How is This Meant to Be Eaten?
By Coral Lee
When White friends suggest Chinese for dinner and ask for “authentic” recommendations somewhere near our homes in New York City, it’s pretty much an all-around lose-lose situation. I am Cantonese; I understand Cantonese but I can’t speak it. I have a working fluency of Mandarin (the more commonly taught dialect, what most people know and accept as “Chinese”) but can’t write in it. I grew up in Southern California, so when it comes to a restaurant, my family chooses somewhere in Irvine that’s convenient for everyone to meet at, has large enough tables, and whose free red bean dessert soup isn’t too sweet.
The first bite is always in silence…until Mommy or Daddy proclaims that the dish contains wok hei, the smoky flavor achieved in a wok over intense heat. There is no wine list. So instead my friends and I go to places like The Chinese Club—a restaurant like the myriads of those found across the United States that have come to define what most Americans know as “Chinese food.” Places that have Tsingtao, dim sum, kung pao chicken, and soup dumplings all on the same menu. At these places, there’s no pretense of authenticity, and I am absolved of the responsibility to explain, or worse, defend foods not even of my own heritage.
In second grade, we had a cultural heritage potluck party. My mom made her specialty—an almond Jell-O cocktail kept cool with fridge-flavored ice chips in a Tiger pot. She would adjust the recipe for the crowd. This time, for my class, lighter on the grass jelly, heavier on the syrupy lychees.
“Eww, what’s a leechee?” my classmate Tommy shrieked. Face burning, I told Tommy not to eat them, to pick them out. I suggested he might as well also pick out the almond Jell-O cubes too, and just drink the fruit cocktail syrup. He was stoked on that.
The unspoken winner of the potluck was Courtney’s grandma’s German chocolate cake. How proud they must have been, immigrant grandmother, mother, and daughter, to be associated with such a winning dish. I was OK with not winning. The only thing worse than losing the potluck would have been winning it. To not only be the girl with the almond-shaped eyes but also one who eats rice and almond Jell-O all the time at home.
My friends’ parents were always impressed with me, using me as a teaching tool for their own kids, because I started making my own lunch at a young age: Oscar Mayer turkey, French’s mustard, Hellmann’s mayo on two slices of shokupan1. (I was already sourcing the first three from the ethnic aisle of our Chinese grocery store, 99 Ranch; my mom wasn’t about to make two grocery trips just to get Wonder Bread.) In truth, the only reason I started making my own lunch was so I could stop bringing a reeking thermos of rice and leftover gau coi for lunch.
Nowadays the stinky-farty lunch I was too embarrassed to eat at school is cool. Wild ramps are tattooed all over NYC chefs’ bodies and provoking springtime fistfights at farmers markets. Foodies wear their capacity for funk and growing list of “best xiao long bao” (Chinese soup dumplings) like a badge. Bon Appétit has called condensed milk “the character in the rom-com that goes unnoticed for so long, until the other character spills coffee on them in an elevator, looks up, and finally notices them for the first time.” A South Asian guide shows Phil Rosenthal how to whack a coconut against the ground—in front of his intimate Netflix audience—until his “ego is shattered.” Ugly Delicious brings the same Netflix audience to a small Chinese village, to learn how dumplings are really made. Like in China.
Yes, we are photographing ugly food and calling it delicious, and White celebrities are breaking coconuts for penitence. But even Dave Chang refuses to eat donkey in Beijing, calling it “Armageddon food,” and Rosenthal compares a stuffed rice dosa to a french fry–stuffed sandwich. If bizarre foods—and by proxy, its bizarre peoples—are to transcend this title, they need to stop solely existing within, and defending themselves against, the Western narrative.
As a radio host, I have the joy of meeting really fascinating people. My first season’s guests were primarily White male chef-owners celebrated for their mastery of Asian cuisine. My show is about culinary appropriation. The elevator pitch for my show has, and will always, feel flat; the irony of self-promoting my show at networking events never gets lost on me.
“Oh, I really should check that out! So I know how to feel about things and not offend people.” But that is not who I am. I am not a tool for self-regulating your morality; it’s not that I won’t, but that I cannot tell you how to feel or what to say to make it all OK.
“But, is that OK?” I’d ask during an interview, not entirely sure what I was trying to get at. You can’t really accuse someone of cultural appropriation/gentrification/neocolonization on not-for-profit, live radio. I see this a lot in cookbooks: the spiritual fetishizing of Asian cultures. There’s even a hierarchy: the Japanese perfectionists; Southeast Asians, zestily ethnic and in tune with Gaia. “I don’t know, I just really like the flavors and the culture, and putting out good food, and so I started reading books.” And then he’d start telling me about the “qi” of the wok.
I guess you could say, I’m envious. Of how these chefs can try on my experience for a day or even just a meal, a costume as easy and noncommittal as a trip down the ethnic aisle. I’m envious of the way they can forage for these ramps, dirt on their hands and knees, without worry of unconsciously persisting or performing the stereotype of the squatting Asian (or worse, the rice farmer in the paddy field). I’m envious of how they can take their time. How they hold each ramp carefully, tenderly, and strip its woody layers. And when they fry up the ramps—in the qi (or, in Cantonese, hei) of the wok—and the sulfurous gases are released into the air, these chefs can serve and eat these ramps in plain sight, to much acclaim, unashamed of their funk, because funk is cool now. It is not that only Cantonese people are permitted to cook Cantonese food, and White people, “American food”—the problem sits with the diner’s lazy, overtrusting fork.
Chefs, those darlings of celeb culture, are assumed to be authority figures on the cuisine, i.e., master chefs. But there is a difference between being authentic to yourself and authentic to a culture’s tastes and practices. If you, Chef, choose to substitute sherry wine for shaoxing, or use Kirkland extra-virgin olive oil in ji bao dan gau cake (as my grandmother does)—all power to you. This is how assimilation foods are created, how cultures are forced to evolve and adapt to their surroundings if they are to survive. Just know that your diners are watching and trusting you, and may very well never read about or look into the dish you are quoting. It’s never as innocent as just putting out good food. You get to shed the costume at the end of the day; I don’t.
Chinese American writer Nancy Yuen tweeted that the new Pixar short Bao brought her to tears, because she was proud of the representation of her culture. Our culture. Not believing this, I watch and rewatch a bootleg YouTube clip of Bao. The short follows an Asian American mother struggling with empty-nest syndrome who gets another shot at parenting when one of her dumplings (bao) springs to life. That is my grandma’s kitchen, with the aluminum-foiled stove burners, toilet paper roll on the dining table, and rice cooker in the background. That is the way my mom folds bao. And when the protagonist eats her anthropomorphized bao, in an act of quasicannibalistic-possessive love, that is how my mother loves me. And how her mother loves her.
Cantonese food is not only warm and pure in its flavors but also in its encouragement and expectation of gathering. Its eaters may be silent, amidst the bitterest of arguments, but the sounds of three sets of chopsticks poking together at a steamed tilapia, of Mom gently laying a sliver of the belly onto my rice bowl, and Dad saving the sweet soy-soaked green onions and ginger slices for hers, are enough. Even today, in the midst of conflict, I find myself serving the one I love, food he doesn’t even want. We may not be speaking right now, but you’re going to eat this, and you’re going to enjoy it. Instead of saying “I love you,” my family will eat at the same, now-mediocre dim sum restaurant that’s good in my grandma’s memory, and she will bake us eight ji bao dan gau. She’s only started hugging me goodbye recently—now that I’m older, now that she’s older. I think because she’s seeing, on TV, just how much people in America hug.
Seeing this “violent love” in Bao led one White woman in Iowa to tweet, “That was the most confusing ten minutes of my life.” While confusion might be uncomfortable and unpreferable, it is also an inevitable result of encountering something so foreign, so “authentic” and truthful to the Other. For the first time, a very large big-name production company put out a story not simplified, nor rewritten to exist within the established Western narrative and stereotype of Chinese culture and its peoples. Problem solved. Right?
I currently direct the culinary programming at an all-ages culinary school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A camper the other day started singing about “the girl in the kimchi book from China, who looks funny.” Didn’t we fix this already? “Kimchi isn’t even Chinese!” was the best I could snap back.
After the campers left, I put a kimchi class on the calendar. I take the
No Kimchi for Me down from the shelf and prop it up. The book’s
book-jacket synopsis reads:
“Yoomi hates stinky, spicy kimchi—the pickled cabbage condiment served at Korean meals. So her brothers call her a baby and refuse to play with her. Yoomi is determined to eat kimchi. She tries to disguise it by eating it on a cookie, on pizza, and in ice cream. But that doesn’t work. Then Grandma shows Yoomi how to make kimchi pancakes. This story about family, food, and a six-year-old’s ‘coming of age’ has universal themes, and at the same time celebrates Korean culture.”
I look down at Yoomi’s face. Yoomi’s unblinking, 2-D almond-shaped cat eyes look back up at me. She’s kind of cute. Beautiful, even.
For more reading and to get involved:
Meant to Be Eaten, a Heritage Radio Network show about cross-cultural exchange in food and contemporary media.
The book Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption by Roland Barthes
Originally published in Comestible Issue 8
Illustration by Laurence Deschamps-Léger (Laucolo)