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The Sweet, Bitter, and Complex History of Chinese Food in America

A new exhibition dives in to the relationship between identity and cuisine in Chinese cooking.

Courtesy Andrew Rowat

When my father was in middle school in China in the 1960s, the students sometimes ate dry wheat buns representing the diets of the peasants and working class. The campaign was meant to help students “taste the bitterness, appreciate the sweetness”—to illustrate the poverty of 1940s China in contrast to the abundance of Chairman Mao’s regime.

My father grew up during a time of scarcity; as we sat around the dinner table in Philadelphia decades later, he often shared stores about his experiences. While some of them centered on hardship, many also revealed a sense of hybridity or resourcefulness, like my grandmother’s love of peanut butter with rice porridge. Sometimes I imagined that the mantou we ate for breakfast, steamed bread made out of wheat flour, was meant to teach us a similar lesson about the past.

The relationship between food, politics, and identity is a complex one, especially defining traditional ethnic cuisine in relation to the immigrant experience. My father moved to America in 1986. Hearing his stories highlighted how food helped transmit certain politics, culture, and ideas. For me—the daughter of immigrants—the stories also shed light on the climate that my parents grew up in, and helped me understand the attitudes that shaped their particular approach to food and cooking.

These sorts of personal stories form the basis of a new exhibition at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America. Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America tackles contemporary cultural conversations surrounding Chinese food by focusing on the individual stories of 33 Chinese- and Asian-American chefs and home cooks. The exhibition builds on an earlier show from 2004 titled Have You Eaten Yet?, which approached Chinese-American identity through the lens of Chinese restaurants in the United States, from the first “chow chow” restaurants of the mid-1800s to the take-out culture of the early 2000s.

Recognizing a need to expand notions of Chinese food beyond the eight traditional regional styles (Cantonese, Sichuan, and Hunan among them) and beyond immigrant enclaves like San Francisco and New York, the curators of Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy strive to bring awareness to a wider range of Chinese-American cooking. The co-curator Kian Lam Kho, a food writer and founder of the cooking blog Red Cook, notes that, “We wanted to tell stories—not only of people from different parts of the United States, but from different parts of China, as well: The story of immigrants coming in and introducing different regional cuisines into the American food landscape.”

By canvassing chefs from across the country, including the South and the Midwest, and featuring a combination of high-profile restaurateurs like Cecilia Chiang, Anita Lo, and Danny Bowien alongside home cooks like Yvette Lee of Honolulu, Hawaii, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy weaves together complex culinary identities rooted in personal history and experience.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a four-wall video installation featuring interviews and oral histories provided by each participating chef. Viewers are invited to listen as speakers talk openly about their formative experiences in family kitchens, their first explorations into non-native cuisine, and how the balance between tradition and individual experience plays into their work. The video bounces back-and-forth between screens to create the sense that a true dialogue is taking place between cooks of different generations and backgrounds.

Ceramics on the installation’s banquet table represent different styles of regional Chinese cuisine. (Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America)

The installation is projected alongside a large banquet table featuring a place-setting for each chef, with additional information about their background and cooking processes. Large-scale ceramics, designed by the artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang and representing 18 different styles of regional Chinese cuisine, dominate the center of the table and tie the conversation together.

In creating a visual representation of each region, the artists were strongly influenced by the area’s climate, landscape, and built environment, as well as its effects on raw ingredients and taste. One piece representing Yunnan—a region in southwest China bordering Myanmar—is crafted in the shape of a conical clay pot used to cook traditional steamed chicken soup. The sculpture’s base is made up of scalloped mushrooms, an ingredient native to the region. The glaze was developed to run down the sides of the structure, much like water boiling over a narrow pot. The sculpture representing Zhejiang, an eastern province near Shanghai, was wood-fired—a slow ceramic firing process that mimics the slow-cook method of making Dongpo pork, a famous local dish.

Lu Zhang’s ceramic piece representing the Yunnan region. (Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America)

The layout of the exhibition brings to mind Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, a seminal piece of feminist art that constructs an imagined conversation between 39 historical and mythical women around a table. Like Chicago’s installation, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy is interested in re-writing common narratives by exploring what Chinese food means to each participating chef and the communities they serve.

There’s a focus on the ways in which traditional Chinese food has been adapted to fit American culture, as well as the prevalence of Chinese and Chinese-American restaurants abroad. Chefs like Yvonne and Mike Thompson of Pounding Mill, Virginia, have incorporated elements of Hong Kong cooking into their Southern-style restaurant, Cuz’s Uptown Barbeque, by featuring dishes like cheese fried egg rolls and Hoisin prime strip with garlic mayo.

A spread from chef Danny Bowien, including thrice-cooked bacon and black kale. (Courtesy of Andrew Rowat)

Meanwhile, a concentration of Chinese immigrants in South and Central America has resulted in the development of Chino-Latino cuisine, brought to the U.S. from Cuba, Venezuela, and Peru. Leonard Liao’s Mi Estrella in Jackson Heights serves dishes like pollo con salsa de curry, a curry-sauce chicken, alongside variations on traditional paella and lo mein. The exhibition illustrates the cross-pollination of cultural identity, and the ways in which contemporary Chinese food is both rooted in and responsive to its environment.

The show also features a gallery of items handpicked from each chef’s restaurant or personal kitchen. A menu from the grand opening of Kimmie Lee Tie’s Canton Café sits alongside totems like a statue of the traditional Chinese Kitchen God or a container of Sichuan peppercorns brought home from Chengdu to Houston, Texas. These artifacts highlight the very personal elements of each chef’s kitchen, as well as the ways in which Chinese- and Asian-American chefs have contributed to the fabric of their local communities.

The exhibition also highlights items from chefs’ personal kitchens. (Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America)

By highlighting diverse chefs and regions, acknowledging the relationship between tradition and creative license, and focusing on the familial bonds that underlie each chef’s approach to cooking, Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy celebrates the multiplicity of Chinese- and Chinese-American food and identity.

During the “Taste the Bitterness, Appreciate the Sweetness” campaign, my father and his peers found ways to make the wheat buns more palatable by pairing them with other foods or stowing them away for later. Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Spicy posits that we keep the conversations going by constantly choosing what elements of tradition to keep, and what to throw away.

Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America is on view at the Museum of Chinese in America through March 26, 2017.

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