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What is Not Chinese Food

by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo

Personal Perspectives

Fall Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(3) page(s): 13 and 14

Chinese food presents a fascinating phenomenon. It is perhaps the most widely eaten definable ethnic cooking in the United States, with the exception perhaps, of pizza. As extensively as it is eaten, it is written about in newspapers, magazines and books, and presented on television. It is discussed to such a degree that most people believe they know just about all there is to know about Chinese food.

Those who write about it and others who present it, generally do so with confidence and often with arrogance and ignorance. They allow us, their audience, to believe that they, too, know just about all that there is to know about this great historic kitchen. Actually, they do not. Very few of those who profess such knowledge really know very much. Worse, perhaps, is that in most cases they proceed with ignorance. They do not take the time or the effort, and they seem not to care or learn about Chinese food and cooking.

For the most part, they write and present time-worn clich├ęs, blatant inaccuracies, information gotten from second- and third-person sources, or from inaccurate translations. Suppositions and ill-founded research become perpetuated. What results is a circle of ignorance regarding Chinese foods, traditions, and preparations.

So what is offered is a great deal of information as to what Chinese food is, when it is not. What are presented below are what Chinese food is thought to be; examples have appeared and continue to appear in newspapers, magazines, or on television. In none of these examples, are names of authors given; the purpose is not to embarrass anyone, rather to hope that those who write about food will devote the time necessary to study what Chinese food is before they write or broadcast what it is not.

Witness the following statements, assertions, and/or conclusions. All are in error even though all are reported as Chinese food fact. Along with them are what I will call occasional notes, in italics, all mine.

* From a magazine food critic who described a dish as 'Cantonese Empanaditas' and really loved the 'Grilled Black Grouper Szechuan.' That type of inattention to detail sends incorrect information to their readers.

* From a television cook who described hoisin as a sauce of 'mostly soybeans, sugar and tomatoes, I think,' and later referring to sambal ulek first as 'Indonesian' and later as 'Malaysian.' Reading what one writes before allowing it to be printed is needed here.

* From a newspaper writer, generally well-regarded, who said 'The dim sum (called Yum Cha in Australia) knocked our socks off.' Yum Cha is a Cantonese phrase meaning 'drink tea;' it has nothing to do with Australia.

* From a magazine writer discussing cooking in Shanghai: 'Duck is the mainstay of the eastern provinces.' For the record, Shanghai is a city, not a province. And this from a magazine writer: 'Shanghai region is partial to chicken dishes.' Look; this city now becomes a region!

* From a magazine writer: 'Chinese foods are most often fried in cottonseed oil.' Currently, rapeseed oil is popular in China; in the United States, soy bean oil is used more frequently.

* From a television presenter, after dropping more than a spoonful of MSG into a wok, as he demonstrated: 'It's natural. They always use it.' No, it is not always used, and certainly not by a teaspoon full of it.

References, too numerous to mention individually, are made to 'Mandarin' cooking or cuisine or to 'Mandarin' restaurants, as a school of Chinese cooking. There is no such school of Chinese cooking.

An article about Fujian food contains recipes that are not from Fujian, likewise one about the cooking of Chiu Chow. A restaurant review is presented about supposed Hakka food when the dishes reviewed are not Hakka. Likewise, an article on Asian green vegetables that misstates their properties and tastes, but which were beautifully photographed. In this country, foods from New Orleans would not be touted as Bostonian; why such ignorance about China, or about properties or tastes?

* From a food magazine quoting a Western teacher of Chinese food. 'Very few Chinese can cook dishes from other regions than their own'... (the) 'food of native Cantonese chefs is usually bland.' This was followed by an assertion, 'I know how to teach them what they need to know. I have never met a Chinese-born instructor who does.' Aside from the obvious prejudice of this one, it surely is most outrageous.

* From a newspaper writer on the cooking of the Chinese-Malay people of Singapore known as Nonya, when describing what a 'rempeh' is, said it was 'A spice mixture called rempeh cooked like a roux, (it) is a base for most curries and sauces.' It is not rempeh but rather rempah and it contains pounded raw ingredients, which when cooked are referred to as sambal.

* From a food critic who loved a 'flavorful and densely packed eggroll.' The eggroll is not Chinese, the spring roll is.

* From another writer who suggested that a 'Spring Egg Roll'...(is) 'similar to a typical egg roll.' He hedges his bet, do you not think so??

* From a magazine writer who described Hunan as 'China's rice-producing province.' Geography and agriculture lessons needed here; as to the latter, all southern provinces raise considerable quantities of rice.

*From a food critic who said she could not make out what a 'water dog' was in the Chinese restaurant she visited. What she reacted to, in ignorance, was the word gow which, depending upon intonation, is either dog, the number nine, or a dumpling. In this case, had she done some work and not opted for a laugh, she would have found that what was referred to as 'soy gow' was a water dumpling, a staple of the 'dim sum' kitchen.

* From a newspaper food writer describing a preparation as 'washed' in a 'sticky, sweet Hoisin style glaze.' Whatever is that?

* That same writer, in the same account, suggests that a dim sum dumpling skin would stretch 'two, even three inches' and that in Peking Duck, the 'fat is hardened' and that crisp-fried seaweed is 'actually deep-fried shredded cabbage.' What is the purpose of stretching and how much dough was stretched? In Peking Duck, rarely is there any fat because most is melted and drained in the roasting of the duck...and it is never served. As to seaweed, it, Chinese broccoli leaves, pearl leaves, and other greens are occasionally deep-fried.

* Nor is this writer alone. Another writer, interviewing a Chinese restauranteur noted that in his restaurant there was 'no cornstarch, no MSG and no gunk' and then actually set down as fact the restauranteur's assertion that all of his food was cooked only with scallions, ginger, garlic, tangerine skin and a 'hint of chili' and 'that's about it.' What is gunk?

* From a magazine writer: 'Fish balls...can make or break a (Chinese) chef.' No one succeeds on one food item, and anyway, fishballs are served only in Chiu Chow, Hakka, and noodle restaurants.

* From another, a critic, who wrote about 'Plum Duck' as a 'lightened-up version of Peking Duck; it is lean and boneless in a beany sauce.' Beany? And, variously we have the 'five' schools of Chinese cooking referred to as 'Canton, Szechuan, Peking, Honan, and Fukien,' or the three as 'Peking, Szechuan, and Hunan.' Then there are such marvelous additions to the pseudo-Chinese table as an authentic 'Chili Crustace Sauce' or 'green oriental radishes,' or 'souffle balls,' even 'Melon balls in ginger ale.' Not to mention the ghastly food called Chinese served up not only in those steam-table, fast-food outlets, but also in such chains as China Coast and Chopstix, to cite just two, or the all-purpose Chinese sauce marketed as 'Soy Vay.' Think you have my point.

* From a cookbook author, whose announced expertise is not Chinese, yet felt she could describe the 'traditional' way of presenting Peking Duck classically....the first course, she said, consisted of skin in a dipping sauce of hoisin, sherry, and sesame oil; the second course 'meat folded into flour doilies;' the third, duck appetizers 'which included the liver and jellied duck webs;' the fourth, a 'thick duck soup.' All of this is so inaccurate as to defy correction. Perhaps that was its intent.

* From another cookbook author, who wrote in a food magazine that prosciutto could be substituted for Yunnan ham. How soft sweet ham can replace hard, salty ham is beyond belief. Also mentioned was Beggar's Chicken as 'roasted' instead of baked, and that it was cooked in a paper oven bag. How far can tradition and adaptation be stretched?

* From another cookbook author who advises that if fresh water chestnuts are not available, then substitute apples. Or another, who suggests that tortillas can be substituted for the pancakes served with Peking Duck and Moo Shu Pork. Read on dear friend.

What all of the above say is a lack of knowledge, or sadly, an indifference to the properties and tastes of foods that make up the Chinese kitchen. The following are other substitutions, all of them offered in a book alleged to be about Chinese cooking: For bamboo shoots, substitute celery, green peppers, carrots, or rutabaga; for water chestnuts, substitute basically the same; for bean spouts, substitute shredded onions; for brown bean sauce, substitute Bovril; for ginkgo nut or lotus seeds, substitute blanched almonds; and for fermented black beans, substitute salt. Yes, salt.

* From a television food person who demonstrated how to steam a fish 'the way the Chinese do.' He said to place all of the ingredients of what normally would be a marinade into the bottom of a wok, heated to boiling, then place a fish on a rack over the boiling marinade. Really!

* From a food critic who wrote of her Chinese meal saying that one dish was covered with a 'malty black bean sauce,' that another was beef 'plated with colorful Asian vegetables;' also, that 'despite being fried the duck had a light taste' and, that a breaded pork dish was 'without a whit of the flaming taste of lemongrass.' Mixed cultural signals, I think.

* From a magazine food writer who, after a visit to that public relations exercise in Singapore known as the Imperial Herbal Restaurant, wrote that its food 'combined haute cuisine techniques and delicate, subtle flavors with traditional Chinese herbal cooking.' Huh?

* From a newspaper writer who described as 'dim sum' as a dish of soft shell crabs cooked in a black bean and coriander sauce. Huh? again.

From television food people who seem to have difficulty with the word Sichuan. It usually comes out as 'Sesh-Wan' or 'Shush-Wen' as it did in a program about 'white Taro cake' which in reality is a cake of turnips. Listen also to what happened with Shao-Hsing wine which on television becomes 'Shee-Shing' or 'Show Shin' or simply 'Chinese cooking wine.' Seems they rarely make such gaffes over locales or words related to the news.

And so on. As I noted earlier, all of these, all of which are incorrect, now reside somewhere in newspaper morgues and libraries, in computer resource banks, in television storage facilities waiting to be found and used as research. How sad!

Let us hope that those that are interested, or who regard it as an obligation to tell the reading and watching world what Chinese food is, will discard all of the above and study and consult with those who know what Chinese food is, really is.
Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, teaches Chinese cooking and writes about it in many national magazines, appears on television, and is the author of seven books on the cooking of China. She is currently completing a book on the history of Chinese food for William Morrow & Co.

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