Asian Restaurants

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Asian restaurants have spread far beyond their countries of origin, predominantly, though not exclusively, in the western, developed world. By contrast, in their homelands, there may be, or may have been, no restaurants at all.

How and why did this spread? And why have Asian cuisines become so important when those from elsewhere—S. America, Africa, or Scandinavia—had more limited attractions?

At the root, the beginnings lie in a diaspora. This may be provoked by economic conditions, for instance the expansion of Chinese populations beyond their borders first into SE Asia, then across the Pacific to service the expanding US economy, or further afield because of the presence of Chinese personnel in merchant shipping crews or because Chinese indentured labour was recruited by 19th-century imperial administrations. Or it was the result of a combination of interests, political and economic, the engine of most population movements in the British Empire. Or such movements may be due to political upheavals creating refugees, such as those who found new homes in the USA, Australia, and SE Asia after the unification of Vietnam in 1975. Once established in a host country, an ethnic community opens eating houses for its own use, gradually discovered by the indigenous population. For migrants, catering requires relatively little capital, no qualifications, and a swift return, at the expense of long hours and cheap (often family) labour. Both Chinese and Indian restaurants partially spread through groups of migrants from specific regions, even specific villages. Although migrants were often poor, they were from cultures which had traditions of courtly and everyday cookery. They also had a willingness to adapt traditions to the produce and tastes of a host culture. For customers, the food offers value for money at unsocial hours, often with a take-away option.