By Jennifer 8. Lee | June 17, 2007
Tim and Nina Zagat of (yes as in those Zagats) have an interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times about why Chinese cuisine in the United States is stagnant — and they blame it (partially) on the difficulty with getting visas for Chinese chefs. This is something that I have thought long and hard about in my Hunt for the Greatest Restaurant in the World (Outside Greater China). While I agree with their overarching thesis, I disagree with some aspects of how they frame their argument.
For example, they argue, “There is a historic explanation for the abysmal state of Chinese cuisine in the United States. Without access to key ingredients from their homeland, Chinese immigrants working on the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s improvised dishes like chow mein and chop suey that nobody back in their native land would have recognized. To please the naÃ¯ve palates of 19th-century Americans, immigrant chefs used sweet, rich sauces to coat the food â€” a radical departure from the spicy, chili-based dishes served back home.”
My research actually shows otherwise. In fact, the early immigrant Chinese had excellent access to ingredients to their homeland, brought over regularly by ships over the Pacific. Early accounts from the 1850s to the 1900s are filled with third-hand observers marveling at the strangeness of Chinese imported shark fin’s, bird’s nests, dried abalone. They also used “nut oil” (i.e. sesame oil), bean sauce (soy sauce), and bean cheese (tofu). Except for a few adventurous souls (the “foodies” of the era), most Americans found Chinese food pretty weird and gross. That changed with the arrival of chop suey shortly after 1896 which suddenly was palatable to the American. (where chop suey came from is something you have to read my book for)
The reason that Chinese chefs came up with a menu dishes made of sweet goopy sauces drenched over fried bits of meat is that they discovered that is what Americans want to eat, or as the Zagats note — to please the naive palate of the Americans. First of all, Americans do not like to be reminded their food ever ran, swam, breathed or lived. Therefore they don’t like anything too animal-like — feet, claws, tongues, lungs, and defintely definitely nothing with eyeballs. Nothing too weird. Nothing transparent — no fungus, no jellyfish.
They also spend a good bit of time talking about the culinary scene in China: “Like so many other aspects of Chinese life, the culinary scene in China is thriving. As capitalism has gained ground there, restaurants have become a place for people to spend their newfound disposable incomes. Cooking methods passed down within families over the centuries have become more widely known as chefs brought the traditions to paying customers. Today, there are a number of regional cuisines known in China as the Eight Great Traditions (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang cuisines). Unless youâ€™ve visited China, they most likely have never reached your lips.”
It’s not quite fair to compare Chinese cuisine in the United States with cuisine in China — no foreign country can really really compare with a native country in its home turf. A more apt comparison is with Canada (specifically Vancouver) and Australia (Melbourne and Sydney), both of which have dynamic, incredible Chinese culinary scenes. Both these countries have benefited greatly from the outflux of Hong Kong residents pre-1997 turnover and the accompanying chefs. Less fair (because also Asian), but also good comparison are Singapore and Japan (specifically Tokyo), which have the best modern Chinese restaurants in the world (outside greater China, and maybe even including greater China).
The chef visa point is quite good, and one I had previously heard from Michael Tong. And as this New York Sun article, Celebrity Chefs Face Visa Troubles (December 26, 2006) by Chris Flaherty, had preiously explained, it doesn’t just affect Chinese chefs. They are caught between a rock and a hard place and nothing. Chefs could either get O-1 visas (“extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics” — this is where the rock stars, genius physicists and models come in) or H-1B, which is skilled worker (my dad was one of these), where you basically have to have a four-year undergrad degree or equivalent. These are both hard to qualify for from a chef perspective.
The last golden age of Chinese cuisine was late 1960s/early 1970s when mainland Nationalist chefs came to the United States via Taiwan like Chef Wang, Chef Peng and Uncle Dai. That is when Sichuan and Hunan cuisine enthralled Americans, and also the era when dishes like General Tso’s chicken, Hunan Beef and Lake Tungting Shrimp were introduced.
Since America doesn’t have home-grown Chinese chefs, the visa situation means the great inventive Chinese chefs (many of whom are Malaysian or Singaporean, interestingly) are not coming here to the States.
This may change with the eagerly awaited Wakiya at Ian Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel.