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How kids of immigrants made Asian food the most popular cuisines on social media

While Asian cuisines were once deemed unappetizing or exotic, experts say the children of Asian immigrants have fueled a cultural shift in how the foods of their heritage are perceived.
Drawn illustration of a hand holding a phone, showing people eating a Korean corndog, naan dipped into dal, and takoyaki.
Sunny Wu for NBC News

Scroll through anyone’s social media these days, and it’s likely you’ll see a 15-second video of a crispy, flaky roti bite, or a shot of a cheese-pull from a ramen-encrusted Korean corn dog. 

The nearly ubiquitous appearance of Asian cuisines across social media confirms a growing obsession with the foods across the U.S. — a far cry from the days when Asian dishes were deemed either cheap and unappetizing, or too foreign and exotic. 

Research by the blog The Picky Eater found that the foods most commonly posted on Instagram in 2023 were — after Italian in first place — Japanese, Indian and Korean, based on hashtags. In fact, eight of the top 10 most popular cuisines on the platform were from Asian cultures. Other analysis of Google trends by grilling website FoodFireFriends shows Chinese, Thai, Indian and Korean food among the top five most searched cuisines in the U.S. 

It’s a significant cultural shift that scholars and content creators say is heavily fueled by the children of Asian immigrants, particularly Asian American professionals, who have used their language, resources, access to technology and pride in their identities to change the way the foods of their heritage are perceived. 

“This in some ways is breaking out of Eurocentric judgment … and not being apologetic about it,” Krishnendu Ray, director of the food studies Ph.D. program at NYU, told NBC News. “We are just on the leading edge of saying, ‘Our food is great and beautiful and tastes great. You guys have to figure out how to appreciate it, just like we have figured out how to appreciate wine and stinky cheese.’”

Ray, who examined Zagat, Michelin and other food trend data going back to around 1986, said that Japanese food  indeed climbed steeply in both price and popularity, hitting its “peak” in 2000. It was followed later on by Korean food. Other cuisines like Chinese, which have long been a staple of the American fast-food scene, progressively became more complex and diverse, with more restaurants specializing in regional dishes. Simultaneously, Eurocentric tastes are becoming less popular, Ray said. 

But it’s taken a long time to get here. Notions of food and prestige in Western culture have long been colored by Europe’s history of colonization, Ray said. Prior to 1800, spices, for example, had been considered ingredients that were highly valued, only obtained from exotic, highly developed, far-away lands. But a palpable change began to occur at the turn of the century due to European colonization. 

“In Europe, they developed this idea that spicy food is inferior food, poor people’s food, not very sophisticated,” Ray explained. “They said, ‘OK, we have colonized them so they are inferior, so we don’t like their taste.’”

Technology, however, has marked the “democratization” of conversations around cuisine and taste, something that had long been typically reserved for white, male food critics, Ray said. Unlike many of the earlier generations, second-generation Asian Americans, many of whom were upwardly mobile, were able to educate their peers in English and “say what they want to say without gatekeepers,” Ray said. 

“People are eating much more interesting, complex Asian foods and have a vocabulary now to talk about it,” Ray said.

Asian Americans, from content creators to casual social media users, have responded by recreating homestyle recipes handed down through generations and making videos showcasing a diversity of restaurants that have often been neglected by so-called prestigious lists and publications. 

While so-called “food porn” content, which focuses solely on the aesthetic of the cuisines, is still prevalent across social media, Justin Wu, a Taiwanese American creator who runs the Instagram account @hungryartistny, says many Asian Americans have also been using their platforms to spotlight the chefs and small business owners behind many of the mom-and-pop, immigrant-run restaurants and humanize those, keeping their cultures alive. Oftentimes, Wu said he finds that these kitchens exist to cater to immigrant diaspora populations who long for a familiar taste of home. 

“Whoever the chef might be, or the ownership, or the staff, they’re focused on not only making a living but providing great food that’s made with love,” Wu, whose account has amassed 99,000 followers in over two years, said.

These posts that often showcase the laborious cooking process, Wu said, have complicated our ideas of beauty and value. Foods that were not necessarily thought of as beautiful in the past, like Indian stews and sauces, for example, are being considered in new ways. 

“Food is a really pure form of art because you can actually taste it and smell it. You can’t do that with a painting. A chef will put it together kind of like an alchemist,” Wu said. “With Indian cooking, they layer flavors every step of the way. … I think people are starting to, on the whole, understand why it’s significant to be sharing these things.”

Ray similarly noted that the children of immigrants, in addition to the rise of Asian countries as global powers, have helped collapse the Eurocentric idea that “beautiful things are only beautiful to look at.” Smell, taste and texture, Ray added, matter much more across Asian cultures, and the emphasis on these elements has forced others to “reevaluate aesthetic standards.” 

Johnny Baesa, whose Instagram account @Johnnyeatsnyc has more than 134,000 followers, said that there’s a lot of pride in showcasing foods and the cooking methods behind them just the way they are. 

“It’s almost like, ‘Enough is enough of hiding it.’” Baesa said. “We shouldn’t have to hide it. We shouldn’t have to Americanize what my culture is all about.”

Asian Americans aren’t only opening up minds to new foods, but they’re also “opening up non-Asian minds to Asian experiences,” Ray said, and changing stereotypical perceptions of Asians themselves.

“Our judgment about people is not all flat and equal. There is still a hierarchy, and elite white opinions matter. But they matter a lot less than they mattered before,” he added. “Elite whites are also changing their mind, given the education from, in some ways, professional Asian classes.”

That’s not to say that there’s no hostility toward Asian Americans. And some may interpret the emergence of Asian American culture as threatening, Ray said. But the discussions around these topics are important for growth and Baesa noted that there’s still far more in the food space and beyond to tackle. 

“I think the mainstream media, even talking about America in general, when you say the word ‘Asian,’ I feel like what pops into your mind is the more popular ones — Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai food,” Baesa said. “There’s so many more different countries that are underrepresented. And I think that there’s so much more room for growth.”