The walls were adorned with paintings of the stone temple complex and Cambodian national symbol of Angkor Wat, the meditative stone faces of the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor Thom, and, curiously, a portrait of the owner’s daughter, dressed in intricately woven orange and gold clothing. At 11 a.m, I entered Apsara Palace, the restaurant empty aside from a lone employee sipping a bowl of steaming soup. He greeted me, letting me know that I was free to sit anywhere. As I took my seat in a cozy, red booth, the waiter brought a kettle of tea, and as I poured it into my cup, the calming aroma of jasmine filled the air—a perfect antidote to the downcast Providence weather. As I perused the menu, a large book with a collection of over 100 items covering Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese cuisines, Apsara Palace’s American-ness struck me the most. The defining feature of American food, epitomized by the Asian American restaurant Apsara Palace, is its fusion of multiple influences into a single restaurant’s menu.
As I placed my order, Taylor Swift, DJ Khaled, and Justin Bieber songs played quietly in the background. While waiting for my food to arrive, customers gradually trickled in: a married couple, a father and his young daughter, three friends. As the restaurant grew livelier, my first dish arrived: Crispy Wings Thai Garlic Sauce. A platter of 10 golden-brown wings sitting atop a bed of julienned carrots and cabbage graced my table, garnished by verdant strands of cilantro and finely chopped scallion greens. As I picked up a wing, the steam carried the aroma of freshly squeezed lime and fish sauce, reminiscent of a Thai papaya salad. The wing’s crispy but light exterior gave way to a succulent, juicy interior. What would otherwise be a heavy plate of battered, deep-fried chicken became a well-balanced dish—the freshness of the lime, the brightness of the herbs, and the slight spiciness of the chilies offset any greasiness. By the time I finished the wings, an enticing salad remained at the bottom of the plate: raw carrots and cabbage, slightly wilted by the heat of the wings, dressed with lime, and scattered with the leftover crispy bits from the chicken. A delightful bonus to an already satisfying dish.
Apsara’s fusion rarely blurs borders. Hopping from one country’s cuisine to the next, I gazed upon the Cambodian Chicken Red Curry with Nime Chow lunch special: a heaping plate, perhaps enough to feed two people, of steaming jasmine rice, red curry, and a full nime chow, along with a peanut-based dipping sauce. Within its rice paper wrapping the nime chow, a Cambodian fresh spring roll similar to a Vietnamese gỏi cuốn, contained two vividly orange, boiled, peeled, whole shrimp; mung bean sprouts; rice vermicelli; and whole leaves of green-leaf lettuce, along with a sweet, salty, and pungent dipping sauce, made with peanut, fish sauce, and sugar. The nime chow was an exercise in textural contrast; the chewiness of the rice paper, the crunch of the bean sprouts and lettuce, the softness of the rice vermicelli, and the slight bounce of the shrimp all combined to create a unique sensation—the dipping sauce providing a nuttiness to compliment the fresh vegetables.
The red curry contained chicken cooked just till tender, onion, green beans, red and green bell peppers, carrots, and bamboo shoots, simmered in a coconut milk-based sauce full of the fragrance of lemongrass, garlic, shallots, just-wilted basil, and, surprisingly, a small amount of ground peanuts, providing a depth that I had never before experienced. Though balanced between sweet and salty, it was a strongly seasoned curry, the perfect complement to the heaping pile of jasmine rice on the plate. What might have been an overly rich dish from the fatty coconut milk was balanced by the array of crunchy vegetables and tempered by the flavor of the fresh basil and the dried red chilies. Throughout my meal, I experienced an array of textures, flavors, aromas, and sounds—all from various ethnic/national origins, yet melding harmoniously to create an enjoyable and satisfying meal.
Within a single meal, I had consumed Thai and Cambodian food in a restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island. Had I dined with companions, I surely would have enjoyed the Chinese and Vietnamese dishes that also compose the pages of Apsara Palace’s menu. The context of Asian Americans underlies the existence of these pages and their story of fusion—one that can be found in previous eras of American history as well. When Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, they created a unique cuisine. Hasia Diner wrote, “By engaging with American food realities, immigrants created an Italian American cultural system heavily centered on food. The women and men who had lived in Lucanian, Foggian, Cuggionese, Catanian, and Sicilian villages inhabited mixed neighborhoods in America, interacting with each other and with people from hundreds of other Italian places.” This mix of regional foods and cooking styles resulted in Italian-American cuisine. Similarly, the simultaneous inclusion of four different countries’ foods (Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and China) reflects a pan-Asian cuisine, an idea uniquely rooted in a country that has been shaped by immigration from many Asian countries.
Ligaya Mishan has argued that an “Asian American cuisine” may now exist. Though she writes that such a term is problematic, as it “[subsumes] countries across a vast region with no shared language or single unifying religion,” it also possesses a radicalness that “[reflects] a new cockiness in a population that has historically kept quiet and [been] encouraged to lay low. It’s food that celebrates crunchy cartilage and gelatinous ooze, that openly stinks, that declares: This is what I like to eat.” Apsara’s menu is fearless testament to uncompromised Asian food that has, for so long, been denigrated by the Eurocentric palate. From string beans sautéed in shrimp paste (an ingredient famous for its pungent smell) to the website’s assertion that they cook “traditional home style dishes not found in many Asian or Chinese restaurants,” Apsara Palace has constructed its menu on its own terms, within the confines of the American cultural fabric, a fabric created by heterogenous immigration patterns. Though the owners and staff of Apsara Palace may not represent all the nationalities their menu does, the idea of a pan-Asian cuisine that emphasizes traditional and home-style dishes is distinctly American.
At the end of my meal, I received the check along with a fortune cookie. LuMing Mao has written that the Chinese fortune cookie embodies both the European tradition of the end-of-meal dessert and the Chinese tradition of using message-containing pastries for covert communication.  It was fitting, then, that my meal ended with a fortune cookie: the unique fusion of two cultures that could only occur in a country shaped by Chinese and European immigration. Apsara Palace is an American restaurant because it is an Asian American restaurant. At the heart of Apsara Palace is fusion: Thai chicken wings and Cambodian nime chow, shrimp paste and fortune cookies, Justin Bieber and jasmine tea.
Restaurant address: 783 Hope St, Providence, RI 02906
 Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press, 2009), ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/brown/detail.action?docID=3300329, 53.
 Ligaya Mishan, “Asian American Cuisine’s Rise and Triumph,” New York Times, November 10, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/t-magazine/asian-american-cuisine.html.
 LuMing Mao, Reading Chinese Fortune Cookie: The Making of Chinese American Rhetoric (Utah State University Press, 2006), ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/brown/detail.action?docID=3442774, 4.
Image Credit 1: Praveen Srinivasan
Image Credit 2: Praveen Srinivasan
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