Despite the fact that HBO Max gave her a show about food, Lisa Ling never really learned how to cook. “Grandma never taught us,” she reflects during episode two of Take Out With Lisa Ling, sitting in the Chinese restaurant once owned by her grandparents in Northern California. “She didn’t want us to have to work in a restaurant.” Now, 30 years into a successful career as an investigative journalist, debuting a docuseries that explores Asian American culinary histories feels like both a tribute to her grandparents’ legacy and an exploration of shame — specifically, the shame they felt about restaurant work and that she felt about her identity growing up — especially as she looks at the complex dynamics in Asian diasporas around food, tradition, and class.
In this six-part series, Ling unearths some of the buried stories of Asian America and retells them plate by plate. The premiere episode starts with the continent’s first Asian settlement (Filipinos, who basically invented the shrimp industry in the bayous of Louisiana), and the season wraps with an episode called “Korean American Dream” (including a trip to H Mart with Michelle Zauner, author of Crying in H Mart). Throughout the series, Ling uses moments like a community seafood boil, a glimpse into a chef’s kitchen, and an intimate family dinner to have tender conversations about immigration, labor, and the preservation (and often reimagination) of culture.
The Cut spoke with Ling about the emotional weight one food dish can hold and how Take Out is her professional peak.
Why did you choose food as the avenue to tell stories about Asian American histories?
There is no better connector to culture than food. This series was a very personal project for me because my own family’s story here in the U.S. begins in a restaurant, and restaurants have become the pathway for so many Asian immigrants. So following these journeys of different Asian American communities has allowed me to share the parallels between what my family experienced and what so many Asians in this country have experienced. Food felt like an obvious point of entry to tell these buried histories of Asian America.
You dig into your own family history and how each generation before you helped to lay the foundation for your career. What was the experience like as a journalist, shifting the focus toward your own personal history?
I’ve spent more than 30 years working as a broadcast journalist, and I think I’ve gotten fairly decent at sharing other people’s stories. This show was a unique journey for me into my own family’s heritage — especially in light of the violence that has been happening over the past couple of years against Asian American communities in this country. So I really encourage other Asian Americans to do the same thing, because we come from a culture that is not the most communicative and asks us to keep our heads down for the most part. But after really exploring my family’s roots, and also the roots of the Chinese in my hometown of Sacramento, for the first time in almost 50 years, I’ve felt really connected to my Chinese American identity.
Since Asian American history isn’t really taught in school, it’s easy for us to feel like we don’t entirely belong. When there’s no inclusion of our experiences or our contribution to a country, it becomes easy to overlook and even dehumanize an entire population. So I think the past couple of years have been this real reckoning for Asian Americans, and it’s really challenged us to know our stories, know our histories, and to try and communicate them to a wider American audience.
What is one food dish that holds emotional significance for you — and what do you associate with it?
When I eat Chinese fried rice, which is more of an American dish than a Chinese one, I think about how my grandmother loved to make it for us. She wouldn’t cook a lot of the food for us that she served in the restaurant, because the restaurant food really catered toward a non-Chinese palate, a more Americanized palate. But she did cook the fried rice, and I loved it, but I carried a lot of shame about Chinese food as a little girl. Now, when I have the opportunity to have Chinese fried rice, not only do I think about my grandmother, I think about the sacrifices that she and my grandfather made. They were very educated people when they emigrated to the United States, but were not able to work in the professional world because they were Chinese. And eventually they scraped together enough money to open a Chinese restaurant, even though neither of them really cooked at the time. So when I have Chinese fried rice, I feel a different kind of shame now that I ever felt shame about this food and my identity growing up.
What’s the best food writing or media that you’ve consumed lately?
I really appreciate what Eric Kim writes for the New York Times. He’s always in search of new and exciting flavors and combining so many different tastes together. And Anthony Bourdain — may he rest in peace — he really connected us to the world through food. His body of work will always stay with me, so I’m forever appreciative of that.
How do you mentally prepare for sharing a big project with the world — especially one that’s so personal and emotional?
You just pray really hard that the universe will receive it well! I’m someone who grew up with a lot of shame around being Asian — and even grew up with a lot of shame around Asian food — so this opportunity to tell Asian American stories is one I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would ever get. As you can imagine, there’s always trepidation that comes along with that: Do people really want to know these stories? But there’s one thing that’s undeniable, which is that Asian restaurants are ubiquitous in America. There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Pizza Huts combined. And these days, you’ll find Vietnamese restaurants, Thai restaurants, maybe even Laotian restaurants in your small hometown. So if you really love the food of Asian America, hopefully you’ll take the time to learn the stories of the people behind it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.