A Chinese Food Enthusiast in Small-town USA
|by Yee-Chak (Daniel) Fung
Spring Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(1) page(s): 11 and 22
“What is a Chinese person such as yourself doing in Manhattan;" and they mean in Manhattan Kansas? I am asked this question many times. There are, after all, are not many descendants of Emperor Huang in this part of the country. Here, it is not like California or New York where you can go to a Chinatown supermarket or a well-stocked small Chinese grocery in thirty minutes or less to pick up Peking duck or hundred-year eggs.
Yes, a Chinese person in small-town USA can still be a sort of curiosity. Local people are kind, nice, and friendly. In a college town like Manhattan, Kansas with a population of thirty-seven thousand normally and sixty thousand on football weekends, there are a few Chinese folk hanging around. Most of them are graduate students or researchers, a few are the professorial type. Except for old professors of my ilk, the Chinese population is quite transient.
Chinese people are nonpolitical here. Were they not, can you imagine five Chinese guys marching down Main Street demanding a local holiday for the Junior High School on Chinese New Year's Day which was this past January 28th in this Year of the Tiger? We keep a low profile, work hard, and make a comfortable living.
Sometimes you see a Chinese person make an impression. My wife did, she hosted a weekly local cable TV show for eight years. So did my son, he completed a B.S. degree from the local state university and took off to Princeton University for a Ph.D. degree at age eighteen. These are exceptions, I suppose.
Now that train travel is not as popular, I have not seen any Chinese working on the railroad, and since clothes washing machines are not expensive, neither have I seen a Chinese laundry business here. So the last visible businesses are Chinese restaurants.
It seems like every small town has one or two Chinese restaurants, and I use the word 'Chinese' loosely because many Americans lump Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cambodian eateries in one group. You noticed that I did not put Japanese restaurants in this group because Japanese food is too expensive for small-town USA. A case in point. My wife and I were in Los Angeles recently and went to an authentic Japanese restaurant to eat breakfast. The food was great, the bill was, too. The tab was sixty American dollars, sake not included.
The food in local Chinese restaurants cannot be compared with average Chinese eateries in a Chinatown such as in Chicago, Toronto, London, New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. In those places, Chinese cuisine is as good as it is back home, in Hong Kong, where I was born. Many Chinese dishes in the Midwest are Americanized for local tastes.
During our son's wedding rehearsal banquet, the local Hunan Restaurant made a very special effort to do an excellent job for the event; but that was out of the ordinary. The moral here is that in order to eat good Chinese food in small-town USA, the best plan is to marry a Chinese spouse who can cook!
My wife and I have to go to Chicago's Chinatown to get good cooking materials. There are a couple of Korean food markets in our Manhattan. That is because of a military base nearby. These places have some reasonable stocks of Oriental materials but they do not have everything needed to prepare many Chinese dishes.
Perhaps the wife, some ingredients, and that local eatery are not enough. I have no idea why I started a Chinese cooking class in the local University for Man program (a kind of free university) some years ago. Every Thursday night for five weeks, I would introduce four or five dishes to a class of about fifteen people. We would rest for one week so the students could practice their newly acquired skills. Then during the last week they invited family and friends and hosted a banquet. The last banquet, a twelve-course affair for seventy-five people, was great fun. My mother had to send ingredients from Toronto for the above event!
Chinese cooking classes are a great way for the Chinese to interact with Americans; they build friendships and create good will for all concerned. Going to church is good, too, but many Chinese are Buddhists.
Sanitation and safety concern me. I taught my students about my concerns. Some words about them, because I am a professor of food science here. Always use clean raw materials. Wash food carefully and remove obvious soil, withered leaves, feces, or other contaminants. When preparing food, never mix raw food ingredients (especially meat items) with cooked food. Keep your knives, cutting-boards, spoons, wok, chopsticks, and other utensils clean before cooking and clean them after cooking and eating. Also, wash your hands regularly before, during, and after food preparation.
Serve cold food cold and hot food hot. That means that you need to keep cold food below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and hot food above 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not sit around talking or watching football for hours while your food sits on the table. Bacteria can grow to dangerous levels in two to four hours at room temperature. Some like Staphylococcus aureus can produce toxins in the food during that time period. These toxins will not be destroyed by reheating your food later on. These heat stable toxins will not kill you but you will feel so bad that you wish they would! Put leftover food in the refrigerator immediately after the meal and, make sure your refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leftover rice is a big problem in Chinese restaurants. There is a bacterium, called Bacillus cereus, which produces spores and loves starchy foods such as rice. Leftover rice, especially in large batches, if not properly refrigerated may allow this bacterium to grow and form spores. Once the spores are formed, cooking will not destroy them completely. Later the spores may germinate and the cells may produce nasty toxins that can make you quite sick. This is not a course in food microbiology, so I will stop here. Suffice it to say that food safety is important to learn about with reference to Chinese foods as well as any other foods. In general, because of high heat in Chinese-style cooking and the practice of eating that hot food quickly, the chance of food poisoning is slim.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) concerns have been expressed recently about this popularly flavor enhancer sometimes used in Chinese foods. It is also known by the trade name of: Ajinomoto. My advise is: Do not worry about it. MSG is safe when used in moderation. A few people are allergic to it, mostly when consumed in large quantities. Those folks, and they know who they are, can always request dishes without MSG. I am allergic, too; but my allergy is to some funny looking blue crabs, so I avoid them. Each consumer must learn to take care of himself or herself when eating out. When in doubt, stay home--but that is no fun, right?
I will end this column by telling you a story. One day my wife and I invited an American couple to our home for dinner. While they were visiting, I went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. The American wife wandered in and saw me cooking. She said "I always thought Chinese women did the cooking in the home." I said "They do, but tonight I am cooking a two special dishes that must be prepared by a man. The dishes are called "One Man Cook" and "Four Man Chew." Happy Wokking!
Y.C. Daniel Fung is the Director of the International Workshop on Rapid Methods and Automation in Microbiology and a professor of food science and microbiology at Kansas State University in Manhattan Kansas. He has published more than five hundred papers, received many distinguished awards, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Food Technology.