learn and integrate often stigmatized cultural dishes because I feel like cooking with empathy is like the difference between cooking for yourself and cooking and serving others.
From there, I started looking for similarities between the kitchens. I would just look at the more subtle things, like Chinese zongzi, which are bamboo leaves wrapped around rice that often has a salted egg yolk in it, and sausages and pork belly, and it’s cooked in steam. I noticed how similar these are to tamales. They are both starches that hold steamed things together inside the leaves and husks of other things. So, I would explain zongzi to a Mexican person as “Chinese tamales”.
I started coming up with other combinations based on cultural similarities, instead of just throwing two things together. I was looking for what someone from another culture might recognize. This type of cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. I’m more than happy to show off my skills and creativity as a cook, but I think it’s so much more fun to do things that have the same creativity and diversity base, but in a way that almost anyone can do. You can make pasta with dried noodles in a jar, and you can make frozen dumplings with pesto.
When it comes to my videos talking about culinary appropriation, a lot of people may not realize that my sense of control is probably more liberal than they realize. I’m a bit anti-babysitting for a lot of things. “Cook our food but respect the people” is the message I have been conveying for a few years. I’ve had a lot of duets and stitches on Tiktok from people trying out my ideas. A lot of people were very receptive, saying, “It was pretty obvious. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?
And then there were dismissive comments, like, “Well, that guy just invented ravioli, again.” I was like, “Well, no, no, not really. You don’t really know the nuances of a dumpling versus a dumpling. The fact that I’m still seeing new comments on these videos to this day means people are still talking about it.
It is often within our own communities that we attack. I think one of the reasons this happens is that there’s this underlying guilt of being so different as a child, so ashamed of eating the foods we ate, of having the customs we made. We may have been embarrassed by these things when we were kids, so maybe we avoided them until we realized in our adult lives that these things had value.
So if there was a specific dish our grandmother made for us, and we see someone else – maybe someone who looks like us – cooking it differently, we get super defensive. A person might say, “That’s not how you do it. You are totally inauthentic. You’re not doing it right. That’s not how this dish is made. When in fact, this person is not an expert on food, he is only an expert on his memory. Through that guilt, embarrassment, and shame, they run amok and want to claim what little hold they still have over those truly important memories.
As someone who’s been very active on social media, I see the cycles and patterns of everything, how people jump on these things. It happens year after year, generation after generation. Stories seem to repeat themselves, especially for members of POC communities. I’m not saying it’s a tired story, but we need to harness it into something a little different. This is my personal belief. Embracing diversity from a third culture perspective is about owning what I love. I’m not completely a Hong Kong person. I’m not completely Chinese or Sino-American. What does that mean? What does this mean for me? If I had to cook my identity, what would it look like? By doing this, I take ownership of my identity, and I take ownership of my narrative and creative output accordingly.
Many people who are the most outspoken stewards of food barely know how to cook. What are they keeping? I don’t diminish people’s pain. I just wonder if the way they deal with that pain is probably the most effective way to do it. Therapy can also be delicious.