Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Authenticity of Chinese Food

A Slate blog post earlier this month asked whether authenticity in Chinese cooking is an overrated concept, after The New Yorker and the Oxford American ran articles about the nomadic Chinese chef Peter Chang and the following he has garnered. And an essay on Open Salon also considered the idea of whether dishes can authentically reflect a particular ethnicity. These both had me pondering my experience of Chinese food.

What exactly is an authentic Chinese food experience? By the dictionary definition of the word authentic, it’s something that is “entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience.” And in the case of Chinese food, the known experience presumably would be that of Chinese people. Guess that includes me!

Perhaps that is why people often want to eat Chinese food with me, as though by virtue of my being Chinese I’d have insider knowledge at Chinese restaurants. While it’s true that I may be more familiar with some foods or be better able to recognize certain dishes because I grew up eating Chinese food, to be honest, I often feel like a fraud. Given that my Chinese language skills are nearly nonexistent, I think I’m likely to be treated little better than the tourist at the next table. But I suppose that at the very least, eating with me can be authentic, in that, people get to know what dishes my family ate when we went out. This is especially true when it comes to things like dim sum, where I know not only what to order, but am accustomed to the experience of the rolling carts and aggressive servers pushing you to try all variations of dumplings.

But if anything, the greatest benefit to eating with me, is that I learned to be adventurous and I’m not squeamish. This is true to the point that I sometimes forget that others think certain foods are strange, whereas I don’t bat an eyelash — pigeon, frogs’ legs, sea cucumbers — no problem. Chinese people, after all, are known to eat everything and anything that moves, everything but the kitchen sink. So I expect people who want to eat Chinese food with me, to eat what I eat.

Jonah Weiner in his blog post, says “Both stories have in common an implicit privileging of real-deal Chinese cuisine over its Americanized, beef-and-broccoli incarnation.” And he goes on to establish Chinese food that caters to the American palate as an entirely separate category of food from Chinese food “cooked by Chinese people, as Chinese people like it.” And I have to agree that they are two separate types of food. But the American Chinese restaurants often took Cantonese food as their starting point and that is the food of my family. These days, though, there are many variations as food from the different regions of China has started to become more popular, especially Szechuan cooking.

Many of the dishes my family cooked at home didn’t have English names — like gew-choi on (what amounted to a bacon and Chinese scallion omelette) — or were variations on Chinese restaurant food, which most people wouldn't recognize. The Chinese food that was cooked by my family as we liked it at home was often much different than what I ever had in Chinese restaurants. The fried rice we made was always lighter because we used less soy sauce; the chow fun less greasy and more basic. And sometimes it seemed we almost Americanized our Chinese food in our own way; we had pork chops with a ketchup mixture, perhaps a variation on sweet and sour pork chops.

And the things we did order at restaurants were likely not the dishes most often ordered by non-Chinese people; besides the “weird” stuff, for example, we always had a whole steamed fish, something many Americans pale at. My family's Chinese New Year's dinner included many dishes that fall into the category of Chinese-specific dishes. Also, eating family style is a major characteristic of Chinese dinners and though I think many people have become aware of that, others still walk into a Chinese restaurant and order individually.

But I have found myself enjoying many American Chinese dishes, probably because they are actually newer to me than dishes that resemble what I used to eat at home or at the very least, dishes I have eaten fewer times over the course of my life. I admit to liking many of these dishes, like Lo Mein and Kung Pao chicken, that some would consider not authentic.

Because American Chinese food is a different type of food, it’s one I’ve probably approached just as I would any other new and unfamiliar cuisine — What exactly is crab rangoon, General Tso's chicken or chop suey? Just things I must try!


When I was a kid, we had an assignment similar to the one the author of the Open Salon piece mentions — provide a recipe that reflects your heritage or ethnicity. My mom decided to contribute beef and broccoli. As I quoted Weiner above, that qualifies as an “American” Chinese dish. This actually was something we did sometimes eat at home (though eventually the beef became pork or chicken as we became more health conscious, perhaps an American influence), but I think my mom chose it because it was something familiar enough to those who had only ever had the American version of Chinese food.

If I had to choose my favorite Chinese dish, I’d probably go with chow fun, the chewy, wide flat rice noodles stir-fried in so many different ways — with squid and dried shrimp or simply with chicken and bean sprouts. That might accurately reflect a melding of American influence into my Chinese heritage. But if I had to choose a dish to represent my family’s version of Chinese food and what we most often eat, I might choose Cantonese roast pork at a hole-in-the wall in Chinatown or simply, some black bean chicken, bok choy and a fried egg over white rice. Authentic? To me, yes. Take that for what it’s worth.

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