Kimchi stew, Spam and rice: Netflix film 'Always Be My Maybe' celebrates Asian cuisine in American life

Key Points
  • The Netflix film "Always Be My Maybe" celebrates the growing hunger for Asian food in the U.S. and an excitement for new flavors.
  • "I think nowadays, people are definitely open to trying everything a lot more than they used to be just because of the exposure," said Niki Nakayama, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred n/naka, who worked as a food consultant for the film.
  • In terms of rising trends, observers believe Filipino food will be the next big thing.
Characters Marcus Kim and Sasha Tran eating together as teenagers in the Netflix film "Always Be My Maybe"

It's 1996 in San Francisco and a young Marcus Kim does not want to be "that" kid at school – the one sitting in the corner of the lunchroom with the stinky, bright-red kimchi jjigae, a type of Korean stew.

Desperate to avoid humiliation, he runs next door to his friend Sasha Tran, begging her to help his family finish the kimchi jjigae before school the next day.

"Nobody wants to sit next to that kid with thermos soup!" Marcus says frantically. "Only the other kids with thermos soup, and I don't want to sit next to those losers!"

Sasha jokingly closes the door in his dejected face before opening it again smiling and laughing. She agrees to run next door and join his family for dinner: "You're like my best friend," she says.

The new Netflix film "Always Be My Maybe" is the story of childhood sweethearts Marcus, played by Randall Park, and Sasha, played by Ali Wong, who have a falling out as teenagers only to reconnect later in life.

Loosely inspired by the classic "When Harry Met Sally," food plays a central role in the film, but it trades in pastrami sandwiches at Katz's Deli for shumai, chicken feet, Spam and rice, and kimchi jjigae.

Flash forward to 2019 in the film and times have changed. Kimchi jjigae is now a trendy food being sold at a restaurant run by a celebrity chef – who is none other than Sasha Tran.

Characters Marcus Kim and Sasha Tran eat together after reconnecting as adults in the Netflix film "Always Be My Maybe."

The film is fictional, but Americans growing taste for Asian cuisine is not. From 2004-2018, sales for limited-service restaurants specializing in Asian-Pacific cuisine grew 114% in the U.S., according to Euromonitor International.

Niki Nakayama, chef and owner of the Michelin-starred n/naka, worked as a food consultant for "Always Be My Maybe," bringing to life the dishes at the film's fictional restaurant Maximalist.

Nakayama, who has been known to carefully track her diners' preferences, said she's noticed that people are more open minded than ever before.

"I think nowadays, people are definitely open to trying everything a lot more than they used to be just because of the exposure," she said.

Her award-winning restaurant n/naka is one of the only in the Western world that specializes in Kaiseki, a traditional multicourse Japanese meal. Diners must make reservations months in advance to even have a chance of securing a spot at her restaurant.

Nakayama said Japanese food can have unfamiliar textures or tastes to those who don't typically eat it, but she sees that as part of its beauty.

Ali Wong (left) and Chef Niki Nakayama behind-the-scenes during the filming of "Always Be My Maybe."
Source: Netflix

"There are a lot of things that are slimy, sticky, chewy, firm and bite you back even though you don't want it to," she said with a chuckle.

"For ourselves, we have to be mindful of that when we're serving people things that may be of different textures and flavors. We do our part by sending out things in smaller doses so that it becomes something that they can acclimate towards."

Kimchi jjigae or kimchi stew is heavily featured in the film in all of its steaming, fiery-red glory. It's a lesser-known dish, but American diners have become much more familiar with kimchi in recent years.

Kimchi consumption at restaurants increased more than 16% this year as fusion dishes like kimchi pizza, kimchi grilled cheese and kimchi fries have started trending, according to market research firm NPD.

Kimchi jjigae
Source: Netflix

And Robert Ji-Song Ku, a food studies professor at SUNY Binghamton in New York, said audiences shouldn't be surprised to see Spam in the film's opening scene.

He has extensively studied the trend of "dubious foods" becoming mainstream, a topic he has written on extensively in his book "Dubious Gastronomy: The Cultural Politics of Eating Asian in the USA."

Ku said the Spam, rice and furikake dish Sasha makes in the opening scene would not have been viewed so positively years ago. Once seen as a lesser substitute or just bad, the canned meat is now a favorite to add a salty, fatty flavor to many Asian dishes.

A young Sasha Tran makes Spam, rice and furikake in the opening scene of "Always Be My Maybe"
Source: Netflix

Hormel Foods, which owns Spam, experienced its fourth consecutive year of growth in 2019 and expects the trend to continue. CEO Jim Spree told CNBC in an interview that the company has noticed the growing demand of Spam.

"We know consumers are connecting with it [spam] in ways they never have before," he said.

In fact, now Spam is frequently used in Korean budae jjigae or army stew, Japanese musubi which is nori-wrapped rice and meat, and Hawaiian loco moco or rice bowl.

In terms of rising trends, Ku believes that Filipino food will be the next big thing. He said with the public's increasing familiarity with Asian food, diners are more eager to experience new flavor profiles.

One of the most obvious signs of this growth is Jollibee Foods, a Filipino fast-dining chain which started in the 1970s with just two ice cream parlors and now has an estimated 4,300 stores in 21 countries.

In an interview with CNBC, Jollibee CEO Ernesto Tanmantiong said he wants to give McDonald's and KFC a run for their money "hopefully in the future."

Tanmantiong is confident about the growing taste for Jollibee in the U.S. When Jollibee opened its first store in New York City last year, he said the first day of sales "went far beyond our expectations".

"What pleasantly surprised us was the number of non-Filipinos visiting our stores," he said. "We observed that actually 50% of the customers who went to our stores were actually non-Filipinos."

Customers dine inside a Jollibee restaurant on April 11, 2018 in Milan, Italy. Jollibee Food Corporation, a Filipino chain of fast food restaurants and the largest Asian food services company, has chosen Milan, home of the biggest Filipino community in Europe, to open its first European branch.
Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

"Pan-Asian" restaurants are also on the rise, according to Ku. But Nakayama said while the growing interest is encouraging, the trend is concerning.

"I think it [the film "Always Be My Maybe"] aims to really want people to understand that just because it's Asian doesn't mean it all comes from the same place," she said.

At Sasha's "non-denominational Vietnamese fusion" restaurant Saintly Fare in the film, she caters to a high-end crowd. When the new menus are ready, she tells her assistant to print them on rice paper: "White people eat that shit up," she says half jokingly.

The debate over how Asian food should be represented nearly causes another falling out between Marcus, a blue-collar guy so rooted in his community that it's almost a personal flaw, and jet-set, bi-coastal celebrity chef Sasha.

"Asian food isn't supposed to be elevated – it's supposed to be authentic," Marcus says.

But Sasha surprises Marcus with her newest restaurant. Its menu includes kimchi jjigae and she shows him a brewing pot -- just like mom made, proving she hasn't forgotten her childhood roots.

"This is what I want to do Marcus," Sasha says, "the kind of food that makes people feel at home."

'We never thought to grow that big,' says Jollibee CEO
'We never thought to grow that big,' says Jollibee CEO