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Chinese Cuisine and the American Palate symposium

by Susan Asanovic

Conferences, Meetings, Announcements, and Reports

Spring Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(1) page(s): 12

This Symposium, held September 22nd to 24th, 1994, spoke about food for all tastes at the hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese restaurants and take-outs in Queens be it for Steamed Duck Feet or Chow Mein. This borough of New York City boasts the largest ethnically diverse community in the nation. With all the Chinese eateries, what better or more appropriate location for an international conference?

The above symposium was held at Queens College and two hundred and eighty-nine attended including students, professors, chefs, food writers, researchers, reporters, and all varieties of Chinese food aficionados. Few there realized the complexity of factors influencing how the American palate reacts to, accepts, modifies, or outright rejects Chinese food and flavors.

Magic taste and low price is the lure for the American Palate concluded Shirley Cheng, Chef Instructor at the Culinary Institute of America (in Hyde Park NY). Magic and alluring, but when ordering bear’s paw, insist on the left paw, because it is the more tender. Thus from the erudite to the light hearted trivia, seasoned with science and humor, speaker’s topics included: Chinese Cuisine in the Current Context, Jews and Their Passion for Chinese food, Chinese cuisine Then and Now: Forces for Change, Chinese Food and Health, Chinese Cuisine and the American Mainstay, and others discussing Americanization of Chinese food, authenticity, regionalism, health, and herbs.

Who better to kick off this international symposium then globe-trotting chef, author, teacher, video star, and Chicago-born ambassador of Chinese cuisine, the charismatic Ken Hom. He knows and understands the American palate, as well as the Chinese palate, and all intricate aspects of Chinese food. From a recent and extensive trip throughout China, he brought back and shared unique insights about the current state of cooking there along with new dishes for Americans to enjoy that take inspiration from his roots. He provided a sneak preview of the next big trend for China-watching foodies: Med-Chinese. According to Hom, Hong Kong is host to the world’s greatest restaurants, and chefs there are using less oil, a lighter touch born of modern attitudes toward health. By contrast, in American (Chinese) restaurants, patrons complain if there is not enough meat or sauce, or if the portions are too small. Americans order fried dishes and meat while the Chinese order vegetables, rice, and steamed fish, he advised.

Luckily, Hong Kong style Chinese food flourishes in Flushing. There Hom and others had several opportunities to taste and be treated to some of its best; he and most attendees did just that! They even had their senses awakened by an early morning Tea tasting and related tea savvy given at the Symposium by Ellen Lii of the 'Ten Ren Tea and Ginger Company' (one of Ten Ren’s outposts is ensconced in Flushing, too).

Althoug American Chinese restaurants go back at least to Gold Rush days, it was surprising to learn that English-language Chinese cookbooks barely date back a hundred years. Jacqueline M. Newman, (symposium organizer, editor of Flavor and Fortune, professor at Queens College, and some often quoted...as did Ken Hom in one of his books and in his keynote address), owns the world’s largest collection, over fifteen hundred Chinese English-language cookbooks (at this time). She discussed their content and historical interest, as well as the occasional casual approach toward accuracy revealed by sometimes hilarious misprints or misspellings. That’s not surprising since there are nine thousand Chinese characters describing food, drink, and cooking.

Cookbooks are much more than recipes, more importantly they reflect society, said Dr. Newman. She noted five major books without recipes which we all should read before picking up another chopstick. Read them and we’ll know how to, as her first slide indicated, 'Tell Rice from Wrong.'

Chopsticks was the fascinating theme of Joan Lee’s talk, tracing thier history as insulators and extensions of the finger since their introduction about seven hundred BCE. Just never use them as a hair ornament nor should you stick them upright in your rice, she advised.

The audience enjoyed a lighthearted lesson in cuisine and sociology listening to Chinese and Jewish panelists debate the 'Passion of American Jews for Chinese Cuisine.' They examined this phenomenon of Talmudic proportion and came up with the following responses: Jews found Chinese restaurant fare tasty, affordable, dairy-free, and importantly it allowed them to cross the 'trayfe line.’ Pork and shellfish were exotically disguised, but who knew? Presentations continued with examinations of Chinese flavors; MSG (the Chinese restaurant Syndrome was largely debunked), the art and lore of Chinese menus, medicinal effects of garlic and Chinese food, and the quintessential Chinese American food caricature--the Chow Mein Sandwich.

Joyce Chen, a doyen of Chinese food in America and the first Chinese TV chef, was posthumously honored for her many contributions to the field of Chinese cuisine. Her daughter Helen Chen, who continues to run her mother’s restaurant and line of Chinese cookware, touched and tearful, accepted the award.

Talk about food gave everyone a healthy appetite for the Symposium’s Chinese banquet held at Flushing’s Golden River restaurant. Over one hundred fifty seven attendees formed a truly 'Happy Family' as they discussed all ten courses served and all talks attended. The next day they waxed eloquent about a classic Sauteed Sea Cucumber and Baby Abalone with Chinese Greens, their Dried Scallop Soup, and their luscious lobster and everything else consumed along with the donated Sichel wine and Buderin Ginger liquer.

It appears that the Chinese love American fast food. Since beijing boasts the most profitable McDonalds, perhaps the next Symposium should address 'American Cuisine and the Chinese Palate.'

James beard said it correctly, "the three best cuisines in the world are Chinese, Chinese, and Chinese." Here’s to you Jim!

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