The insatiable appetite that Americans have for Chinese food is matched only by their stubbornness about what it’s supposed to look like. But the actual complexity of the cuisine makes for a much more interesting story, especially when it's told by the people doing the cooking. That's the premise behind “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America," the current exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York City.
The curators' approach was simple: Interview chefs about the challenges and rewards of cooking Chinese cuisine in a country with such a long and complicated relationship with Chinese immigrants and their food.
Though the exhibit’s nearly three dozen oral histories revolve around anecdotes about food, they also illuminate the larger choices associated with being Chinese in America: what should be shared, what must be improvised, what can be discarded and what ends up being non-negotiable. We asked the four co-curators – MOCA director of exhibitions Herb Tam, assistant curator Andrew Rebatta, food writer Kian Lam Kho and journalist/author Audra Ang – to share what they learned from interviewing the chefs. We also prompted them to reflect on how Chinese food has shaped their own lives.
TCQ: The “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” exhibit focuses on homes and restaurants as the key sites of culinary production and consumption. Chinese markets could be thought of as an equally important third space. Did any of the exhibit’s featured chefs talk about shopping for ingredients as a formative experience?
HERB TAM A lot of people mentioned the famine in China in the late 1950s and the general lack of produce or any kind of shopping at the beginning of the Communist era. Martin Yan mentioned the extreme rationing – how he’d have to wait in line two hours to buy a head of cabbage. He’s from the generation that lived through the Cultural Revolution. Jeff Gao, who cooks Sichuan food in Colorado, remembers that when he grew up, his grandmother would save an egg for him every week as a special treat. Cecilia Chiang talked about walking 3,000 miles during the Japanese occupation and not having a lot of food to eat. It’s ironic that many of these chefs cook incredible regional cuisine nowadays, given that food was so scarce during their childhood.
And many of the immigrant chefs who moved to the suburbs or the middle of the country – areas without a concentration of Asians – experienced culture shock when they couldn’t find the most basic ingredients. They had to experiment with local ingredients and incorporate them into their Chinese cooking. Jason Wang opened Xi’an Famous Foods in NYC with his dad, but when he lived in Minnesota he couldn’t find supermarkets that sold anything close to the black vinegar that his region is used to. So he had to make it up. He’d buy white vinegar and mix it up with maybe soy sauce or other ingredients to simulate black vinegar.
AUDRA ANG One very strong common thread that emerged in the interviews I conducted with the home chefs – the ones who came from China – is how generally horrified they were by American-Chinese food. One person recalled that her friends took her to a Chinese restaurant because they thought it would make her less homesick, but in some ways it alienated her more to eat what everybody else was calling Chinese food. Nancy Chen in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, remembers consulting her fellow Asian immigrants to figure out where to get Chinese ingredients. It’s hard to feel comfortable in a new country if you don’t have a sense of self, and cooking the food that you’re used to helps you remember who you are. Being able to find Chinese grocery stores helps people assimilate to this country. My great-uncle who lives in Houston is 90 now and his kids only allow him to drive to the Chinese supermarket. He goes there every day to shop for what he needs and to buy the newspaper. It’s not just about the food but also the ritual of it – to feel connected to what feels more familiar.
For me, one of the first things I do when I move to a new place is figure out where the closest Chinese grocery store is. I try to find it within the first week. Here in Durham, North Carolina, there’s a supermarket called Li Ming’s Global Mart, which also has a little cafeteria with the rice-and-3-veg for $6.99. It’s total greasy spoon but still China-Chinese food. They even have the roast duck hanging there – it’s a bit sad, but they do a decent charsiu!
KIAN LAM KHO Many of the chefs in the exhibit had to adapt to locally available ingredients. I think that’s what’s interesting and exciting about food in general. You bring your own tradition and experience and then you adapt to the local ingredients and the tastes of the local customers. The chefs in the MOCA exhibit are scattered all over the US. Not all of them live in big cities, where you can find anything you want. In fact, in the markets of New York City’s Flushing or at Ranch 99 supermarket in the San Gabriel Valley, you can buy ingredients from many different regions of China – which is itself different from the grocery shopping experience in China’s big cities. Because the markets in any Chinese city will only stock the ingredients and seasonings that the locals are accustomed to cooking with. In a Flushing supermarket, you can buy hongzao 红糟 [the fermented red rice yeast widely used in Fujianese cooking] AND kaofu 烤麸 [a Shanghainese wheat gluten appetizer]. But Xiamen supermarkets probably don’t stock kaofu. Why would they? Nobody eats kaofu in Xiamen. In the US, you’ll get so many more varieties as opposed to in China. Granted, you won’t get 20 varieties of kaofu here. But kaofu nonetheless!
Desert island question: If you could only eat one Chinese regional cuisine for the rest of your life, which would it be?
HERB TAM Classic home Cantonese cooking, like beef and tomato over rice, or salted fish steamed with pork patty, a very basic steamed egg, fried rice. If I were stuck on an island, I think I'd do just fine with that kind of food.
ANDREW REBATTA I’d have to choose Hong Kong-style food. I love crustless sandwiches with egg and Spam and all that. I grew up right outside downtown Flushing and every weekend I’d go with my mom to a Hong Kong style cafe for the sandwiches, rice cakes, noodles.
AUDRA ANG I have three answers, because I’m greedy. First, I’d choose Sichuan food. When I was an AP reporter based in Beijing, I spent five or six weeks in the quake zone [after the massive 2008 earthquake] and the food is now tied to my memories of the region – even though a lot of those memories are painful and sad. I’d also choose the cleaner and lighter flavors of Cantonese cuisine, because we ate that a lot when I was growing up in Singapore. Lastly, I’d pick Fujianese, or what I think of as my grandma’s and grandpa’s food. That dish where you add an egg to ground pork and steam it, or stir-fried silk gourd with dried shrimp, or those fish balls that are stuffed with meat …
KIAN LAM KHO My family is also Hokkien (Fujianese), and although a lot of my comfort food comes from that cooking tradition, if I could only choose one cuisine, it would be classic Cantonese. I personally think it’s the most refined and I love that idea of yuanzhi yuanwei 原汁原味 – if you have great fresh ingredients, you don’t use heavy spices to cover them up. If you were really stranded on a desert island, you probably wouldn’t have a lot of sauces or spices, so Cantonese food would be really easy to recreate!
Tell us an anecdote from your own life in which a single dish was worth a thousand words.
ANDREW REBATTA In Flushing, there’s a small restaurant called White Bear. The first time I ever had their wontons in chilli oil, I was blown away. I’d been eating that for years in Manhattan Chinatown and elsewhere in Flushing, and usually the wontons are so tightly wrapped. But here, the wonton wrapper was just loose enough. The chilli oil wasn’t very spicy but it had this musty deep flavor that I really loved. It left me speechless.
HERB TAM For Cantonese people, a good steamed fish is very basic. The texture and mouthfeel have a lot to do with it. Whenever I go out and eat with my parents, I feel like we can be on common ground as Chinese people as to whether the fish is up to standard. For many children of immigrants, some of us don’t speak our mother tongues and others have trouble speaking it – so it’s really food that connects us to our parents and other family members.
AUDRA ANG I wrote about this in my book, in a chapter called “Farmer Tu’s Last Chicken.” A couple of months after I arrived in Beijing, my bureau chief asked if anyone wanted to cover the flooding in the south. Because I’d never been out in the field, I jumped at the chance, so a photographer and I went down to Yueyang in Hunan province. In looking for flood victims, we arrive at a house where I remember thinking, “This is really pretty lakefront property.” A farmer comes up to us, and when we asked him if he’d been affected by the flooding, he pointed to that beautiful water vista and said, “That’s my field. My entire crop for the year is underwater.” Farmer Tu took us out in a boat and told us how the village had worked day and night to shore up the dam with sandbags, but the dam failed and the floodwaters had turned the fields into a lake. That’s when I started to understand the magnitude of what he and the village had lost.
As we approached shore, he invited us to stay for dinner. Being very anxious to try the local cuisine, I said “Yes!” Before long, there was a whole spread on the table: soy sauce chicken, fish, scrambled eggs, pork belly. At first they said all the food was intended for us, but we insisted that Farmer Tu and his wife eat with us. They did the Chinese thing where they use their chopsticks to put the best morsels in our bowls. The food was amazing, but somehow it comes out that we were eating their last chicken. They’d lost everything but they’d sacrificed their last chicken to feed us! I tried to pay them, and of course they refused. I think they were just happy to talk to somebody who would listen to their story of what they had lost. It still makes me teary. It will always stay with me: their graciousness and my clumsiness.
In your experience, what do Chinese people tend to argue about the most when it comes to food?
ANDREW REBATTA When people fight to pay the bill after the meal!
HERB TAM Authenticity. In the show, we tried to focus on the idea of authenticity because it’s associated with the purest form of certain types of culture – just like people argue about which flavors are most pure. Chinese immigrant chefs in America have to deal with the basic availability of ingredients, but there’s also the question of the willingness and necessity of adapting to American taste buds. The chefs who operate restaurants in non-Asian communities have a much more practical view of what Chinese food should be like in America – for them, it’s all about the satisfaction of the customer, not necessarily being held to some abstract, pure idea of some regional cooking. But others in the show do feel there’s a standard of Chinese cooking that needs to be maintained – Jeff Gao talks about that, as well as Cori Xiong, who has a restaurant in Houston. They’re both younger, which is interesting. Many of the older chefs are willing to experiment and be looser with definitions of Chinese food, but some of the younger ones are very protective of what they see as authentic Chinese food.
AUDRA ANG What Singaporeans tend to argue the most about is “the best.” Superlatives, the best of everything, and where to find it. Arguing about authenticity is a form of that, I guess. When you want to know not just what’s the best-tasting but also the best representation of this dish.
I remember once I was eating crawfish on Gui Jie [Ghost Street] in Beijing, when the people at the next table got into a huge argument about where you could get the best spicy duck neck. That was the biggest food trend at the time – and I don’t really do duck neck so I thought “These people are crazy” but I loved them because that’s exactly what I would be doing in Singapore! Arguing about who served the best Hainan chicken rice, for example. I’m obsessed with that dish. I went to Hainan province, thinking it would have the best Hainanese Chicken Rice, and it was the worst! It was just plain white rice and this skinny yellow chicken that had no flavor. Going to the source may not always be the best thing. I think Singapore does it much better because they put chicken fat in the rice and they cook it in chicken broth, so of course it has more flavor! Refining the dish can improve it, but then it’s less authentic, so what is more true?
KIAN LAM KHO Well, Hainanese Chicken Rice didn’t actually originate in China. They did take the cooking technique – poaching a Wenchang chicken – from Hainan province, but using chicken stock to cook the rice is definitely a Southeast Asia invention. There’s a big dispute between Singapore and Malaysia, which both claim the rice, but everybody agrees that it didn’t start in China. And that reminds me of another dish: bak kut teh, which translates literally as “pork ribs tea.” It doesn’t exist in China – but the technique and flavor are Chinese. It’s a soup that has been darkened with a lot of wine and soy sauce so that it looks like tea, and it’s infused with a lot of spices – star anise, cloves, cassia bark – which are very Chinese. But it’s a local Malaysian dish.
If you could attend any meal of Chinese food in history, which would it be – and why?
AUDRA ANG Any meal in history? Hmm, the first thing that comes to mind is when Nixon went to China and ate Peking duck. So this would have been in the 1970s, when they were working to normalize relations. And apparently Mrs. Nixon wanted to learn the recipe. From newspaper clippings, I found out that the food editor of UPI (United Press International) wrote a piece imagining what would have been necessary for Mrs. Nixon to hang ducks out to dry in the White House to prepare them for roasting.
KIAN LAM KHO If I could pick any meal in history, I’d go back to the Wu Zetian era because I’d like to experience the Water Banquet! I’m curious about its influence on Fujian cuisine. My ancestral village is located just outside of Xiamen – and I can tell you that Fujian cuisine has a lot of soup. Everything is soupy. You can go to restaurants where all they serve is soup! And there’s a reason for that. When I was doing research for my cookbook, I met Dr. Peng Yiwan, a scholar who used to be the president of the Xiamen restaurant association. He claims that Fujian’s soup culture originated from China’s central plains. There were two waves of immigration from that region: in the 3rd and 10th centuries. One came right after the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, the woman who claimed the throne for herself. Her capital was in Luoyang [in current-day Henan province], which is in a very dry and dusty area. And Luoyang is very famous for its Water Banquet (水席 shuixi). The most elaborate version has about 48 courses, all of them “wet.” Not all the courses are soups, but everything is soupy – there’s lots of stews, lots of gravy and liquid. After Wu Zetian died, the whole dynasty collapsed and there was an exodus; a group of loyalists fled to Fujian, where they continued the tradition of cooking all these wet dishes. They adapted to their new coastal environment, of course – which meant lots of seafood soups and stews. I’m fascinated by the thought that this regional cuisine could have been influenced by a tradition thousands of miles away and ten centuries ago.
Has experiencing Chinese food in foreign contexts given you insight into Chinese food in the US?
HERB TAM When I visited Berlin, one of my German friends said, “There’s this Chinese restaurant that I really love. We should go.” I only had three days in the city and I really didn’t want to eat Chinese food in Germany, but he insisted: “No, it’s amazing.” As soon as I entered the restaurant I could tell right away somehow that it wasn’t going to be amazing. He made me order all this food – I spoke to the waiter in Cantonese – when the food came out, sure enough, it was real disappointing. Now that I’ve done this show, I don’t think so harshly of that restaurant anymore. It was simply serving the local population of Germans, just like many of the restaurants opened by the chefs in our exhibition serve predominantly non-Asians. This show has given me a greater sensitivity to the variety of Chinese food we have in America. I have to remember that we can’t just go into a restaurant and get offended, saying “This is terrible. That’s not even Chinese food.” The idea of authenticity is not something I’m going to be very judgmental about anymore.
KIAN LAM KHO Last summer, I sampled the chow mein sandwich for the very first time. As you know, it’s only served in Fall River, in southeast Massachusetts – but my husband and I were driving up to Cape Cod. He actually grew up in New Bedford, which is the town right next to Fall River, but he’d never heard of this dish until I said I wanted to try it. I’d been listening to the radio show “The Splendid Table,” and Emeril Lagasse [who was born in Fall River] was describing the chow mein sandwich. So I ordered one and it was everything I’d dreamed of! [laughs] I’d seen photographs, so I knew what to expect. Emeril claims that he can actually eat it like an actual sandwich when it’s wrapped up in the wax paper. Which just goes to show that comfort food is anything you grow up with. Even a chow mein sandwich!
What was the most surprising thing you learned from the “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” chefs’ oral histories?
KIAN LAM KHO I interviewed Peter Chang from the Baltimore/DC area. He’s originally from Hubei, but after he was trained as a chef, the government assigned him to Chongqing. His cooking is closer to Sichuan than Hubei cuisine. He managed to be appointed the chef at the Chinese embassy in DC. Just before the end of his contract, he decided he wanted to stay in the US, so he disappeared and went underground. At first, he cooked the buffet at a small Chinese restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia but then he said to his boss, “Give me a chance to put together a menu.” It was popular, the restaurant was discovered by the Washington Post, and then everybody started speculating about this fantastic new chef. But he was an illegal immigrant! Peter was afraid to go public, so he left that restaurant and moved south to Atlanta. He just kept moving. For years. But the Washington Post had this one reporter who loved his food so much that he tracked him down and kept writing stories about the latest sighting of Peter Chang. Then about six or seven years ago, a Chinese restaurant investor decided to sponsor Peter and help him open a restaurant. Finally, he became legit.
When I interviewed him, I asked: “What regional cuisine do you identify with? Since your training was Sichuan, do you consider yourself a Sichuan chef?”
He replied: “No, it’s Peter Chang cuisine!” Which makes sense! His style combines Hubei and Chongqing and the modifications he’s made since he moved here. Most of the new chefs in the West use Western cooking as their base technique. But Peter Chang uses Chinese cooking techniques as his base. Even though he’s using local ingredients, you can just tell. It’s a very different approach.
ANDREW REBATTA Reflecting on all the narratives from these oral histories, I feel really fortunate that my mom left China when she did. The family escaped to Hong Kong in 1949, and she was only one year old at the time, so she didn’t go through the food scarcity and rationing that Martin Yan and Wenbin Yuan talked about.
A lot of the interns at MOCA are Chinese nationals, and it’s interesting to see how getting a new perspective on Mao Zedong and recent Chinese history changes their general outlook on life. They know that their parents’ generation underwent hardships, but they forget how difficult times were and how life was so precarious back then. That’s important to represent and I do think it is well-represented in this show’s oral histories. What was surprising to me was how forthcoming the chefs were in telling their personal stories. My family never talks about the past – or they don’t talk about how they felt – but these chefs were really willing to share and reflect deeply on what they had gone through.
Chinese food has deeply infiltrated American pop culture by appealing not just to the mainstream but also marginalized communities (think “Jewish Christmas” and hip-hop paeans to ’hood Chinese). What’s your favorite anecdote about Chinese food being embraced by an unlikely set of consumers?
HERB TAM As a big hip-hop head, I can tell you that a lot of New York rappers do include references to Chinese food or culture in their lyrics. For us in Chinese America, food is the ultimate bridge for non-Chinese to get a taste of Chinese culture. The idea that restaurants are cultural spaces as well as places to eat is an important revelation of this show as well. For many non-Chinese people, their attitudes about us are shaped by the experience of going to a Chinese restaurant, for better or worse. Hopefully through this show people will see that there’s intentionality behind what chefs do, the decisions they make about menu options or how the restaurant is designed are goes back to how they think about their own Chineseness or the ability to make a living and survive in America. How do they negotiate those two very different ways of being with regards to the food they’re making and serving? That’s an interesting conversation that happens within the show.
ANDREW REBATTA The first thing that popped into my head was not historical but fictional: the last scene from A Christmas Story. It’s 1950s Indiana, the mother has just finished cooking the Christmas turkey, leaves it out on the table and then the neighbors’ dogs come barging into the kitchen and destroy the turkey. Everybody’s sad, the mother’s crying because all her hard work has gone to waste. So what do they do? They go to a Chinese restaurant. It’s super-racist stereotypical. The waiters bring out the duck, and the father makes a joke – “It’s looking at me” – because the duck’s head is still on. Then the waiters in their red jackets start singing Christmas carols, but instead of “Fa-la-la-la-la,” they sing “Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra.” That scene has always entertained me and – as I get older – also horrifies me. Because the movie is such a part of the American imaginary and this scene is an acknowledgement of Chinese people being here in this country for the entire 20th century. This is a typical American Christian family in another space, having a good time – the Chinese restaurant is actually saving their Christmas.
AUDRA ANG Here in Durham, NC, I volunteer for an organization called Refugee Community Partnership. They assigned me a refugee family who were the Karen minority of Burma, and my job was to help them figure out daily life in America. Communication was really difficult in the beginning because of the language barrier. But they did figure out that I love food and that I was curious about their cuisine. Eventually they said “We should cook something for you” and I was like “Hell yeah!” That was a turning point in our relationship – when I became more like family than some random person who showed up every week. The first time, they made deep-fried dumplings for me; the second time it was spring rolls. It was delicious, but I wondered if this was typical Karen food. “No, it’s Chinese!” they said. They were the last people in the world I would have expected to cook Chinese food for me. But they’d spent time in a Thai refugee camp, where they had learned to cook Thai and Chinese dishes.
You do find Chinese food in the most surprising places. I was in Iceland earlier this year, and while walking down a main street in Reykjavik I saw a noodle restaurant. Then we went to that famous glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón, and in this pristine blue ice, I see this empty instant-noodles carton, because one of the busloads of Chinese tourists had littered on a glacier.
Yeah, the Chinese influence is ubiquitous. I met this guy from Zimbabwe who told me, “I want to learn how to cook Chinese food because that’s all I eat when I’m in Harare.” In the early 2000s, Chinese restaurants in the Green Zone in Baghdad made news. When I was in Kabul in 2003, I passed by that one Chinese restaurant, Golden Key, and I thought, “Wow, the Chinese really are everywhere.” In a way, it makes me proud. Regardless of whether it’s a good representation of the cuisine, it’s kinda cool that our food is out there – everywhere.
cover photo (Danny Bowien's Thrice Cooked Bacon) courtesy of Andrew Rowat
“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America” is on exhibit through September 10, 2017 at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York City.
To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China, by Audra Ang. Lyons Press, 2012.
Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees: Essential Techniques of Authentic Chinese Cooking by Kian Lam Kho. Clarkson Potter, 2015.
For more on the chow mein sandwich, check out “Mein Roads: Touring the South Coast of Massachusetts in search of America's most unusual sandwich” from issue six of our print magazine.