At home and abroad, Chinese food constantly evolves and adapts to new conditions, bridging every social and cultural divide on earth. How is Chinese food so malleable? What mechanisms formed the hyphenated Chinese cuisines around the world? And what culinary developments can we expect from our ever-shrinking planet?
At the inaugural Happy Family Night Market in Brooklyn, NY, The Cleaver Quarterly hosted a roundtable to unpack questions of food authenticity and hybridity. The conversation began in pre-Columbian Sichuan, a port of entry for foreign ingredients like fava beans and sesame seeds. Then we hopped a ship through the centuries, stopping off to hear the bittersweet saga of chop suey and a surprising convergence of Dominican and Chinese foodways. From there, our itinerary brought us to the present day where our five panelists are, in their own ways, adding new chapters to the never-ending story of global Chinese food.
For the last few years, I’ve been based out of Chengdu, Sichuan, where I was born. Growing up, I moved around a lot – Germany, England, Austria, France, Italy, and then to Canada. Currently I’m working on bringing Sichuan chilli oil to the US. Our brand name, Fly By Jing, is a reference to a type of restaurant in Chengdu called “fly” restaurants, which are holes-in-the-wall that serve such delicious food that people flock to them like flies.
You’ve described Sichuan food as “a fusion cuisine from the beginning.” How did immigration and trade shape the food we recognize today as Sichuanese?
JENNY GAO I’ll start with the geography. The Sichuan basin in southwest China is surrounded by mountains, with the Qinghai–Tibetan plateau to the west. There are many, many rivers cutting across the region. The name Sichuan actually means “four rivers.” In the third century BC, the Emperor Qin Shihuang built a massive irrigation project called Dujiangyan, still in operation today, that harnessed the rivers and made the land even more abundant for agriculture. And for thousands of years, Sichuan has sort of been the breadbasket of China, and drawn a lot of immigration. Though it was a difficult place to access, it served as a western entry point to China on key trade routes like the Silk Road and the Tea Horse Road.
Many of the things we think of as uniquely Sichuanese emerged from the blend of Western ingredients with the culinary techniques from northern and eastern China. Take doubanjiang, a fermented fava bean paste described as the “soul of Sichuan food.” Fava beans only came into Sichuan in the 10th century from the Middle East. Same with sesame. And although people think of Sichuanese as a fiery cuisine, the chilli pepper only arrived in the 17th century from Mexico via maritime, not land, trade routes. Chillis didn’t take on in eastern China, but once they arrived in Sichuan, people found they worked really well with the local peppercorn. And because of the belief that you can sweat out internal dampness by eating spicy food, you’ll see people spending muggy Sichuan summers chowing down on hot pot and spicy noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
What did Sichuan food look like before the Columbian Exchange?
JENNY GAO It still had a lot of heat, only from different ingredients: a lot of ginger, a lot of spices; cornel berries were used to achieve a kind of pungent heat. Because of the fertile land, there was always a lot of meat and vegetables. And the many waves of migration brought breads, dumplings, noodles and other wheat products. Proximity to western China brought in yoghurt from India; mushrooms came in from Yunnan. Anything that came into Sichuan really thrived.
I’m from Hong Kong, straight up. I’ve been cooking since I was 16 (which was only six years ago). I started doing pop-ups in Hong Kong, and kept it up through college. Today I’m the chef and culinary director of Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual restaurant making primarily northern Chinese food. We have two units in New York; my first Junzi was the one in New Haven. And despite the fast-casual environment at Junzi, I still do a lot of pop-ups and tasting menus that look into the hybridization and authenticity of Chinese food through history and across cultures.
Your dinner salons at Junzi observe international food traditions through the lens of Chinese food. Can you give us an example of the cross-pollinated foodways you investigate at these dinners?
LUCAS SIN We did a tasting menu, a pop-up of sorts, of Chinese-Dominican food a couple months ago. My kitchen manager at the Columbia Junzi is Dominican. I was telling him how to prepare a dessert I grew up eating, hongdousha (紅豆沙 red bean soup) – soaking the beans, flavoring them with sugar, all this stuff. And he was like, “Yo-o-o-o! On Easter in the Dominican Republic we eat the exact same dessert. It’s called habichuela con dulce.” We looked at each other like, “What is going on?” That’s when we realized this red bean soup is a Dominican dessert as much as it is a Chinese dessert. There’s a slight difference – cloves and cinnamon, sweet condensed milk, that sort of thing – but the idea is the same.
From there, we investigated how Chinese and Dominican cultures could talk to each other. The first obvious example was the Chinese diaspora in the DR, the descendants of immigrants who wanted to come to the US, but – Exclusion Act – couldn’t make it, and ended up on the islands. You meet Chinese-Dominicans who look totally Chinese but speak Dominican Spanish only. A lot of them are Hakka, a lot of southern Chinese, broadly speaking. Chinese people, wherever they are, are always going to open restaurants because our food is so good. So Chinese-Dominicans open a bunch of restaurants in in the DR, and you start seeing dishes like chofan, fried rice (from 炒饭 chaofan). Chofan is just Dominican salami, peas, carrots, that sort of thing – stir-fried into rice. That’s one example.
Then you can look to other places where Chinese and Dominican populations intersect, like in Washington Heights here in New York. It’s the same story. We open restaurants wherever we go, and it’s ruthless – profits over everything. In specific parts of New York there are specific populations and specific cultures, but Chinese are going to be everywhere. So Chinese open restaurants in Washington Heights and produce a hybridization not just of Chinese with Dominican flavors, but Chinese-American flavors with Dominican flavors. At a Chinese restaurant in Washington Heights, you might find a slightly Dominican egg foo yung with chilli peppers in the gravy.
So at Junzi, we built this tasting menu that looked at the evolution of Chinese-Dominican food to say, “Hey, as chefs we can look at ingredients and cultures and flavor profiles to find the similarities and the differences. We can serve dishes like habichuela con dulce-slash-hongdousha, and at the end we can say, ‘Look, all cultures are the same! All over the world people use the same type of beans!’ But we can also say, ‘Hey, it’s super dope what Chinese people did in the name of entrepreneurship: to customize Chinese food for the people they are cooking for.’” That was the case in the DR, and it’s the case in Washington Heights.
I guess the point is that Chinese food is so broad – there are so many of us and the food is so good – that the techniques of Chinese cooking are a good lens through which to look at other cultures.
I am the executive director of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We are not your typical museum. We’ve exploded breakfast cereal out of giant puffing guns. We’ve recreated what Korean food looked like before the Columbian Exchange. We’ve done an exhibition on flavor science where we invented machines that allowed you to smell individual molecules and put them together in different ways.
Our current exhibition at MOFAD Lab, our gallery space, is called “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant.” We tell the story of the creation of the cuisine that we call Chinese food – a cuisine that is three times more ubiquitous than McDonald's – but is actually unrecognizable to Chinese people in China. It’s a curious thing that while the restaurants that serve Chinese-American food are individually owned, you could walk into any Chinese takeout in the country and, without looking, know the menu: lo mein, egg rolls, general’s chicken. There’s no central authority that created this cuisine. How did that happen?
That’s what we look into at “Chow.” It’s a way for us to push back against the notion of Chinese-American food as being fake or watered-down Chinese food. We put Chinese-American food on a pedestal as its own cuisine. And we also use it as a lens for understanding immigration policy, race politics, and cultural identity.
Generally with the museum, we like to create a sense of empathy. You might see these restaurants all over the place and think of them as sort of fungible, but we want to pull back the curtain and reveal the people behind the food. For the families that own these restaurants, pork fried rice is how they send their kids to college. They are not anonymous. And it’s really important for us to go into these restaurants, look across the country, and realize that there’s a very human story.
I should say that I’m Korean-American, not Chinese-American, but I got much love for the cuisine.
Sidebar: What was Korean food like before the Columbian Exchange?
PETER KIM If you close your eyes and think of Korean food, you see just red, right? The biggest difference I could point to is that pre-Columbian Korean food is brown rather than red.
What can you tell us about the historical reality that Chinese restaurant owners faced in the United States?
PETER KIM One of the things I find so interesting and almost poetic about the story of Chinese-American restaurants is that it starts with the US telling Chinese, “Get out. You don’t belong.” The Chinese Exclusion Act created an extremely hostile climate. Imagine being a Chinese immigrant, probably a male laborer, in 1882 when the US says, “Boom! No more Chinese.” You can wave goodbye to any chance of being reunited with your Chinese family. You could leave, but then you will never come back. On top of that, people don’t want to hire you because they view Chinese as not only subhuman but a threat to their economic livelihood.
And yet these Chinese end up creating a cuisine that becomes so all-American that everyone in the country, regardless of political affiliation, loves the food. That was always the case with Chinese-American food. Even in the horribly racist conditions of the early 1900s, there was an explosion of interest in the cuisine.
Did the hostile environment help drive hybridization?
PETER KIM It did. Probably the best way to illustrate how is with the story of chop suey. As I’m sure many of you know, there’s a dish called chow chop suey, which roughly translates to “stir-fried jumbled bits.” It’s more of a format than a specific recipe. Basically, meat and vegetables stir-fried with sauce. When the Cantonese first arrived, they made it with their own ingredients – wood ear mushrooms, bean sprouts, and pig hearts or chicken gizzards as a protein.
In New York City in the late 1800s, there was a group of urbanites eager to escape the drudgery of their well-heeled lives, so they did what was called (for better or worse) “slumming.” They went into immigrant neighborhoods looking to discover new foods, and stumbled across chow chop suey. In those circles, it became a cool thing to know how to go to Chinatown, point at the menu and order chow chop suey.
As food fads go, chop suey became a city-wide sensation, then a nationwide phenomenon. As the dish got more and more popular, more and more Chinese restaurateurs opened chop suey houses, and they started adapting the ingredients. They substituted button mushrooms for wood ear mushrooms; instead of pig hearts and chicken gizzards, they used chicken breast. It became immensely successful, and allowed Chinese in the US to hold on economically through very hostile conditions.
Chop suey supplied the blueprint for what later grew into Chinese-American cuisine: Take a traditional Chinese dish, adapt it with new ingredients for new tastes, and market it to non-Chinese consumers. And every wave of Chinese immigrants brought their own regional influences, including from Sichuan, with dishes such as kung pao chicken, and mapo doufu.
I’m the chef of East Wind Snack Shop in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Prospect Park. At East Wind, we chase the perfect dumpling.
I came up the ranks with guys like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Nobu Matsuhisa. I’ve also cooked in China and grew up in Chinatown, which is where I draw my inspiration from food – not from your suburban Chinese takeout, but the restaurants that fed the working Chinatown community. We ate food that was very close to what you got in Hong Kong and Guangdong, though with a slight adaptation because these restaurants would also cook fried rice and egg rolls for Americans.
I’d be with my family eating snails and pan-fried flounder, and crabs with the pork and egg and all that good stuff first-generation Chinese-Americans know and love. Meanwhile, we’re watching an American family at the next table chowing down on chop suey and pork fried rice, egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork. Both kinds of food came out of the same kitchen.
When I started to cook professionally, that was where I drew my influences: a Cantonese base translated to an American setting.
Besides East Wind Snack Shop, you also have a restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee called Tansuo. Are there food items that work at East Wind that wouldn’t fly in Tennessee?
CHRIS CHEUNG There’s a big difference between cooking Chinese food in New York versus Nashville. New York is a city that knows a lot about Chinese food, but as you go towards middle America, that knowledge starts to shrink. There are probably more Asians in this room than live in Nashville, Tennessee.
Changing attitudes toward food is a slow process. People like what they like; they eat what they’ve eaten. I swear to god, the power of General Tso’s Chicken – that is what everyone bases their tastes off when they eat Chinese food. It’s a bit of a task to wean them off that, to get into some of the more difficult dishes using ingredients they’ve never heard of.
But they’re open to it! Nashville is a welcoming city for new food. They want to learn; they want to embrace different cultures and different food; they want to become a food city as much as they are a music city. I knew going in that their palates may not be familiar with a lot of the ingredients I cook with in New York – dried fish, Chinese sausages, lap yuk (Chinese bacon), abalone. I try to ease them into it by introducing those ingredients in familiar dishes.
One challenge I encountered was melding seafood into dishes that weren’t primarily labeled as seafood. For example, beef and broccoli with housemade oyster sauce; they couldn’t grasp oysters in a beef dish. Another thing is family-style cooking, which is integral to a Chinese restaurant. In a saute line you can make 10 to 15 different dishes at once so the whole table gets their entrees simultaneously. But in a Chinese restaurant, while the kitchen is set up for high-speed cooking, it’s still from woks where you can only do two or three dishes at once.
We had to be patient and educate them in our style of cooking. It comes down to your salesmen, the waiters and managers who translate what the dish is. We take seriously our duties to help our customer base understand where we’re coming from with our culture. But we also have to appreciate that they’re coming from a totally different culture, so we have to start at square one, introducing our cuisine little by little.
My family is from Vietnam, but we identify ethnically as Chinese. My parents were refugees. We ended up in upstate New York – Saratoga Springs, of all places. And my parents had a Chinese restaurant, the one with the pupu platter and the Polynesian drinks with the volcano.
I started my culinary career washing dishes at age seven and folding wontons between services, so I’m very familiar with American-Chinese food. And while everyone in the restaurant would be eating that food, at night my parents would cook us different dishes.
When I came to high school and finally went to California where there were Asian people and normal weather, I came to realize that what my parents had been cooking at home wasn’t 100% Chinese or 100% Vietnamese. It was this hybrid cuisine that I called “Chinese food,” but it was actually very heavily Vietnamese-influenced. So when I opened my restaurant Bricolage, I called it a “modern Vietnamese gastropub.” Modern, because I wanted to have the flexibility to be able to cook what I wanted to cook – cooking from my heart, recipes from my family that I grew up with.
You contributed a cast iron stir-fry to The Illustrated Wok, our recipe anthology of Chinese food around the world. Your recipe features an ingredient that is fairly rare in Chinese food. Can you tell us how that dish came about?
LIEN LIN When I was living in California, I had this amazing Meyer lemon tree that produced lemons all year round. (audience gasps) It was awesome. So-o-o-o-o many lemons. What could I do with them all?
My parents did a lot of pickling and preserving when I was growing up. They did lemons, and these little plum things, and a lot of mustard greens. In our backyard, you’d see these jars and urns and fish hanging and drying under the sun.
So I started preserving lemons. It’s a very simple recipe – just add salt. And then I began incorporating the preserved lemons into the food that I cook. The recipe I submitted to The Illustrated Wok is stir-fried cauliflower with preserved lemons and oyster sauce. I adapted it to cast iron for home cooks because you don’t have enough firepower at home to get the breath of the wok. But cast iron comes close, and holds the heat so well that you can get a good sear even if you have a crappy stove. So that’s how that recipe came about.
Every conversation about hybrid food items is plagued by questions of authenticity. So what makes food authentic?
LIEN LIN Question of the day.
LUCAS SIN This is a little scary, but let me take this one.
Most recently, “authentic” gets used as a stand-in for “ethnic.” And we’re all familiar with that discourse. I think it’s more interesting to think not about why it’s wrong to say that certain things are ethnic, but to actually think about what it means today to say that a chef is not ethnic.
For me, I’m not Dominican. I’m not half-Dominican. I don’t eat Chinese-Dominican food. I cook northern Chinese food, but I’m not northern Chinese. The only thing I can claim is my own story and my own understanding of this food, and to be honest with the people who eat this food – to say, “We’re on this journey together. We’re trying to craft a new narrative. We’re trying to figure out what the past narrative is so we can learn something from it.”
CHRIS CHEUNG As somebody who’s very proud of cooking Chinese food, I think there’s a need to keep authentic dishes authentic, the way they were cooked 40, 50, 60 years ago. Because without that base, we cannot move forward.
The argument across the street is for Chinese food that pushes the envelope – not even hybrid food, but food that abandons its base. Chefs who make food without having cooked authentic dishes are (I think) at a loss. I don’t agree with the idea that they’re pushing Chinese food in the right direction. You have to have a past to hold on to in order to make visionary dishes or even the hybridized food we see here in America. You have to have that base as a chef. That’s what I believe, anyway.
LIEN LIN When I think of authenticity, I also think of the word traditional. Those two words always get mixed up and used interchangeably.
I looked up the textbook definition of authenticity. What comes up is “the origins cannot be disputed; genuine.” What’s the opposite of that? Fake? The origins can be disputed?
And then there’s tradition: the dishes my grandma passed down to my mom, and my mom passed down to me.
I get a lot of comments from people at the restaurant who say, “This food is great! But it’s not authentic. It’s not like what my mom made.” And I get it. Taste is so subjective. We taste with our memories. That’s why “modern” is in the name of my restaurant. And “gastropub.” Because maybe the food I cook is not very traditional. There are some dishes I hold really true to my heart; I cook them exactly like Daddy taught me, otherwise he’d kill me. Then there are some other dishes I get creative with.
So yeah, I agree with Lucas and Chris. As a chef, you’re being authentic to yourself.
PETER KIM My take on this is that the question really ought not be, “Is this food authentic?” but rather, “For whom is this food authentic? And for what time is this food authentic?”
Take the example of Chinese-American cuisine. If you ask, “Is this cuisine authentic for Chinese people in China?” the answer would be no. A Chinese person in China would look at it and say, “I don’t know what the heck that is.” But to say it’s not an authentic cuisine doesn’t do justice to the authors of this cuisine or to the people who enjoy this cuisine. Just look at Jewish-Americans in New York City and the tradition of eating Chinese takeout around the holidays. That’s authentic to them.
So if you think about calling something traditional or authentic, the question is really what time period we’re talking about, because with the ebb and flow of time and people, cuisines are always in motion. There’s never a moment when you can freeze a particular cuisine and say, “This is the authentic time!”
By the way, I’m wearing a panel-appropriate T-shirt. It says, “Challah, por favor,” and it’s from B&H Dairy in the East Village, an amazing Jewish lunch counter on 2nd Avenue that is run by Dominicans now. I can see people calling it inauthentic, but I think it’s straight-up authentic to New York City.
JENNY GAO Yeah, every time has its own cultural culinary heritage. Right now in Sichuan, the most famous dishes are only one or two hundred years old. Although mapo doufu was only invented in the late 1800s, when we think about Sichuan food today, we only think of that, and huiguo rou, etc.
The government in China is trying to standardize a lot of these dishes. They have recipes down to the gram of what exactly constitutes huiguo rou. And if you deviate from that, it’s not Twice-Cooked Pork. I think there is a place for preserving that culinary heritage.
The New York Times had an article a couple years ago about a group of old Sichuan chefs that formed a club to try preserve Sichuan food as it is, but all they do is they get together and play mahjong and complain about how it’s changing, how none of the young chefs understand … I find that not helpful at all. The older generation of chefs are actually part of the problem because of how secretive they are about recipes. They don’t want the new guard to come and take their jobs and livelihood, so they’re not passing down these traditions.
In Chengdu today, even as many of the fly restaurants that I mentioned earlier are shutting down because of sanitary issues and the city trying to modernize, there are lots of young food entrepreneurs doing really amazing things –
LUCAS SIN (pointing to Jenny) Like her.
JENNY GAO – and they’re totally changing the landscape of Sichuan food. There are dishes that no older chef would recognize, but that’s where all the young people are going now. And the food is still characterized by amazing complex flavors, which is what Sichuan food is at its core.
Is there a point at which a food item like a Philly cheesesteak egg roll or spring roll dosa outgrows the label “Chinese”?
CHRIS CHEUNG In my opinion, that already did. That’s too far for me. There’s nothing wrong with a Philly cheesesteak egg roll. There is a market for it. But that type of food seems a little gimmicky. You’re trying to sell the idea of a food being Asian to a market that really just wants a cheeseburger. So it’s a tough one.
Friends and colleagues of mine make a living off food like that. And even though we have a difference in opinion, it’s just food. If you do it really well, somebody’s going to buy it. But it will be divisive. Traditionalists and people who want more authentic dishes are not going to be in agreement with that.
My opinion, I prefer not to veer too far off the track of what I think the cuisine should represent. I like to think I’m right, but then again there’s somebody chowing down on that stuff saying, “This is better than any Chinese food I’ve had!” And you can’t disagree with that either. You like what you like.
LIEN LIN (in a low voice) I grew up eating stir-fried hot dogs and rice.
CHRIS CHEUNG We actually ate that too when I was like 10 years old. Hot dogs on rice, we grew up on that. My mother is Chinese and knows a lot about Chinese food, but we’re in America and she has to cook for her kid. She’s heard about hot dogs, so why not try it? It wasn’t anything she tried to sell or put on a menu. That was dinner.
You know, hamburgers – the American side of you wants to put it on a bun with cheese and tomatoes. But coming up as a cook at Nobu, the Japanese kitchen, the traditionalists would take a hamburger, put in on their rice, mix it up and eat it.
That’s where the discussion gets fun. What side are you on? Is there a middle ground? And maybe there is no side. Because it’s just people trying to eat, you know what I mean? It’s like, “I gotta eat this, this is the way I like to eat it, and then I gotta get back to work.”
PETER KIM I don’t know if you ever watched Chopped, the cooking show? One thing that gets my goat are those ingredient toggles. It’s like, you add soy sauce – and now it’s Chinese-style!
To your question, the answer for me is again that issue of ownership and authorship. The idea of eating hot dogs and rice is something that I, as a Korean American from the Midwest, can identify with. But if Panera were to put beef and soy sauce on bread and call it a bulgogi sandwich, I wouldn’t look at that and say, “That’s my culture.” Something that just doesn’t ring true about that, and it’s because of that disconnect on ownership and authorship.
LUCAS SIN Speaking of sausages and rice, the only way to do it is to cut the hot dog so it looks like a little octopus. Second of all, I grew up in Hong Kong, right? And Hong Kong people love puns, verbal and nonverbal. So before an exam, we would have sausage and eggs over rice. My mom would arrange two sunny side up eggs with a sausage so it looked like 100 – as in, one hundred percent. And that’s how we grew up as kids.
But the cool thing is, you think about Hong Kong, this ex-British colony where for the longest time the Western food imported by the colonizers was luxury food. And for years, Hong Kong people couldn’t touch that stuff. But they always had that aspirational brand. Everyone wanted to be British and European, right? So in lieu of a tomato sauce, you’d just use ketchup. And sugar. And sausages. And ham.
I don’t know if you guys have had baked pork chop rice, like you get in a cha chaan teng, a Hong Kong diner? It’s Western-style onions instead of spring onions, ketchup instead of tomatoes, a baked pork chop, whatever we found that offered a semblance of cheese on top of rice. So back where I grew up, on the other side of the world, we were doing a very similar thing to your hot dogs on rice. You cook with what you have in front of you, and that points you toward whatever you want to be.
From thousand-year-old Sichuan cuisine to hot dogs and rice, hybrid foods are a byproduct of trade links and human migration. We live in a time when the value of those forces is coming into question, yet food continues to be treated as a shared inheritance. While cross-cultural foods breach the walls that divide us, they also make it easier to divorce a culinary tradition from the culture of its origin. How do you parse the two sides of that coin?
LIEN LIN I think we really have to embrace it. And we have to know that food and culture don’t always stay the same. They’re evolving. For me, personally, I’ve lost many of the traditions of my family – ancestor worship, language, all those things. I’m not going to carry that on. My son won’t. His son won’t.
The only way I stay true to my culture and my family is through its food. So I’m actually really interested to see when my son grows up what he’s going to be cooking and eating. By embracing that culture and cuisine is ever-changing, we can keep those traditions close to our hearts.
CHRIS CHEUNG We all made the decision to be here in America, and we take the good with the bad. It’s really important to keep the traditions and cultural identity. As time goes on, the lines blur until people think Chinese food is Subway’s teriyaki chicken sandwich. And it’s not that. It’s the farthest thing from that. There’s an importance to Chinese food. People devote their lives to it. We have to carry on in that spirit.
I like that food brings everyone to the table. You can have as many political differences and whatever other differences. But when you’re at the table, if the food is good, the food is good. That’s something you can all agree on – especially if it’s a Chinese meal, right?
So keep eating, that’s all I can say.
PETER KIM Your question is precisely what lights a fire under my butt and makes me so intensely passionate about what we’re doing at the Museum of Food and Drink. We’re trying to take the existing level of enthusiasm for food and then guide people into a meaningful exploration of that food and its culture and history – to the science behind it, the economics behind it, and as we do with the “Chow” exhibition, to put a human face on it.
You could go to a Chinese-American restaurant and just eat and not think about it. Or you could see the family behind the counter and understand that the menu is a living timeline of Chinese immigration to the US.
The fact that we share this common experience of eating and drinking is really cool, and an important first step. But we have to go a step beyond a good meal and an Instagram photo. We can do that in our own lives by trying to understand the person serving us the food, thinking about the unseen people behind that person, and trying to teach other people through food.
Eating at a halal truck is not going to help you understand the Middle East. It takes that extra effort.
LUCAS SIN At Junzi, we make northern Chinese food. A lot of people ask, “What is northern Chinese food?” The simplest definition is that we don’t really work with rice. A very common understanding of Chinese food is that everything is rice – rice with pork, rice with broccoli, whatever. But we cook noodles and bings, just flour and water.
We’re challenging people’s perception of what Chinese food can be. There are more than 46,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States making food that is mostly derived from a few parts of southern China. We want to update that – to introduce different kinds of noodles and bings, which are flour wraps (some people call them pancakes).
We get a lot of resistance for the type of food we’re making. I have a dish on the menu called a tomato and egg sauce, which all of you know: tomato stir-fried with eggs (西红柿炒鸡蛋 xihongshi chao jidan). Chinese-Americans love coming in and saying, “Lucas, get that shit outta here. This is so inauthentic. Nobody would ever eat this on noodles.”
And I’m like, “Yeah, we actually do in the north. We really do eat this with noodles and dried shrimp and weird things like that.” We’re saying, “Hey, this is a dish you’re very familiar with, but here’s how we do it in contemporary China.” And we introduce that to the American palate every single day.
JENNY GAO We’ve all probably been to a region where we think we knew what the food is like and then discover it’s actually completely mind-blowing. You discover ingredients or flavors you’ve never even had before. Even in China I get that. I went to Yunnan recently. I thought I knew what Yunnan food was; I did not. Xinjiang as well.
I just got back recently from Oaxaca, which blew my mind. The similarities between Oaxacan cuisine and Sichuan cuisine is another topic. But it’s about having more two-way dialogue, being able to go to new places and delve deeper, which is not that hard to do. Literally, you land in a place and go, “Whoa.”
It’s a two-way dialogue in that the US still does dictate much of global culture. That’s one reason I’m launching my chilli sauce in the US, which offers such a wider platform than I would have found anywhere else, including Canada, where I’m from. So there needs to be a continuous exploration coming from both sides.
AUDIENCE: Could you speak to the price point of Asian food? A lot of people have this idea that Asian food is meant to be very cheap, whereas the same can’t be said for Italian or French food. Where do you think this attitude comes from and how is it going to change?
LIEN LIN I actually experienced a lot of pushback on the prices at our restaurant. I always argue that I’m using the same meat that the fancy Italian place down the street is using. I get my meat from the same purveyors. I’m using the same organic ingredients. But I can’t charge $25 for five dumplings, and they can charge $25 for five raviolis? A lot of it stems from the history of Chinese coming to America. Anthony Bourdain said it best: “Racism.”
Change is going to take a while, but I think with a lot of young chefs pushing boundaries these days, modern Asian cuisine is coming through, especially in New York. A lot of chefs are not afraid to push the envelope and stand strong together. Being united and having a louder voice elevates the cuisine. Maybe we will be able to charge prices that other cuisines do.
But on the flip side, Chinese don’t want to pay those prices for food. You can go to a hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown and get some really good-tasting food. I think it’s like pizza: You can get pizza by the slice, or you can go to the fancy pizza restaurant, where you’ll pay a different price for it. Asian cuisine also has those tiers but it will take a while for us to get there.
CHRIS CHEUNG For me, part of the magic of cooking Chinese food is that Chinese cooks have always been able to make something great out of the humblest ingredients. I like to keep that magic right where it is. There’s something to be said for a cuisine that can draw so much flavor out of ingredients that are not looked upon as that high-end.
However, if we do use the same ingredients, we should be allowed to get the same price for it. If you’re using luxe ingredients in your food, you shouldn’t have to charge 40% less just because you’re Chinese.
AUDIENCE: What do you think about the relationship between the Chinese food developing in China versus in the Chinese diaspora?
JENNY GAO China is a continent more than a country, right? All the provinces are almost like their own countries, with different topography, climates, ingredients, flavors. You are starting to see some crossover between the different provincial cuisines now. I’ve lived in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu, and with Western food coming in there’s a lot of fusion there as well.
LUCAS SIN For those of you who have been to Sichuan or plan to go, there is a unique phenomenon similar to what Hong Kong saw like 10-20 years ago. With the increasing rent, chefs are taking to their homes to cook private meals. They don’t have 120,000 BTU wok setups in their home kitchens, but they’re cooking very interesting food because nobody is holding them accountable except themselves. They can put whatever out and serve a table of 12 people with really, really interesting food.
JENNY GAO Absolutely.
LUCAS SIN Here’s the other thing. I just started cooking Chinese food three or four years ago. For the longest time I was trained as a Japanese chef. Every year I go back to China to cook for a month or two every year to soak things in. Most recently on my trip to Chengdu, I noticed the only way I could get into kitchens to cook and learn was by telling people I used to work in three-star Michelin restaurants (which is true).
I approached one guy, a thirtysomething chef who just got inducted into the grandmaster Sichuan chef association. I said, “Hey, I would love to learn in your kitchen,” and he’s like, “Please don’t.” Then I told him I used to work at the three-star Michelin places, and he busted into the kitchen, cooking oysters or something and pouring dry ice everywhere until the whole kitchen was like – who-o-o-o-osh! – steam everywhere, and he’s like, “Lucas, is this Michelin?”
“Uh, it’s kind of complicated, chef. Not really sure what you’re talking about.”
He’d be like, “Wait-wait-wait-wait-wait,” and he’d go back to the kitchen. There’s a dish called douban yu where you make an oil out of doubanjiang, the fermented fava bean paste, and put it over a fish. It’s a classic Chengdu dish with lots of ginger, garlic, scallion. The chef would make it into a dumpling wrapped in a very thin slice of pear. And he’s like, “Is this Michelin?”
Every day it was, “Is this Michelin? Is this Michelin?”
The proudest moment of his career, he said, was when he got the plaque in front of his restaurant that said UNESCO Intangible Heritage blah blah blah. It’s so weird that these Chengdu chefs making super-innovative food are still seeking Western accolades, as if that were the only thing that mattered to them – as if the mark of excellence could only come from the West.
JENNY GAO Michelin actually came into China last year for the first time, to Shanghai only. And they totally screwed up. All of their picks were horrible. They clearly had no lay of the land. I think it’s actually a new thing where Chinese restaurants look to the West for validation.
LUCAS SIN In the last two years, yeah.
JENNY GAO Before, they were just doing what they were taught, and they were happy doing it. Now they’re like, “Is this Michelin?” Like they’re trying to live up to the standard that doesn’t really –
LUCAS SIN It’s as if any recognition for Chinese chefs that comes from China doesn’t seem to matter to high-end chefs that much anymore, which is kind of funky and weird.
CHRIS CHEUNG It’s funny, because most American chefs that are not Asian in this country seek no validation from anybody.
JENNY GAO What I would like to see is young Chinese chefs creating their own voice in their cooking, evolving the traditions but not in a way that is dictated by the West.
AUDIENCE: As chefs in New York City, you probably have ingredients from all over the world to choose from. Are there any ingredients that are quintessentially American – mushrooms or wild herbs for example – that inspire you?
CHRIS CHEUNG Maybe not a specific ingredient, but I get inspired going through the green markets and getting fresh produce, fruits that are in season – Tristar strawberries, things like that. But when you think about it, it’s tough to buy from the green markets over Chinatown markets, which are much cheaper and more familiar to me. Also the produce may be more fresh in Chinatown due to the volume, and when you’re cooking you want the freshest ingredients possible. So I find myself more and more in the Chinese markets.
LUCAS SIN Our first Junzi restaurant was in New Haven, Connecticut. We used to forage quite a bit. We’d find things like lemon balm, lime balm, chickweed. A fun challenge as a chef is to taste new ingredients blind and try connect it to something you already know. So if chickweed really tastes like corn, you ask yourself, “What’s a Chinese corn dish?” Corn, pine nuts and ham is a pretty good stir-fry, so maybe chickweed and pine nuts? That’s a fun thing about cooking locally.
AUDIENCE: My question reverses what we’ve been talking about today. Have you seen any American trends or influences on food in China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong?
CHRIS CHEUNG American influence on Asian cuisine? I hate to say it, but you’re looking at Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s. You’re looking at processed foods. Where America was in the ’50s and ’60s with processed foods is where China is now – the growth of the middle class, everybody’s working and taking care of their kids, going to the store and buying something processed and ready-made is a lot more convenient now. So some things are taking a turn for the worse. A lot of people in Asia aspire to have that American lifestyle, but there’s a price you pay for it: a little loss of your culture and your soul.
On a positive note, when you see a country like China opening themselves to ideas from another culture, that isn’t necessary a bad thing. So if it has to come through food first, let it come through food first.
LUCAS SIN KFC in China is so good though, it’s ridiculous.
JENNY GAO It’s really good.
AUDIENCE Is it actually different?
LUCAS SIN Yeah. There’s one really good item in KFC China, the Old Peking Roll – a tortilla wrap with Peking duck sauce, scallions, and a fried chicken tender. It’s so crazy good.
JENNY GAO They also have congee for breakfast. (an awed hush settles over the room)
LUCAS SIN They have Portuguese egg tarts.
JENNY GAO Instead of fries, a lot of people opt for a cup of corn –
CHRIS CHEUNG (urgently) And that’s how they get you!
LUCAS SIN One of the most successful brands in the mid-tier space in China is Hooters. People love going to Hooters for the all-American experience.
CHRIS CHEUNG (dripping with sarcasm) Yeah. “The all-American experience.” That’s why they go.
JENNY GAO I will say it’s a little different in a Chinese Hooters, but I won’t expand on that. I know people who eat at McDonald’s and KFC five times a week. Other exports from the West include cheese and dairy, and more baked wheat products. In recent years in Shanghai, salads and raw juice bars have really taken off, which is notable because Chinese people traditionally don’t eat cold things.
AUDIENCE: You mentioned how someone will make something with soy sauce or sesame oil and call it Chinese-inspired. Or people go to Panera and get a chicken wonton salad. How frustrated do you get when someone caricatures your food?
PETER KIM I hate when people are like, “I’m gonna take this in an Asian direction!” Way to narrow it down. Asia is two-thirds of the planet.
LUCAS SIN We actually don’t cook with soy sauce too much in China. Seriously, that was the number one thing I learned when I started cooking in China. It’s all salt and dark soy and fermented bean pastes. Most wok cooking, if it’s not Cantonese, doesn’t use much light soy. It’s usually just a garnish at the end.
CHRIS CHEUNG You know, you put your life and dedication into learning a craft, and it’s reduced to two words: soy sauce. Yeah, it’s kind of tough. But one of our purposes is to be ambassadors for food. You can get angry about it for a minute but then you laugh and realize, “Alright, so there’s some stuff I have to teach these guys.” If people think soy sauce is all there is to our cuisine, it will take people like us to have a panel to talk about these things and enlighten people. My colleagues and I will take that burden on our shoulders. Nobody else is going to do it.
This conversation was gently edited and abridged for clarity. Banner photo courtesy of Megan Swann / Museum of Food and Drink.