HBO Max’s new series Take Out With Lisa Ling not only satisfies the stomach, but also the mind. That’s because the award-winning journalist Lisa Ling never simply scratches the surface with her reporting in these six episodes, which are available now. In Take Out, she explores the United States’ Asian cuisine as well as the communities that have brought this food to us.
The tone here is more fun than Ling’s more serious CNN series, This Is Life, and it comes with a headbanging theme song (more on that later). The smiling Ling is often seen sampling the food she’s investigating for the compelling stories shown onscreen. Let’s just say, you’ll never look at your favorite Chinese takeout from the local strip mall the same again.
Below, Ling chats about the series and what drew her to explore — and maybe destroy — some myths about the Asian community, which continues to see horrific hate crimes occur regularly.
There are many differences in this show from This Is Life, but it’s still you digging into this world and community at its core. What are the origins of the show?
Lisa Ling: Honestly, Jim, I never thought or really wanted to do a food show because I don’t cook. I love to eat and I’m a connoisseur but I don’t know how to cook. But food has this way of crossing cultures, crossing genders, transcending barriers, transcending discrimination. And this opportunity to tell stories about Asian American history and culture through the lens of food that we’ve all come to love was just such an incredible opportunity.
To be honest with you, I grew up with a lot of shame around being Asian, but also about Asian food. The idea that I would ever take Chinese food in my school lunch would be unfathomable. I mean, I didn’t even like kids coming over to my house because it always smelled like Chinese food. So, to think that I would one day be able to front a show that explores these buried histories through this food is something I never even dreamt was possible.
I saw your post on Instagram before I saw the episode of the show that explores you. Was there shame for you to be honest about that shame that you’ve always felt?
I wasn’t ashamed of putting that out there, because I think that these are stories that people need to hear. On the one hand, it’s so exciting to be bringing these stories to a mainstream audience, but it’s against the backdrop of some really concerning things that have been happening to the Asian American community in this country. I mean, Asian people, sadly, are still being attacked and scapegoated about COVID. And so, on the one hand, I am so excited to promote this show, but it’s still heartbreaking that at the same time these things are still happening in the community or to the community.
Also in that same episode, we get to see some photos of you as a kid and even prom photos! I don’t have a question there. After so many interviews with you, Lisa, your prom photos had just never come up!
[Laughs] You and I have known each other for a long time!
Tell me how you structured the show and each episode, which delves into different foods and communities.
When we sold the show to HBO Max, I said to them, “We need 20 episodes because the Asian American community is so diverse.” We only got six [Laughs]. We decided to look into communities throughout America that you might not know exist, [or] that you might not know much about either. For example, our first episode is about the Filipino community in southern Louisiana, because Filipinos were the first Asians to settle in America, even before the United States became the United States. When you think about gumbo, which has become a staple American food, gumbo might not even have shrimp in it if it weren’t for those early Filipino settlers. So, we make these connections to these moments in history, and how it has affected and impacted the food that we’ve come to love.
The theme song is also really fun and helps set this show apart from your other work. Can you talk about the show’s theme?
The Linda Lindas, a teenage female punk band, agreed to score the opening title and I just love everything they’re about. They came out with this song called “Racist, Sexist Boy,” which was just amazing. And in some ways, I think that that really fits with our show because it’s like, “Please if you love our food, listen to our stories.” And that’s what the girls say in the opening title, like, “Tell me a story that I don’t know. Tell me about these foods from home. Tell me a story.” They’re these incredible stories of immigration, of resilience, of triumph, but through the lens of food that you can’t help but salivate when you watch it.
Is there a particular episode that you’re excited for people to see or that stands out to you?
We had all Asian American directors and we didn’t tell them about the other episodes that were in the works. We just wanted them to bring their own kind of vision to the episode. When you watch them, you’ll see that every episode has its own kind of unique identity, and that’s what I love about this series. Our showrunner, Helen Cho, was very specific and intentional about that. Hopefully, the episodes will compel you to look into your community to look into the origins of the different restaurants or communities that are currently residing there.
Take Out With Lisa Ling, HBO Max