From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Chinese Food: Evolution or Demise?

Lisa and I went to have lunch a couple of days ago, and much to my surprise, she requested Chinese food.  I gladly agreed to meet at Golden House Restaurant, a full service restaurant just a few minutes away from the office.  To me, a visit to that restaurant reminds me of my youth, days spent in Chinatown in San Francisco, eating at the now closed Golden Dragon.  I soaked in the environment of the dim sum carts being rolled around and ordered, somewhat haltingly, my regular favorites in the most American Chinese I could muster up.  It was a return to the ways of dining that I truly enjoyed.  Nowadays, such an opportunity is mostly lost on diners who look for the fastest, cheapest or most popular meal.

Golden House Asian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Like me, most Americans older than thirty can recall the recent metamorphosis of the Chinese restaurant business in this country. The pseudo-Chinese Chop Sueys of our youth have given way to Chinese food that is somehow more foreign. One restaurant owner I spoke with recently said of foods that used to pass: “We do not serve Chop Suey; we do not serve Egg Foo Yung; but some people still think these are Chinese food.”  Thanks to the rise of the ubiquitous Panda Express, and the growing popularity of P.F. Chang, more and more traditional restaurants are losing their popularity or attraction to the new diner.

Often the dishes served these days are spicy, made with what many consider more exotic ingredients. They are altogether unlike the bland bean sprout and Chow Mein noodle dishes to which Americans were accustomed. Sichuan and other regional fare have entered Chinese restaurant menus and are, for most Americans, standard Chinese food. The evolution represents, in part, a regional shift in Chinese immigration. No longer are Chinese immigrants primarily from regions in and around Guangzhou (Canton). In addition, from 1965 to 1984, the Chinese community transformed itself from sixty-one percent American-born to sixty-three percent foreign-born, and is still changing.

My father always used to say that if a Chinese restaurant did not have any Chinese people in it, he would stay away.  Now, restaurants, a crucial tourist draw in the Chinatowns where many early immigrants settled, provide visitors and Chinese clientele alike with Cantonese-style cuisine. As Chinese restaurants have increasingly attracted non-Chinese diners, and proliferated outside the boundaries of Chinatowns, menus have accommodated to the American palate and marketplace. The process of negotiation and transformation largely carried out by newer Chinese immigrant retauranteurs, entails creating and offering a product recognizably and exotically Chinese, and yet acceptable to their non-Chinese customers. Their dishes are symbolically loaded with multi-faceted connotations of ethnicity and authenticity.

When I owned and ran my own Chinese restaurant, I saw myself primarily as a businessman, and the food as a kind of mutable commodity. I developed my own pragmatic philosophy of culinary acculturation; if the customer likes Kung Pao Chicken with cashew nuts instead of peanuts, I had no objections.  I would not necessarily be able to comply with such a request, however I had no cultural objections to it.

This type of culinary transformation in ethnic restaurants seems inevitable. Chinese food in the suburbs needs to be prepared and served differently to American customers if businesses are to survive. In Chinatown, where greater numbers of Chinese diners are expected, a separate Chinese-language menu is often featured, and often with ingredients not offered to non-Chinese clientele. For most Americans, snake or fish lips would be considered unacceptable food. (There has been a recent trend toward greater experimentation and a certain authentic cachet is awarded the non-Chinese diner who adventures on the Chinese side of the menu.)

In the larger social context such culinary transactions are not only unacceptable; they can create a cultural gulf between the two groups. Countless ethnic slurs invoke foreign eating habits; early Chinese immigrants were often denigrated as rat-eaters. If a menu is too intimidating, the result is a loss of business. This is true even with ordinary food items such as fish. Americans want the filet, no bones, heads, nor the sense of eating a whole animal. The Chinese, on the other hand, want to see the whole fish and do eat every part of it, especially the head.

In Chinese culture, whether Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucianist, food is inextricably entwined in almost every aspect of our life. Food marks cultural change, family events and social transactions. We do not eat simply for nourishment or pleasure. To us, foods have an intricate network of meanings, particularly medical significance. Some beliefs are shared with American culture; spinach is good for blood, carrots for the eyes. Others are more specific to the Asian culture, such as the definition of foods as hot (jeh or cold liang, or Yin or Yang. Persimmon, for instance, is not to be eaten with crab because crab is a 'cold' food. Food balancing is central to Chinese cuisine. Fundamental to this philosophy is the precept that fan (the rice or starch staple) is the center of the meal, linguistically synonymous with 'food.' Tsai (the vegetables, meat and sauce), are accompaniments. Americans tend to reverse this balance, eating in what the Chinese would refer to as banquet or festival-style dining, using the rice as a side.

Alterations in the composition of the dishes and configuration of meals are not the only accommodations restauranteurs make. When serving their foods, the manner of eating is also transformed from Chinese style to Chinese-esque American style. Individual Americans prefer individual plates while Chinese diners traditionally share from a common bowl and do not think: This is yours, this is mine; they just think this is ours!

Duck sauce and fortune cookies were among American inventions and appear on restaurant menus to appeal to American customers. Restaurant owners are finding themselves responding to an increasing array of special requests. My belief is that every dish can be modified but that some people go too far. For example, Chicken with Broccoli is a white sauce dish. I would not object if Garlic Sauce is substituted, but feel that Black Bean Sauce is inappropriate and distasteful. Some of these entreaties concern taste preferences and some respond to the intense concern with health and diet.

One recent event which dramatized the effect of culinary misapprehensions on the restaurant business was the release of a report by the 'Center for Science in the Public Interest.' It revealed putative dangers in eating Chinese food, especially sweet-and-sour and batter-fried dishes and recommended that diners eat more rice and less of the oily, salty, sweet entrees, essentially counseling Americans to eat exactly the way Chinese diners would. In appearing to demonize the cuisine instead of the behavioral choices of the consumer, the report offended many Chinese restaurant owners. There was also a marked increase in such special requests as: 'No oil, no soy sauce, no sugar, no MSG. But I want it to be tasty.' Customers want foods steamed, sauce on the side, but expect gustatory experience to be unaltered.

I have often said that I can tell from what is ordered if there is knowledge of Chinese food or not. If the order includes Sweet and Sour Chicken, I believe that the customer does not have the hang of real Chinese cuisine. If those same customers were to order traditional Chinese dishes and eat them in traditional Chinese configurations and combinations, the result would be far from unhealthy. As I have heard, many times, “Look at Chinese people, on average, they are skinny and they are healthy.”

Perhaps American audiences feel the need to modify Chinese cuisine more than foods of other, less exotically intimidating cultures. Dishes have been invented, altered, and recombined in an ongoing process of negotiation with the sometimes voracious, sometimes apprehensive dominant culture. Chinese restaurant owners continue to market a cuisine which is both highly structured and fairly adaptable, a diet which is alternatively vilified and canonized, and dishes which strive for authenticity, palatability and profitability in serving the eclectic American palate.

I am looking forward to continuing this journey with you.

Until next time, Good Eating, Friends...

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