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Chinese Food: Emerging, Exotic, Familiar, Modern Yet Still Traditional

by Dianne Jacob

Conferences, Meetings, Announcements, and Reports

Fall Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(3) page(s): 5, 31, and 32

America is in the middle of the Asian 'culinary mega-trend of our time,' according to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). The school recently held a three-day conference, called: The Rise of Asia. It was at its California Wine Country campus and had as a goal, celebrating and exploring how formerly exotic cuisines of Asia have overtaken mainstream America.

Conference speakers representing Chinese food included famous chefs flown in from China to demonstrate cooking techniques; British cookbook author and conference co-chair Fuschia Dunlop; and Martin Yan, author of twenty-six cookbooks and the host of the PBS cooking show Yan Can Cook.

As a conference attendee for Flavor & Fortune, I focused on trends in Chinese cuisine in America and in China. Chinese food, said conference speakers, now cross-pollinate with other flavors and ingredients, while at the same time, emphasize their own folk and regional roots. In China, a booming economy has fueled a rise in upscale restaurants and renewed interest in traditional and regional cuisines. This has led to dishes fused with Western and Southeast Asian ingredients in both in the United States and in China. Adventurous and upscale diners are, said several speakers, eating in refined and skillful ways to awaken their palates.

AMERICANS STEP OUTSIDE THEIR COMFORT ZONES: One of the main conclusions of conference speakers was, that American diners are more sophisticated. Until five or six years ago, they said Asian food was dumbed down. Owners of upscale Indian and Thai restaurants said proof can be seen in orders of whole fish. Charles Phan said that five years ago, he sold about six orders of whole fish a night at the Slanted Door in San Francisco; many were sent back. Now he sells about twenty-three whole fish per evening and none are returned.

According to speaker Nicole Mones, food writer and author of The Last Chinese Chef (reviewed in Flavor and Fortune in Volume 14 (3) on pages22 and 23) and other books, "Chinese food cooked to American tastes has tended toward big and pungent flavors including sweet, sour, and a little spicy, while food cooked to Chinese tastes...ran the gamut of flavors and ingredients. At its highest levels, like any fine art, Chinese cuisine aims to resonate with the soul," Mones recently wrote in The New York Times. "Dishes," she said, "may evoke the natural world, aspects of civilization, or the moods and phases of men’s lives."

Today, Western chefs are expected to know traditional Chinese food, whether from a street hawker or the table of a Chinese banquet. They take Chinese food traditions and reinvent them at the country's most upscale restaurants. There is anise in the meat marinade and shiitake mushrooms and bok cai on the plate. Green and black tea infuse both savory and sweet dishes and many dishes are most likely cooked in a traditional French manner. Some Western chefs, such as Jake Klein of Pulse in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, have gone further, embracing all-Asian inspired menus.

STILL LOTS OF ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Along with the speakers' enthusiasm for maturing American palates was admission that American Chinese restaurants and the media could do more to educate and excite diners. Restaurant service and ambiance can be a big cultural gap for Westerners, the panelists agreed. Food writer and cookbook author Fuschia Dunlop wanted waiters to speak more English and expand upon menu items more rather than just writing down patrons orders. If waiters do not speak English, they could call over an English-speaking manager, she suggested. That person might help diners select more adventurous dishes. Martin Yan pointed out that restaurant staff eats food not on the menu and waiters often constrain diners by saying, "Oh, you won't like that" when they order a dish outside of the ordinary. "Chefs should also experiment with new dishes more often," he said, "and, if uncertain, send one out with their compliments."

Gifted Chinese chefs from the mainland have flourished in enclaves such as the San Gabriel Valley in California and in Flushing, New York, at least since the 1980's. But much of their success is due to location, explained conference co-chair and restaurateur Suvir Saran. Their restaurants flourish because of large Chinese populations. "It is better than gambling on success in an upscale Caucasian or mixed suburb," he said, "and just because you want to expose new diners to quality cuisine, it is more difficult to find Asian ingredients when far from a Chinatown." He also suggested that diners who like to eat adventurously take out friends and introduce them to new foods, such as bitter melon. "Don’t tell people what it is, ask them to taste."

In the media, newspapers have a responsibility to educate people about unusual ingredients and Asian dishes, some said. Olivia Wu, food writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, said that the newspaper pays to translate menus into English from Chinese. Dunlop complained that some restaurant reviewers focus on the sensational, alienating diners. When a Sichuan restaurant opened in London, for example, reviewers jumped on the most outrageous few items. "With cookbooks, writers have the luxury and responsibility of going into more depth to inform, entertain, and transport," said author Elizabeth Andoh.

TOURISM AFFECTS DINER KNOWLEDGE AND INTEREST: One reason for increasing interest, knowledge, and excitement is because Americans are traveling to China in increasing numbers each year. They are trying more exotic dishes than the requisite Beef and Broccoli, Cashew Chicken, and Sweet and Sour Pork. According to the State Department, China was the tenth most visited country by Americans in 2006. American chefs are part of these pilgrimages educating themselves on regional cuisine, street food, and traditional foods.

Longtime television chef and cookbook author Martin Yan has capitalized on this trend with his Martin Yan's Culinary Arts Center in Shenzhen. It opened in Spring 2008 with a glossy brochure showing a European-style chateau bordered by flowering hedges. The school offers five-day classes for established chefs, students, and serious home cooks. Students can study with Chinese cooking masters. Traditions such as dim sum, garnishing and carving, and the art of tea are covered, as well. As part of his expansion to China, Yan offers gourmet adventure programs for food lovers. See: www.mycic.bez

Back in the states, at least one American cooking school has increased its focus on Asian food; that is the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York. It plans to offer a specialized major in Asian cuisines at the bachelor's level. Shirley Cheng, professor of culinary arts, has taught regional cuisines of China there for many years.

HOME COOKS HAVE ACCESS TO INFORMATION AND INGREDIENTS: Another trend noted during the conference is that publishers are coming out with more and more cookbooks that demystify Asian cooking and ingredients. This is no surprise to Yan who is author of more than twenty-six of them. But sometimes Westerners are more comfortable learning about an ethnic cuisine from one of their own. Dunlop, fluent in Mandarin, is the only Westerner to graduate from the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. This British author demystifies Sichuan and Hunan cooking in her cookbooks: Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province. And this magazine's editor has a book published since this conference titled: Cooking from China’s Fujian Province.

When it comes to home cooks, panelists said that now Chinese ingredients such as sauces, rice noodles, and spices are easily available in most American supermarkets. These stores also sell Asian-style convenience products for cooking, such as cut bagged fresh vegetables tagged as 'perfect for stir-frying,' and dried soups that need only hot water and perhaps a few slivers of fresh vegetables. Frozen pot stickers are ubiquitous. One speaker mentioned the success of Ranch 99 Asian supermarkets. Today, twenty-one of these markets anchor suburban Californian all-Asian strip malls, demonstrating that Americans want convenient access to ingredients once only found in Chinatowns.

Acquiring fresh ingredients for home cooks has never been easier. Farmer's markets (at least on both coasts) now overflow with bitter melon, winter melon, persimmons, Asian pears, donut peaches, and fresh jujube dates. While Asians farm most of the produce, Asian produce increasingly appears on the tables of Western farmers.

Other mainstream movements have trickled into the American Asian food industry. Interest in health and wellness has contributed to more consumption of Chinese food, because of its fresh produce and dishes targeted at those wanting more organic food and better health. Some ingredients, such as ginger, are newly organic. In a classroom demonstration, Yan emphasized green methods of cooking, such as cooking with butterfish, a sustainable fish and using bamboo steamers, a sustainable wood.

SHEER NUMBERS OF ASIANS IN AMERICA ARE A FORCE: The CIA's Greg Dresher, executive director of strategic initiatives, pointed out the increasing influence of Asians in America as another reason why interest in Asian food is growing. More than twelve million are Asians and Asian Americans, representing a sixty-three percent increase from 1990. Of these, about two and a half million are Chinese, according to Iris Chang in The Chinese in America.

Today, Asian Americans have the highest college degree attainment rate, are the highest percentage of recipients of an advanced degree, and have the highest rate of employment in a 'high skill' occupation. Dresher speculated that Asians themselves have become a potent force in demanding more and better quality Asian food in the communities in which they live and work.

CHINESE GOURMET RESTAURANTS ARE EXPLODING IN CHINA: On the other side of the world, but not that far away any longer, China has a roaring economy that fuels its culinary scene, creating fusion dishes while celebrating its traditional ones. Economic success means that the Chinese elite, not wealthy travelers, demand more upscale restaurants. Some of these top Chinese restaurants use French cooking techniques and American menu trends, such as tasting menu of twenty-four appetizers. Desserts now appear where only fruit was served. Black sesame oil and vanilla ice cream, pumpkin puree, and toasted pistachio nuts are some of the fusion ingredients chefs prefer.

"Dishes may also fuse Western and Southeast Asian ingredients," said Yan. He said he has seen Western ingredients such as avocado, asparagus and mayonnaise on China’s menus, and added that Hong Kong, particularly, is influenced by Southeast Asian cuisine, such as lemongrass and kaffir lime.

A chef like Chun Cai, of Da Dong Roast Duck restaurant in Beijing, is deservedly famous for his traditional Peking Duck. But he is also celebrated for more European-influenced dishes. In his Duck Treasures in Sparrow's Nest dish, slivers of potato cut by hand are fried in a tea strainer to give the basket shape, and then filled with duck. He garnishes the dish in the European style, with roasted pine nuts and Chinese wolfberries now known by their Chinese name: goji berries.

In China, regional cuisines are now identified and celebrated in many restaurants. Known as the Eight Great Traditions, they are:

1) Anhui, featuring dishes cooked in brown sauce such as stir-fried eel and deep-fried meatballs in plum sauce;

2) Cantonese, famous for its meat roasting and grilling, fried rice, and Bird's Nest and Shark’s Fin soups;

3) Fujian, specializing in soups and seafood, and dishes marinated in wine;

4) Hunan, where curing, simmering, steaming and stewing are the main cooking methods. Dishes are fragrant, sour and spicy, such as Dongan-style fried chicken;

5) Jiangsu, where the three styles encapsulate dishes from Suzhou-Wuxi, Zhenjiang-Hangzhou and Shanghai and include five-spice chicken, sizzling rice, and lion’s head meatballs; 6) Shandong, with its refined ingredients, quick frying techniques and focus on seasonal ingredients;

7) Sichuan, where the eight common seasonings are pepper sauce, pepper with vinegar, pepper with fish sauce, chili jam with wild peppercorn, cayenne pepper with wild peppercorn, black pepper with peanut and sesame paste, peppercorn with sesame oil and chili oil;

8) Zhejiang, with its reputation for fresh, tender, soft, and smooth dishes with a mellow fragrance; its Hangzhou dishes characterized by elaborate preparation and techniques, its Ningbo cuisine which is often salty, tender, and soft; and its Shaoxing dishes specializing in seafood and poultry and often sweet smelling, with lots of gravy. (Sources: China Daily, Marimari.com, Food Lover's Companion)

The revival of folk cooking is not limited to country restaurants and small town eateries. Many fine restaurants showcase the traditional dishes of China. At the Beijing Hyatt restaurant called: Made in China, chef Qiang Jin appears before customers to pull and stretch dough into Dragon Whisker Noodles as fine as hair, a technique that took him one year to master. The picture of this technique accompanies this article. All the chefs at his restaurant can demonstrate this technique as well, said Dunlop.

While chefs often apprentice for years at restaurants, starting at age thirteen or fourteen, they now also attend culinary schools. Chefs have graduated from Chinese cooking schools such as the Linan Cooking technical School and the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute in Hong Kong. They also compete in many national culinary championships, such as the National Chefs Festival, the China International Cooking Contest, and the National Chinese Food Technique Contest.

Overall, conference speakers agreed that people are stepping out of their comfort zone due to factors such as international travel, reading cookbooks and restaurant reviews, and access to more unusual ingredients and convenience foods. Restaurants enjoy a resurgence of interest in both Asian fusion and more authentic food. While some speakers pooh-poohed the notion of authenticity, David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City said, "instead of saying we serve authentic food, we try to serve really delicious food." Dunlop concluded that this trend of adventurous eating is just the tip of the iceberg; she said, "We should not underestimate palates."
Dianne Jacob is the author of Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Restaurant Reviews, Articles, Memoir, Fiction, and More. Her book won the Cordon D’Or International Award for Best Literary Food Reference Book and in 2007, was translated into Chinese in Taiwan. Her next book, Great Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas, co-authored with a Chicago chef, will be published by Dorling-Kindersley in Spring 2008. Readers may recall her last story for Flavor & Fortune was a review of Chinese restaurants in Bali in Spring 2004; and they may have seen a 2007 article on food blog trends, published on www.diannej.com, it was a finalist for the Bert Greene Journalism Award given by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). Ms. Jacob coaches writers around the world on writing books and freelancing, and teaches writing classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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