By Jennifer 8. Lee | August 5, 2007
Nicole Mones writes aboutÂ the duality of Chinese food for Chinese people and Chinese food for Americans in The New York Times Magazine. Whatâ€™s the difference? According to Mones, â€œAmerican tasteâ€ means Chinese-style dishes prepared with a limited range of pre-mixed sauces, usually no more than 5 to 7 per restaurant (These sauces — sweet and sour, sesame, Hunan, Sichuan — are descended from flavors introduced first by Cantonese immigrantsÂ pre-1960s andÂ great Chinese chefs post-1960s).
Unlike the Zagats who lamented thatÂ the static Chinese foodÂ wasÂ in large part due toÂ difficulties with immigration visas for Chinese chefs, Mones argues that “the problem isnâ€™t one that a few books or even better immigration policy can fix. Real Chinese cooking doesnâ€™t need to be imported, because it has been here for decades. Since the start of the current wave of Chinese immigration in the 1980s, gifted Chinese chefs have jammed into enclaves like the San Gabriel Valley in California and Flushing, N.Y., competing with one another, complaining about how hard it is to get Americans to give their cuisine a chance. The real problem is the American diner or, more precisely, the relationship between diner and chef. Chefs donâ€™t know how to step outside of all-Chinese communities and market their cuisine to the mainstream. And most American diners want to stick to the Chinese food they already know.”
I think the reasons why Chinese-style Chinese cooking has not made further inroadsÂ is more subtle.Â One reason is that a lot of what Chinese find fascinating (odd textures and extremely fresh seafood that comes inÂ bodily glory)Â is not so intriguing to an American palate. Â Secondly a lot of people don’t know *how* to order in a Chinese restaurant, and unless they are hardcore foodies or go with an experienced Chinese friend,Â they would notÂ know what “bamboo pith” and “sea cucumber” are.
One of the more interesting places to see an analysis of American Chinese food is on the menu of Grand Sichuan Chinese restaurants in New York City which tries to introduce Chinese Chinese food to Americans with an extensive explanatory menu.
Nicole has recently published another novel, The Last Chinese Chef, which weavesÂ a widow’s exploration into her dead husband’s secrets withÂ an informativeÂ history about Chinese cuisine. (The woman is a food writer and she becomes friends with an up and coming Hapa Chinese chef named Sam Ling, descended fromÂ a imperial chef)
I foundÂ the sections on foodÂ fascinating.Â With a politcal and literary history that stretches back over four millennia, Chinese cooking is full of subtle allusions and puns that cater to the diner’s intellectual as well as gustatory sophistication. A good banquet has a narrative arc. For example, the last dish in one of the chef’s banquets mixes a lamb broth with a whole fish, which would seem bizarre, except that it is aÂ pun told through food. The character for Chinese for “fresh” is xian (é²œ), which is made up of the character for “fish”, yuÂ (éš) and “lamb,” yang (ç¾Š),
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