The Struggles of Writing About Chinese Food as a Chinese Person
April 25, 2017 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Our food is still largely looked on upon from the sidelines as a mysterious cuisine of antiquity. Only certain dishes like noodles, dumplings, kebabs, and rice bowls have been normalized. The majority is still largely stigmatized because, bluntly put, white people have not decided they like it yet. Clarissa Wei writes 2500 words for Vice.com's Munchies section.
posted by cgc373 (59 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
 
This article reminds me of how absolutely cringeworthy/racist Alton Brown could get on Good Eats whenever the topic of the episode was some kind of Asian food. And that hot mess was over a decade ago. I guess not much has changed in foodie culture. It's not that you have to belong to the culture a food originated in in order to write about it, but as this article points out- if you don't, you should be prepared to do a ton of research in order to not be wrong/inaccurate/racist. Very good article.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 3:38 PM on April 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


Good job Munchies, the story directly below is about eating ass meat pizza in Nanjing.
posted by Keith Talent at 3:55 PM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


Such is the essential nature of Vice.
posted by aramaic at 4:05 PM on April 25, 2017 [15 favorites]


My favorite part of the article was the bit about the magazine not wanting to run Sichuanese and Shanghainese articles too close together, because China had already been covered. Stupid, especially since running them close together ought to be a built-in hook for readers, i.e. "Don't fall into the trap of thinking that there is any one thing that one can call Chinese food. You might as well say that escargot comes from Finland. Check *this* stuff out..."
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:06 PM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


The problem is a deep seated one in white Western food culture. The "high culture" of fancy restaurants etc regards non-Western food, and to some extent any non-classical French food, in sort of the same way as literary fiction regards genre writing: not really serious, but sometimes capable of being raised to the status of Art if appropriated effectively enough by a member of the elite. Of course there's a cachet in knowing about these things, but only if you already have the cultural capital for it to be a sort of secondary concern. That this occurs within the context of the fundamental racism of our society only exacerbates the problem. And then, of course, that elite and aspirational food culture sets the tone for everything else. I'm not sure it's even possible for the kind of food culture we currently live in to escape this trap. As long as food is tied to aspiration and performance as it currently is, an honest, non-appropriative interaction between food cultures seems hard to achieve.

That doesn't mean we can't try to make things better though. Certainly publications should be setting a policy of employing writers of the relevant cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Given the huge benefit that our food culture derives from the input of Chinese and other non-Western cuisines, trying to engage with it in a less appropriative way seems like the very least we can do.
posted by howfar at 4:26 PM on April 25, 2017 [48 favorites]


in sort of the same way as literary fiction regards genre writing: not really serious, but sometimes capable of being raised to the status of Art if appropriated effectively enough by a member of the elite.

Thanks for this characterization. Dead on in both contexts.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:38 PM on April 25, 2017 [12 favorites]


On just a really simple, practical level is the matter of language. Contrast the ass meat pizza article with Wei's other writing on food in China. In ass meat pizza, the locals yell incomprehensibly at the writer, or they speak in broken English - they're caricatures. In Wei's articles, she's able to have real conversations and the tone is totally different - they sound normal.
posted by airmail at 4:38 PM on April 25, 2017 [9 favorites]


Now I want to try jellyfish heads, and I'm also freshly pissed off at the dominant paradigm.
posted by bunderful at 4:43 PM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


It this the place to plug Chinese streetfood vlogs by US contract teacher expats that don't get anywhere near enough attention? With as opposite an approach to the blow-in Vice mockthentic orientalism as possible?
posted by bonehead at 5:03 PM on April 25, 2017


I've seen a lot of ink spilled over elite fancy Japanese food. Not sure which other non-Western cuisines have really made that leap, as a general cultural thing, but then again, I don't really follow the whole elite food thing.

IMHO a big part of the weird attitude towards Chinese food is how American "Chinese food" is the by-word for student dinners. That gives the racism an extra piton to hold onto.

More white people should be aware of how weird their food might seem to others. My older Chinese (HK and Guangdong) in-laws are baffled by cinnamon, and lamb, and tongue, and gefilte fish- all things that I had grown up eating. Those last two are more typically Jewish-ish, but who's counting...

Jellyfish is very tasty btw
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:06 PM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


publications should be setting a policy of employing writers of the relevant cultural and ethnic backgrounds

I agree, but IMO this isn't because people with the relevant backgrounds are inherently better writers on the topic, but because they're the most likely to be qualified. To write well on a cuisine, you should respect it, be fluent in the language, and be knowledgeable about its history. I wanted to bring this up because while "personal insight and the humanity" are important, I don't want to mystify the topic either, which can lead to exoticization and ghettoization. Like Italian and French, Chinese cuisine has a long history with an incredible amount of craft, so it should be treated the same way - you need writers with the chops. Because it's been historically denigrated in the West, it happens that the most qualified writers are likely to be Chinese themselves.
posted by airmail at 5:12 PM on April 25, 2017 [6 favorites]


I posted this to FB earlier today, and was waiting for it to show up here. The important pull quote for me? "Please, think about who you give the microphone to."
posted by hanov3r at 5:24 PM on April 25, 2017 [5 favorites]


I've seen a lot of ink spilled over elite fancy Japanese food. Not sure which other non-Western cuisines have really made that leap, as a general cultural thing, but then again, I don't really follow the whole elite food thing.

Japanese food outside of Japan is generally crappy anyway. Hell, Japanese food is generally crap outside of Tsuruga.
posted by My Dad at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


My older Chinese (HK and Guangdong) in-laws are baffled by cinnamon, and lamb, and tongue, and gefilte fish- all things that I had grown up eating.

A goodly portion of my social circle is baffled that I consider these a staple part of my diet. "No bread wtf!!!!!" and "but it's not cooked!!!!!!" are the standard objections, with variations on "but don't Westerners eat [burgers/steaks/pizza/etc]?"...the fact that I go days without grains or cooked vegetables apparently means I should be dead. Oh and people politicize food. I live in Beijing with people from Milan, Guangzhou, and Guangxi, and a sometimes-resident German who likes to cook more than the rest of us combined, and they all have opinions.

And then things in the article are also true, so in summary, 95% of the time anyone opens their mouth about food in which the opening involves talking rather than putting food in, the "well actually" urge rises within me, and before long I want to retch.

But I've had some very interesting conversations about Chinese food, and it's so important to realize that just like "American food", it's a massive, sprawling, living thing that even expert critics and chefs are bound to sound stupid about it. And it has its own internal hierarchies and trends and traditions and mythologies. Like Italian, there are lots and lots of local traditions that simply don't get talked about because the people who know about them think no one outside their village will be interested. The hell I ain't. The Guangxi roommate brings home the weirdest fruit. Are these apricots even? I never know half the time.

Meanwhile I was walking around Shanghai the other day and stumbled into a reservation-only Tunisian restaurant that primarily caters to Japanese businessmen, and that with a Shanghai twist. And with that man, that sole proprietor, I had a hell of a talk about food. Berber Cafe, if I may plug it.

It could all be so simple, and yet...and yet...I'm having Doritos from Taiwan and fresh-ground Yunnan coffee for breakfast...and that is all.
posted by saysthis at 5:50 PM on April 25, 2017 [19 favorites]


the fact that I go days without grains or cooked vegetables apparently means I should be dead.

Ah, Chinese food therapy. My mother warned me off eating too many salads because it was too "cooling", but apparently it's OK for white people to eat lots of salads because their constitutions are better suited to it, or something.
posted by airmail at 6:05 PM on April 25, 2017


Funny, I read Chinese people writing about food all the time. There are TONS of really well-written food blogs, especially from Vancouver. My favorite food blog is a San Diegan writer of Japanese descent married to a Chinese woman who eat at all the various "ethnic" eaters.

As for white people who don't care for boiled pig intestine but love fish sauce - it's mostly because they have no idea how fish sauce is made.

You're telling your story now. Noone should read cooking or eating columns from professional critics or food writers, because they're almost always poor at it or trying too hard to be artistic. Reading food blogs by amateurs is the way to go. Also, anyone who writes professionally, especially about food is "a member of the elite", no matter what ethnic group they may belong to. As for the "high culture" of fancy restaurants... well, it won't matter soon. There won't be any left in the US soon as the middle class gets poorer and poorer.
"The problem is a deep seated one in white Western food culture. The "high culture" of fancy restaurants etc regards non-Western food, and to some extent any non-classical French food, in sort of the same way as literary fiction regards genre writing: not really serious, but sometimes capable of being raised to the status of Art if appropriated effectively enough by a member of the elite. "
posted by Docrailgun at 6:37 PM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


Good article and good discussion here. I've also noticed a tendency (even in the linked article) for people to associate Chinese food with "weird"(to Westerners) foods, like jellyfish heads or intestines or whatever, and exaggerate the importance of that stuff. You know when someone is like "Oh yeah I ate at this totally authentic Chinese place, we had all this weird stuff like jellyfish heads and intestines!" The implication being that the only authentic Chinese foods are "weird" foods. And it's like, yeah, offal and other "weird" things are maybe more common in Chinese cuisine than in Western cuisine, but it's not the only thing that Chinese people eat. They also have dishes that are just made out of chicken, or pork, or whatever, that are 100% authentic, that aren't particularly "weird."

And that's not to say the "weird" stuff isn't good or that there's anything wrong with eating them. It's just tiring that the conversation always fixates on those things - the otherness and "weird"-ness of Chinese food. Why can't we talk about how great dongpo rou (braised pork belly) is, or lazi ji (chili chicken), or even just a simple qing zheng yu (steamed fish) or jiachang doufu (homestyle tofu)?
posted by pravit at 6:52 PM on April 25, 2017 [15 favorites]


Yes, grateful for the article and the healthy discussion here.

One thing that I've decided to do is to not translate Korean food into English word-for-word, but to use the actual name. No italics, either. So: Gochujang, not "red pepper paste". I had been doing so out of some sense of helpfulness, but now I realize I shouldn't.

After all, I know the words escargot, linguine, and aioli, and not as "edible snail food", "little-tongue", and "garlic and oil".
posted by suedehead at 7:37 PM on April 25, 2017 [10 favorites]


Ah, Chinese food therapy. My mother warned me off eating too many salads because it was too "cooling", but apparently it's OK for white people to eat lots of salads because their constitutions are better suited to it, or something.

I warm myself back up by waving a magnet covered in burning sage over my stomach. But first I smear the magnet in a paste made of poison arrow frog blood and the ashes of Jackie Chan's moustache clippings. Those clippings are not easy to come by, I'll tell ya.

As for white people who don't care for boiled pig intestine but love fish sauce - it's mostly because they have no idea how fish sauce is made.

It's just tiring that the conversation always fixates on those things - the otherness and "weird"-ness of Chinese food. Why can't we talk about how great dongpo rou (braised pork belly) is, or lazi ji (chili chicken), or even just a simple qing zheng yu (steamed fish) or jiachang doufu (homestyle tofu)?


These exist almost solely to gross people out. China is the country that invented the concept of fetus fruit 600 years ago and they've been giggling about it ever since. Guangzhou roommate proudly declares people from Guangzhou eat everything, no really everything, as she chomps down pig feet (which aren't even a Guangzhou thing). Western racism sucks, but please do realize there is a long, glorious history of grossout in Chinese cuisine. They treasure the "ewwwww!" as much as we do...yet they somehow manage not to make it about fricken racial politics (except of course when theorizing about the things Westerners don't eat, which in fact we do, see haggis vs. exploded stomach, which is really good and not at all gross! But which my foodie friends from Xi'an won't even touch, because they think it's gross! It's not!). Would that we could do the same.

Noone should read cooking or eating columns from professional critics or food writers, because they're almost always poor at it or trying too hard to be artistic. Reading food blogs by amateurs is the way to go. Also, anyone who writes professionally, especially about food is "a member of the elite", no matter what ethnic group they may belong to.

PREACH. With that Tunisian in Shanghai, we had a conversation about the Moroccan "mixologist" in Beijing who runs "Berber" establishments, and the Tunisian had nothing but contempt. "He puts sugar in this?! No! He cooks to minimize ingredient costs." Soooo much F&B hype in the Tier 1 cities, and so little that's not optimized for cheap ingredients. Someone somewhere should start a blog that posts kitchen recipes and costs from popular restaurant chains in China comparing them to home recipes of the same dish. "M04R SUGAR!" becomes a theme pretty quickly once you start digging.

Not sure how pertinent this all is to the thread, but silliness about food seems to be innate to humans everywhere, and conversations about Chinese food are particularly tedious for reasons both Chinese and non-. And we in the West sure know how to bring the tedium too. My sincerest wish is that, one day, we can unite and rejoice in culinary douchiness as one, our faces locked in an eternal gasp of "u really put that in ur mouth OMG!" Only then can there be progress.
posted by saysthis at 7:54 PM on April 25, 2017 [7 favorites]


Western cuisines have plenty of offal, it's just usually not presented recognizably, or referred to as such. Various kinds of sausage, etc. Consider as well all the jokes about haggis - one of the few famous Western dishes that is overt about its ingredients - or the use of "tripe" as a figurative phrase.

on preview: haggismind
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:00 PM on April 25, 2017 [1 favorite]


One thing that I've decided to do is to not translate Korean food into English word-for-word, but to use the actual name. No italics, either. So: Gochujang, not "red pepper paste". I had been doing so out of some sense of helpfulness, but now I realize I shouldn't.
posted by suedehead at 11:37 AM on April 26 [+] [!]


Speaking as a translator, thank you. The only way to properly describe the thing is to use the name of the thing and not try to rename the thing, just let the thing be the thing! I have separate rates for food articles for precisely this reason, it's an actual real business consideration in my line of work, and in my professional circles, we all dread food articles because we know the client will come back with "what do you call [food] in English". And they always have pictures of the food anyway, and descriptions of how it's cooked, it's not like we don't know what's in the thing! We have wikipedia! I point again to exploded stomach. Chinese people know it's actually "quick-fried tripe", not a detonated digestive sack, but they don't know that from reading the name...which is literally "exploded stomach"/爆肚, they know it because habit. This dish is the reason diarrhea metaphors don't translate directly, and that's okay, but of course English might benefit from borrowing "quick-fried tripe" as a diarrhea metaphor just to complete the circle.

I'm threadsitting and I'm going to recuse myself now.
posted by saysthis at 8:18 PM on April 25, 2017 [8 favorites]


If you tried to explain cheese to people who'd never heard of it, it would sound way more weird than jellyfish or tripe.

"Okay, so you take some milk."
"Milk?"
"Yeah, you know, milk from a cow that they use to feed their calves."
"But you're not a calf."
"Right, but we take the milk and eat it too."
"..."
"So, anyway, you take the milk and mix it with a little bit of the cow's stomach lining. This makes it thicken up a bit."
"Stomach lining?!"
"Right, so you let that sit for a while,"
"And then you eat it?"
"No, then you put in some bacteria."
"Bacteria."
"Yeah, they make the stuff a little bit sour, it tastes good! Really!"
"Okay, so then you eat it."
"Well, no, usually we pack it into a mold and let it sit for a while."
"Like how long?"
"Maybe a few months."
"A few months? Then is it ready to eat?"
"Well, it could be. But for the really good kinds, sometimes we take a needle and inject some fungus."
"Fungus?! "
"Yeah, and then we let it sit for a while longer. A year. Maybe two."
"And nobody gets sick from eating this?"
"No, it's totally normal. People put it on lettuce. They dip their chicken wings in it. It's one of the most popular foods in America."
"You Americans, you'll eat anything..."
posted by Daily Alice at 8:40 PM on April 25, 2017 [46 favorites]


Overthinking a plate of boiled pig intestines
posted by kcds at 8:46 PM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


I totally agree with this, but I also wonder if, say, there are Americans in Japan who decry the way that the Japanese have appropriated our traditions by eating a bucket of KFC on Christmas day.

Isn't it just that the dominant culture in any society will appropriate the food, bastardize it all to hell and then call it authentic? I'm not saying that it's a super idea that white Americans do that with Chinese food, but something tells me the Chinese aren't serving cheeseburgers, milkshakes and french fries with reverent socio-cultural respect.
posted by chinese_fashion at 9:20 PM on April 25, 2017 [3 favorites]


"People were afraid of our ingredients," says Breana Lai, an associate food editor at EatingWell magazine, who is half-Chinese. "They would see our shrimp paste bottles and think it's this really horrific pot."

So imagine my surprise when the 2000s hit and, miraculously, the food of my people was suddenly cool.
This hits home a lot.

I point back to how "when the kimchi hits the fan" was in use before the 2000s, when people kept saying it stank, how it was too spicy and too gross because of fish paste and fermentation...

...and now 7-up is trying to market it*. Stephanie Izard makes a version of it, I guess, at Little Goat. Neutered and tasteless versions of it appear in grocery stores all over now, because it's a healthy superfood or some shit.

Suddenly it's cool, instead of disgusting.

Fuck you guys.

*Yes, some do use 7-Up or Sprite, but there's a sort of reason behind it: post-war poverty.
posted by anem0ne at 9:55 PM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


Isn't it just that the dominant culture in any society will appropriate the food, bastardize it all to hell and then call it authentic? I'm not saying that it's a super idea that white Americans do that with Chinese food, but something tells me the Chinese aren't serving cheeseburgers, milkshakes and french fries with reverent socio-cultural respect.

do we want to go back to all of the other threads about cultural appropriation, or no, to really figure out why this style of tu quoque argument is as stale as two day old wonderbread?
posted by anem0ne at 9:58 PM on April 25, 2017 [12 favorites]


Overthinking a plate of boiled pig intestines

Ugh. Hotdogs. You can keep em.
posted by bonehead at 10:12 PM on April 25, 2017 [4 favorites]


> Western racism sucks, but please do realize there is a long, glorious history of grossout in Chinese cuisine. They treasure the "ewwwww!" as much as we do...yet they somehow manage not to make it about fricken racial politics

I really like this article and this thread is interesting, and...I can't let this go. "Fricken racial politics" is not something that Asian American food writers are bringing to the conversation: it already exists. It is not brought into being by people of color in the US pointing out its existence. Of course it colors (ha ha) the depiction ("How weird! How icky! How exotic!") of food from Foreign Lands, especially lands largely populated by people who are not white. Especially when it's aimed at a white audience. How (some) Chinese people create and present "grossout" food to other Chinese people has nothing to do with how (white) American people portray those foods - not to mention those not even created for the purpose of grossing anybody out - to other white American people.
posted by rtha at 10:13 PM on April 25, 2017 [18 favorites]


One thing that I've decided to do is to not translate Korean food into English word-for-word, but to use the actual name. No italics, either. So: Gochujang, not "red pepper paste". I had been doing so out of some sense of helpfulness, but now I realize I shouldn't.

I love Korean food, but am illiterate in Korean. But most menus for Korean restaurants, or recipes I look for, have only written Korean, and an attempted English translation, which I /cannot understand for the life of me/. I hope your way spreads, is basically what I'm trying to say.
posted by corb at 10:29 PM on April 25, 2017 [2 favorites]


I really like this article and this thread is interesting, and...I can't let this go. It is not brought into being by people of color in the US pointing out its existence. ...How (some) Chinese people create and present "grossout" food to other Chinese people has nothing to do with how (white) American people portray those foods - not to mention those not even created for the purpose of grossing anybody out - to other white American people.

Point of clarification, I agree with you. I was saying there's a way to share the joy of this food, even the grossout food, without it being "Other". I do every day! I am frustrated and disappointed that others can't, because it gets filtered through...y'know...that weird racial lens white Americans have built for themselves. It doesn't have to be this way.

I totally agree with this, but I also wonder if, say, there are Americans in Japan who decry the way that the Japanese have appropriated our traditions by eating a bucket of KFC on Christmas day.

Isn't it just that the dominant culture in any society will appropriate the food, bastardize it all to hell and then call it authentic? I'm not saying that it's a super idea that white Americans do that with Chinese food, but something tells me the Chinese aren't serving cheeseburgers, milkshakes and french fries with reverent socio-cultural respect.


...Let's Burger and talk about it over michiladas as Sand Pebbles, just two of the many Chinese-owned, Chinese-designed "Western" menus in BJ that do so, so right by a "Western" tradition and sell to a mostly Chinese clientelle. Of course there are abortions and monstrosities out there too (Origus buffet, which is $7 for all you can eat "pizza" and beer, national chain, and that ain't tomato sauce on 'em), but the "authentic" experience is available and enjoyed. That's the case in at least most major Chinese cities.

My anecdata: Americans laughing at the Pizza Hut menu in China is a stale cliche among expats (and it honestly is an abomination, but Chinese Pizza Hut redeems itself with pretty decent fried rice for the price). Sure they appropriate American food. Where the appropriations suck, they're generally cheap, much like your local Chinese buffet. I personally don't mind, but there are some Americans who seem to...and they can get off my lawn. I find much broader annoyance among Americans at Chinese people who ascribe Chinese medicine attributes to Western food, like how salad is "cooling"...but we invented Gwenyth Paltrow and juice cleanses, and I find most Americans here are fine with the idea of being equally annoyed at our homegrown woo. I also find frustration among non-Americans and Americans alike that China tends to group all Euro-American food together as "Western" and assume it's homogeneous, but "elite" Chinese diners take great pride in correcting that assumption, even at tables where visibly Euro-American people like myself are present...which feels all too familiar.

When that happens, sometimes they look at me, and I say, "I'm not [non-Midwesterner], man, how would I know? Where I'm from we hotdish." Minds are subsequently blown. "All those layers...together?" And then the truly awesome few, the truly enlightened, say, "Find me tater tots and an oven, we're doing this Hunan-style." And it hasn't worked out yet, but we've had fun trying.
posted by saysthis at 4:07 AM on April 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


This is an interesting subject. Food is intensely politicized. People say that food brings people together, but talking about dietary habits -- let alone serving an unthinkable -- can derail your family dinner as quickly as religion or politics. Food has meaning. It's a signifier that demarcates boundaries in a very visceral way, like with the weird phenomenon of cilantro-hate a few years back, which had some rather xenophobic overtones. Or when Obama got called out for having his burger with <gasp> FRENCH mustard!

My personal pet peeve used to be the American love affair with Sriracha sauce. There's really nothing wrong with Sriracha. I mean it's a rather gunky, blotchy affair, way too sweet for my palate and with a texture a bit like hair gel, but otherwise entirely serviceable as a generic, low-effort way to add some heat and flavor to a dish -- NOT as a way to signal that you are an adventurous, open-minded type who KNOWS and APPRECIATES "foreighne cuisine" by drinking bottles of the stuff. Dude. Seriously.

Luckily that fad has moved well past its prime. Currently I suffer only a mild irritation of overly precious food gentrification. This carrot was born in Finland, where it studied geometry and Norse mythology before it was hand-picked by a three-hundred year old botanist. Our Chef discovered him on Instagram, while searching for a heirloom style of beard.
posted by dmh at 5:38 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


My older Chinese (HK and Guangdong) in-laws are baffled by cinnamon, and lamb

This honesty surprises me. I'd thought lamb was a pretty popular meat from cenral Asia on east, but I guess as you move into China, it's replaced by pork? And isn't cinnamon a major constituent of Guangdong five-spice?

most menus for Korean restaurants, or recipes I look for, have only written Korean, and an attempted English translation

If you know the names of the dishes you're looking for, Hangul's worth knowing. The language itself is, like most languages, difficult to acquire as an adult, but the script is elegant and really quite easy to learn.
posted by jackbishop at 5:55 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


Clarissa Wei believes that kebabs are Chinese.
posted by euphorb at 6:35 AM on April 26, 2017


My older Chinese (HK and Guangdong) in-laws are baffled by cinnamon, and lamb

This honesty surprises me. I'd thought lamb was a pretty popular meat from cenral Asia on east, but I guess as you move into China, it's replaced by pork?


Outside of the north and northwestern regions of China, lamb is very uncommon in traditional Chinese cuisines. In the southeastern regions of China and in Taiwan, pork, seafood and poultry are the animal proteins of choice; there are very very few traditional Taiwanese or Cantonese recipes calling for lamb. As for beef, it's also eaten, but has traditionally been avoided by many Han Chinese as cattle are seen as valuable beasts of burden.

This just underlines the diversity of food in China, as was mentioned earlier in this thread -- the notoriously spicy food of Chongqing and Sichuan is really quite different from the lightly spiced steamed dim sum of Guangdong.

(Of course, as with everything else in food, you can find lamb in many/most places these days and there's increasing "fusion" in dishes, but lamb is still overall associated with north/northwestern China. My parents who are of Taiwanese/southeastern Chinese descent do have a couple of Chinese lamb dishes they like, but these are all from a Chinese Islamic restaurant, which serves food from the northwestern regions of China.)

As for cinnamon, it is indeed present in five-spice powder and does get used whol in braises, but other than that it's not very common -- I can't think of a single Chinese recipe that calls for ground cinnamon by itself, as opposed to five-spice powder.
posted by andrewesque at 6:38 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


I can't think of a single Chinese recipe that calls for ground cinnamon by itself

This is surprising to me for a few reasons. First, what most people in the US and around the world know as cinnamon is usually cassia, which is native to China and used all sorts of ways. Second, "red cooking" is used in quite a few of the eastern Chinese cuisines and often uses cassia. If you haven't had hong shao rou (can't vouch for this recipe, but it looks pretty close) in your life, you've really missed something. Third, I've had cinnamon in dishes from just about every region in China. I had it in Haerbin in some dongbei food. I've had it in rural Gansu in some Hui minority food. I've had it in sweets in Xinjiang. I've had it in Xian (the rou jia mo stewed meat often has cassia) and Chongqing (you can find pieces of cassia floating in hotpot sometimes). It's everywhere!

This does remind me of the time I wanted to make some pumpkin bread during the fall in Nanjing. I found a lot of the spices I needed; cinnamon was easy to find in hypermarkets and wet markets. But nutmeg could not be found. I was complaining about it to a friend who also liked to cook and happened to be studying traditional Chinese medicine. He said it's really common in traditional Chinese medicine and I should just go to a pharmacy. He wrote down the Chinese name of nutmeg and off I went to a pharmacy...the sort that looks like a huge card catalog of spices behind a counter. They didn't bat an eye and asked how much I wanted. Asked for a couple of ounces (some fraction of a jin) and they weighed it out to the nearest whole nutmeg nut. I didn't have a way to grind it, though, so I asked if they could grind it up for me. This is when the questions started. Never grind this, they said. No way...you should never do that. What are you doing? I said I was going to cook with it. NO! Never! You must not cook with this! So I paid and left with my whole nutmeg nuts and spent more than a few minutes crushing it at home with a wine bottle. The pumpkin bread was ok. We had to cook it in a toaster oven.

On the subject of Chinese cooking, check out Fuschia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice. Just got it and have only cooked the hui guo rou recipe, but that turned out better than any recipe I've tried and really tasted close to what I've had in Sichuan. She trained as a chef in Sichuan and really knows her stuff. Best of all, in the back there's a well-photographed and -described guide to spices, sauces, vegetables, and tofus that might not be recognized by most non-Chinese people. There's the English name, a few different Chinese names with characters, transliterations, and pictures of a few different brands you might find. You can go to a Chinese grocery with it and match bottles to the book and be well on your way.
posted by msbrauer at 7:15 AM on April 26, 2017 [4 favorites]


But most menus for Korean restaurants, or recipes I look for, have only written Korean, and an attempted English translation, which I /cannot understand for the life of me/.

You may have already run into her, but I really like Maangchi's videos. Not only are her videos fun to watch and easy to follow (frequently including recommended substitutions if you don't have a Korean grocery store nearby), but she always makes a point of referring to each dish and ingredient by both its Korean name and its literal English translation when first introduced, then usually just its Korean name thereafter. She also puts up the Hangul and a transliteration as well. In addition to being good cultural education, this also makes it really easy to find the right ingredients, because you have three different things to try to look for when you're in the store.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:36 AM on April 26, 2017 [7 favorites]


My mother warned me off eating too many salads because it was too "cooling", but apparently it's OK for white people to eat lots of salads because their constitutions are better suited to it, or something.

Though the cooling thing is completely not true, for me as a person of Chinese descent some form of it still influences me to this day. I don't really like eating salad during cold days, and I attribute it to the fact that there are fewer raw vegetable dishes in the Chinese cuisine I'm familiar with. But I still eat salad during the spring and summer. And I manage to get my greens in during the cold days too, by either mixing up cooked vegetables with raw veggies or wilting raw greens in soup. It's probably considered odd among folks who are used to them separately, but it works for me.

You know when someone is like "Oh yeah I ate at this totally authentic Chinese place, we had all this weird stuff like jellyfish heads and intestines!" The implication being that the only authentic Chinese foods are "weird" foods.

Actually, despite living here for most of my life I still don't think I've managed to achieve ultimate authentic American-ness partly because I've never had scrapple, rocky mountain oysters, or coffee milk. But I have eaten a hotdish.
posted by FJT at 7:45 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


If you haven't had hong shao rou (can't vouch for this recipe, but it looks pretty close) in your life, you've really missed something.

I am Chinese(-American) and have eaten and made hong shao rou and other Chinese braises many, many times in my life.

I specified "ground" cinnamon in my comment for a reason, as it's my experience cooking Chinese food that *whole* cinnamon is much more commonly called for, as I mentioned in my post (although I notice I ineptly typed it as "whol" when I mentioned that whole cinnamon does get used in braises).

You can't have "pieces of cassia" floating in the dish if it was ground, not whole, and both the recipes you linked to in your post called for whole cassia, not ground.

But I'm just speaking from my personal experience, so others may disagree with me.
posted by andrewesque at 7:54 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


Wei's childhood experience with presenting Chinese food at schol mirrors my own. I remember an incident in my youth where I brought chicken from a Chinese deli to a pot luck at school. The butcher had left a chicken claw in there, which is a normal thing to do, and then one my classmates 'ewwed' at it and that was that. The irony was that this school was in Monterey Park, CA and half my classmates were Asian descent or Asian-American. The positive is at least one classmate nibbled on the chicken claw.

Also similarly, I read an opinion article in NYT where this author was writing about American food from an Asian-American perspective. The incident in the opinion article was when the writer was a kid, she had an American friend that used to go to the writer's house and love SPAM. Then one day the American friend refused to eat spam, saying that her mom told her that it was disgusting. The irony is SPAM was invented and manufactured by Hormel Corporation, which is based in Minnesota.
posted by FJT at 8:27 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


chinese_fashion: Isn't it just that the dominant culture in any society will appropriate the food, bastardize it all to hell and then call it authentic?

No, and that would appear to be a supremely tone-deaf reading of the original article. The real issue is the highlighting of white American 'discovery' of foods of other cultures (especially after years of looking down their noses at it) and the loss of the voices of persons from those cultures in the larger American narrative of those foods.

I'm not saying that it's a super idea that white Americans do that with Chinese food, but something tells me the Chinese aren't serving cheeseburgers, milkshakes and french fries with reverent socio-cultural respect.

When cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and French fries have thousands of years of history to them, then you can complain if they're not getting the appropriate 'socio-cultural respect'.
posted by hanov3r at 8:40 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Clarissa Wei believes that kebabs are Chinese.
I don't call them kebabs in English, but these skewers (chuan) are a staple at every single Asian night market I've ever been to. Have the lamb, it's delicious!

My older Chinese (HK and Guangdong) in-laws are baffled by cinnamon, and lamb, and tongue ...
Also kind of surprising for me. My parents are from this region. Lamb is one of my father's favourite meats (though it's possible he only developed a taste for this later in life), and we had tongue plenty when I was growing up. I still love it. Here's a Cantonese (English subtitles) video tutorial for making 鹵水牛脷 (slow-cooked beef tongue).

Great article and discussion.
posted by invokeuse at 8:41 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


I can't speak for the lamb/cinnamon thing until I speak again with my in-laws, but it also goes to show you more broadly that, obviously, no region is homogenous. Almost nobody nobody else where I grew up (New York Capital Region) ate gefilte fish or tongue, and lamb actually wasn't that popular, either. But, if you were to read a foreign tourist guide on New York, one might get a wildly different impression, especially since Upstate is geographically and culturally distinct from NYC/LI, in ways that most people not from the area would neither know nor care about.

On the chicken claw thing, I remember baffling a classmate by talking about how I would eat bone marrow. Or, when I talk about eating tongue sammiches.

Point being, not taking away from the Chinese(-American) experience, but people in general can be babyish about what they perceive to be different or gross, and also it's very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that unfamiliar people/areas are homogenous.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:50 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


Also FWIW I feel like I never see lamb on the Brooklyn dim sum menus, which are obviously by/for the Cantonese-speaking community. I could be entirely mistaken, of course...
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:55 AM on April 26, 2017


but something tells me the Chinese aren't serving cheeseburgers, milkshakes and french fries with reverent socio-cultural respect.

That's not the same comparison. McDonald's and Starbucks are big multi-national corporations. They probably have binders and PDFs filled with exact specifications of how they want their ingredients sourced, cooked on which equipment, to exact weights and temperatures, how they want it presented, packaged, and to what restaurant decor they want it in and how the staff should dress and act when presenting the food. They have teams, no wait, more like an entire department of people who can teach the information and make sure as best as possible that any restaurant bearing the corporate name complies with their vision.

What does Chinese cuisine have again?
posted by FJT at 8:56 AM on April 26, 2017


The real issue is the highlighting of white American 'discovery' of foods of other cultures (especially after years of looking down their noses at it) and the loss of the voices of persons from those cultures in the larger American narrative of those foods.

This one made the rounds on my FB feed (and comes from a British publication, rather than an American one), not sure if it ever was posted here: Time Out horrifies Asian foodies with vile video comparing eating xiaolongbao to popping pimples

I think what I found interesting about this incident is that there is starting to be significant pushback when errors like this are made, which is made entirely possible because of the Internet. Pre-internet, I could imagine this being published in a guidebook or magazine and not getting corrected (or getting a cursory correction in the following issue), but the ease of response today means pushback is swift and inevitable.
posted by invokeuse at 8:58 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


The burger thing seems like a weird derail, because I don't think that anybody has gotten seriously het up over the respect owed a burger, let alone a McDonald's burger?

A more apt comparison might be the "borscht" or "spaghetti" you get at a place like Fay Dah, where it's clearly a highly remixed version of what a Slav/anglophone/Italian people would recognize as those things. But again, I don't know anybody who actually gives a shit about that, outside of a mild "hunh! didn't expect that" when your "borscht" arrives.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:01 AM on April 26, 2017


because I don't think that anybody has gotten seriously het up over the respect owed a burger, let alone a McDonald's burger?

Not respect, but it's not an uncommon experience when someone from America travels to wherever, gets culture shock, and is relieved to see the golden arches. That's not necessarily or exactly respect, but some mix of familiarity, good experiences, and feelings that are anchored around certain smells and tastes. That's part of the reason why McD's spends so much time trying to replicate the experience. Not exactly down to the "T", because McD's understands it has to cater to local tastes and sometimes aims for urbanites, but the "core" is there.

And that's not even getting into the fact that since McD's is a customer-oriented corporation, there are potential consequences for the employee and possibly the company when a customer feels that their burger doesn't meet expectations (i.e., not respected). Because of that potential threat, employees are sure gonna try to treat a burger with respect, at least when the bosses are watching.
posted by FJT at 9:25 AM on April 26, 2017


[One comment deleted. Please consider whether your comment will come across as trying to well-actually in a cheap way that ignores obvious context.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:40 AM on April 26, 2017


Her writings from a grand tour around China are really interesting
posted by mumimor at 11:04 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]


(Of course, as with everything else in food, you can find lamb in many/most places these days and there's increasing "fusion" in dishes, but lamb is still overall associated with north/northwestern China. My parents who are of Taiwanese/southeastern Chinese descent do have a couple of Chinese lamb dishes they like, but these are all from a Chinese Islamic restaurant, which serves food from the northwestern regions of China.)

I know I'm commenting a lot here, but lamb is a subject near and dear to me, near because they deliver at 3AM, and dear because of all the junky oily meaty spicy late night artery-clogging I'm-eating-it-right-now-oh-god-it's-good...

One of the unique things about living in Beijing is that outside of their home turf, it's where Xinjiang, Mongolian, and Tibetan food have been the longest known and established, and it's probably the most accessible international destination to find them. There are diasporas from all three regions in Beijing. All three traditions heavily feature mutton, and have been a major influence on northern Chinese cuisine. Beijing has its palace cuisine, but the other four traditions, which I've seen a Chinese historian or three blithely call "camp food"...the things that they do with lamb are incredible, and it makes sense that they have lamb in common, because historically nomads and herders and arid regions where pigs are too water-intensive compared to grazing livestock, but they are not by any means the same tradition. They all do different and incredible things with lamb, and since in Beijing they're all next to each other, they do borrow ideas from each other here in ways they don't in the borders between the three regions, and of course in Beijing they've been catering to picky eaters for centuries 'cause it's the imperial capital, and of course since reform and opening up lots of new migrants from the lesser-known regions of each where they have local variations have come to the capital city and opened restaurants...and then there's the Chinese Muslim/Hui/回 thing, which is a whole other thing, but they don't touch pork and have had to work around that fact in the context of Chinese food and its pork fixation which is like how do you even...

I don't know where the Xinjiang/Mongolian/Tibetan chefs and food writers are in English, but boy howdy would they have some interesting stuff to tell you. "Tibetan" alone, because talk about an umbrella term, ethnic divisions, regional variations, different crops and different elevations, different religious schools and monasteries banning this or that ingredient and the locals adapting...it gets complicated up there...the sheer scholarship that goes into yak butter...how could anyone not from the tradition even talk intelligently about it without years of study? I've been here over a decade and learned enough to know just how little I know about...about just the lamb.

Have the lamb, it's delicious! Really. Have the lamb.
posted by saysthis at 1:13 PM on April 26, 2017 [5 favorites]


You must not cook with this! So I paid and left with my whole nutmeg nuts and spent more than a few minutes crushing it at home with a wine bottle.

The pharmacists weren't altogether wrong to warn you, (though perhaps overprudent).
posted by progosk at 1:37 PM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]


If you tried to explain cheese to people who'd never heard of it, it would sound way more weird than jellyfish or tripe.

A while ago someone wrote about the reactions of chefs who specialize in fermented tofu to a range of smelly cheeses when most of them had never had any cheese at all in their lives. I think this is it. It's interesting not just for the comparison of the flavor characteristics but also for the re-framing of something that is quotidian in the West as something strange and different.
posted by Copronymus at 2:44 PM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]


And this is why it's so important to have someone who understands the language to write about it:

Clarissa Wei writes on Hui and Uyghur cuisine. Who are the Hui, who are the Uyghur? Chinese Muslims, who follow the same Halal restrictions that all Muslims do. How do they signify their restaurants are Halal? Homophones.
posted by anem0ne at 9:36 PM on April 27, 2017 [7 favorites]


Chinese Food Week at Munchies has had so many great posts, including a re-run of this older article about Fung and Dave, two Americans who opened up a Chinese-American restaurant in Shanghai.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:46 AM on April 30, 2017 [3 favorites]


From one of the munchies articles: If you're ordering pizza, the biggest debate might be, "I know a better place." Or you might get into a debate about Chicago versus thin crust, or something like that. You won't have people jumping out of the bushes yelling about Italian pizza, or how this pizza is not real Italian or whatever. It's not 'Americanized' pizza.
Well, in some circles you do have people yelling about Italian pizza.

When this was posted, I was in Rome, as I have been almost every year for the 30 years and then with a break of the last five years. During the 80's, I lived in Rome, and ate systematically through every quarter and district.
Already before reading the article above, I had noticed that something really dramatic had happened with Roman cuisine. Most restaurants had assimilated a version of Roman cuisine that was described on blogs, TV shows, and in guidebooks. The menus across the city, even in distant suburbs were almost identical, and they where entirely different from what I had seen before. A huge change was that portions had grown absurdly: back in the day, a meal consisted of 4 small dishes, antipasti, primi, secondi and dessert. The whole of the meal would cover your needs, but each part would often be spartan. That was part of the attraction. Today, it would be almost impossible to eat all four courses, unless it was a tasting menu*.
Pizzas had changed too. Before, Roman pizzas were very thin with little filling, and cheap. Now Napolitan pizzas were everywhere, and delicious. (though I love the Roman style too)
Another change was the variation of dishes, and this was the most scary part. Before, cacio e pepe was a rare item, now it was on every single menu, along with a handful of well publicized Roman dishes like fried artichokes and oxtail stew (I never ever had oxtail stew when I lived in Rome during the 80's, though it is one of my favorite dishes). All the other traditional variations from house to house were gone. Instead there were new, salad-type pasta dishes and salads as mains, even in ancient traditional restaurants. You could get a caesar salad anywhere, or a dish of pasta tossed with asparagus and olive oil. In good places, this was delicious, and I realized that for someone who had grown up in Rome, the fascination of those old-school trattorias and granny food was probably limited.
Even the gelato scene has changed. Rome is a city that is on the border, or more correctly just below the border of cows milk production. So the famous Roman gelato was formerly dominated by fruits and nuts and chocolate. Now there is dairy everywhere, and fruits are even hard to find.
What has happened is that everything has been processed through the internet, which has a strong Anglo-Saxon tilt, and then reflected back into Roman culture. It's not (only) that Roman businesses are adapting to tourism, but also that Roman consumers are being influenced by international interpretations of Roman culture. It's confusing. Authenticity has always been a strange concept, and today it is an almost impossible idea.

When I was a kid, Italians were not "white" here in Europe. One of my best friends is Italian, and he was subjected to all the harassment and humiliation Black or Muslim people experience today. It's a great thing that has gone for Italians today, but I was reminded in Rome that this has come with a price.

This long rant has taken me a long time to write, because I didn't want to seem critical of the article. I find Clarissa Wei's writing interesting and informative. But every single article of hers I have read is American — in a good way, including the liberal American awareness of race and culture. And for me, she is a representative of a new generation, the generation I met in Rome as well, where authentic/traditional practices are informed by global media. I don't worry about this, contrariwise: young writers such as Wei may play an important role in preserving methods and culture because they are curious and smart.

*in other parts of Italy you can still find this full balanced meal in private and in restaurants
posted by mumimor at 10:33 AM on April 30, 2017 [4 favorites]


I'm just going to say the finest restaurant in town is owned by a man from Indonesia, Yono Purnomo.

And by "finest" I mean: Recipient of the Medal of Honor from Les Amis D’Escoffier; Gold Medal, American Culinary Federation ( and more Silver and Bronze Medals than I can count ); Guest Chef, James Beard House; Recipient of the Chaine des Rôtisseur Medal of Honor; Culinary Cornucopia Grand Award (Best of Show), American Culinary Federation; National Grand Prize Winner, La Parade des Chefs, Javits Center, NYC; Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence”; etc...
posted by mikelieman at 12:21 PM on April 30, 2017 [1 favorite]


Language Log post about this piece. The big highlights are that she has no idea what she's talking about when it comes to pre-pinyin Romanization systems. A point by point rebuttal:
It is a dictionary
No, it's a romanization system.
that is largely outdated and widely inaccurate in its representation of Chinese phonetics.
WG may have various drawbacks, but I don't think it's inaccurate, let alone "widely" inaccurate. If a word is written in WG, its pronunciation is specified precisely enough to be rewritten in Pinyin, I believe.
In the Wade-Giles system, Sichuan is Romanized to Szechuan.
According to a conversion table on the Web, sì is ssu4 in WG and chuān is ch'uan1. So 四川 would be Ssuch'uan in toneless WG.
Nanjing is Nanking. Beijing is called Peking.
According to the same source,these would be Nanching and Peiching respectively in toneless WG. According to Wikipedia, "Peking is a spelling created by French missionaries of the 17th and 18th centuries" (which is well before Wade developed his system in the mid 19th century).
These writers are the same people who still refer to Guangdong province as Canton.
Canton is the city of Guangzhou (WG Kuangchou). Do writers use "Canton" to refer to the province?
For his work, Giles won an award from the French Academy. Meanwhile, the Chinese laughed. Chinese scholar Gu Hongming declared that the Giles dictionary is "in no sense a dictionary at all. It is merely a collection of Chinese phrases and sentences, translated by Dr. Giles without any attempt at selection, arrangement, order or method."
That sounds more like Giles' book "Chinese Without a Teacher". His dictionary isn't "a collection of Chinese phrases and sentences". Here's a sample page. The entries appear to be arranged in a logical order.
This recent NYT piece by Bonnie Tsui is a subtler take on Western appropriation of Chinese food.
posted by crazy with stars at 8:14 AM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


The point about Wei's W-G examples often not being W-G is well-taken, but holy shit do the quoted experts in that LL post sound like a bunch of complete assholes. A sampling:
Strange that she's writing English in the alphabet of the Romans, whose unprovoked invasion of England killed no small number of the natives of the land….
Modern China owes a lot of what has been good in its modern culture to British imperial diplomats and missionaries.
I no longer wish to engage in polemical retorts to "as a X person" persons, regardless of the value of X and especially on subjects I care about, such as Chinese language.
Great job making the case that academia is rotten to the core with colonialist reactionaries. Jesus Christ.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:40 AM on May 1, 2017 [4 favorites]


And here's an other angle to all this: Chefs Explain Why Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas
posted by mumimor at 11:36 AM on May 1, 2017 [1 favorite]


« Older 🌌🌅   |   I am a great believer in half measures / Or no... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments