Friday, September 7, 2007

Do I really like Chinese food?

What is Chinese food?

Ever since I was a child I loved Chinese food. There was a time when it was hard to get me to go to any other kind of restaurant. I loved the classic Chinese restaurant. You know the kind I'm talking about. These were the places with red silk on the walls, tanks full of tropical fish, and a menu that featured all kinds of exotic drinks on the first page with illustrations of each one.

I considered myself a sophisticated diner. My father is quite the foodie. He was not one to encourage chicken chow mein or other American inventions. I ordered anything with the word Szechuan or Hunan in the title. I ordered things with Chinese-sounding names like Wor Shu Op or Kung Pao Chicken. I wasn't ordering American Chinese food. I was ordering the "real" stuff from a restaurant with red silk on the walls. I wasn't ordering that that cheap stuff you got at those Chinese-American takeout places.

I laugh at myself now. The tiny takeout places in my neighborhood serve the same food as the big Chinese restaurant at the end of the block with the fancy drinks on the first page of the menu. Who am I kidding? I really know very little about Chinese food.

New York may be a melting pot of cultures including many Asian ones. It may be home to some of the world's finest cuisine. Despite this, it never has been place where anyone who knows anything about Chinese food would want to eat. Going to the Chowhound boards, I always see the Chinese food in New York being disapraged. I didn't realize that in other parts of the world, the phrase "New York Style" Chinese food is defined as deep-fried chunks and heavy gloppy sauce from a bottle. The description really isn't that far off base. I don't know why this is the case. New York City has a Chinatown (albeit a small one). There is a fairly significant Chinese population in the metro area. Why are there no authentic restaurants? Do Chinese people just assume that they need to give people what they want and therefore only open "New York Style" restaurants?

I wonder if I have ever even eaten authentic Chinese cuisine? I can think of a few possibilities.

For a couple of years a group of my friends and I used to go for the special Chinese New Year dinner at Hunan Village in Yonkers. That restaurant had once been considered the best in the area. The food at that dinner was not what I normally ate in Chinese restaurants, although there were certainly some similarities. I remember the food as being much lighter. The restaurant is said to have gone downhill quite a bit in the past three years and was sold, so unfortuneately I won't be going back to further uncover the mysteries of Chinese food.

I had supposedly authentic dim sum in a restaurant in Chinatown that my friend John had discovered. It was a lovely spot, oddly juxtaposed in a shoddy little mall under a bridge. The food was amazing. Was it tourist food? John said there was no way tourists could find the place. The waitstaff barely spoke English. However, none of the other diners were Chinese.

A few years ago my father discovered the Brooklyn had a Chinatown of it's own. Amongst the butcher shops with dead ducks in the windows, we found a huge Chinese restaurant. A lot of what we ordered that day seemed to be pretty much the same stuff I normally eat in Chinese restaurant. I remember eating a steamed ginger chicken that my stepmother said she didn't like because it reminded her of her (Jewish) mother's boiled chicken. The restaurant's menu contained a lot of stuff that perpetuates the stereotype of Chinese people eating really gross foods. It didn't contain any cat or dog meat, but it did contain jellyfish and fried pig colon.

My memories of that Brooklyn restaurant bring me to the major question. Would I even like real Chinese food if I ate it? Chinese cuisine is rich in seafood after all.

On top of that, I have to question the whole concept of "Chinese" food. Does a country like China have just one cuisine? There are provinces in China like Sichuan and Hunan and Canton. Each has its own unique cooking style. After all, many Americans share certain tastes in food, but specialities do change regionally. Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, and Emeril Lagasse all specialize in cuisine from the US - from the Southern half of the US in fact - and yet each cuisine is unique. Paula's southern home-cooked favorites differ from Emeril's Creole delights, which differ from Bobby Flay's Southerwestern flare. New England is different from the Pacific Northwest. Even pizza - thought to be an American classic - is different in New York and Chicago. How can I say I like "Chinese" food when I suspect that a trip through China would give me quite a range of tastes across the board.

I have so much to learn about world cuisine. I'm just really beginning to learn what real Italian food is and what the specialties of each region are. Here in the US it really is hard to appreciate authentic cuisine of any country. I can still remember reading a funny bit about how Jennifer Lopez was once interviewed by Italian journalists and she said she loved Italian food. One of them asked her what her favorite dish was and she said chicken parmigiana. The journalist actually asked her what that was! What's even funnier was that when she explained it, the Italian journalists thought it sounded disgusting. The resulting article that was published said soemthing like, "Her favorite food is a chicken dish served in the Bronx." (What we think of as classic Italian becomes classic Bronx cuisine to Italians. Now that's funny.) Do most Americans really know anything about the cuisine of other countries, or is it our goal to just ruin them?

I don't know the answer. I don't know if I'll ever eat or enjoy real Chinese food. I do know that the General Tso's chicken at my local takeout place tastes really good whether it's authentic or not. Looking at it from that perspective, I guess I really shouldn't worry if it's authentic or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It would not take much research at all - even less than an article proclaiming your ignorance, to find out that China has at least 7 or 8 major cuisines, and a couple of dozen distinct ones (see for instance). Since you have found, it also wouldn't take much work to find the area on chow where people are cooking authentic Sechuan & Hunan food using Fuchsia Dunlop's books, nor to figure out how authentic the dishes are that you have eaten. Or you could just keep on wondering.