Food Fight

There’s a hilarious scene in Portnoy’s Complaint in which Alexander Portnoy mulls over the mysteries of Chinese food.

the Lord has lifted the ban on pork dishes for the obedient children of Israel [but] the eating of lobster Cantonese is considered by God (Whose mouthpiece on earth, in matters pertaining to food, is my Mom) to be totally out of the question. Why we can eat pig on Pell Street and not at home is because … frankly I still haven’t got the whole thing figured out

Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint. Random House (New York, 1967)
authentic jianbing
Is it authentic jianbing? Photo credit Karen Kao

Odds are, however, that the food the Portnoys were eating would be unrecognizable to Chinese people in China. The egg foo young, the sweet and sour pork, or the stir-fry featuring a mystery meat drowned in soy sauce. As my mother would say, it’s the kind of Chinese food only Americans would eat.

Here in the Netherlands, we Chinese foodies jump onto our bicycles when we hear a famous Sichuan chef is cooking tonight. Word spreads quickly via WeChat when an Amsterdam outfit starts selling jianbing, a popular Chinese street food. But we keep our expectations in check. After all, the food might not be authentic after all.

Authentic Chinese Food

But what exactly is authenticity? The Cleaver Quarterly recently asked that question in “Authentically What?“, a round table discussion about Chinese food in all its hyphenated and un-hyphenated forms. The Cleaver Quarterly is an online journal devoted to Chinese food as it’s made and eaten in China and throughout the Chinese diaspora. Their definition of authenticity isn’t measured by proximity to the mother ship. It’s about taste, discernment, and tender loving care. To them, you can find authentic Chinese food in an Arizona hole-in-the-wall called Chino Bandido (your choice of rice or beans) or in the form of a giant Dutch-Chinese spring roll coated in peanut sauce, sambal and ketjap manis.

This might sound like heresy to the Food Authenticity Police but as the saying goes, food migrates. Sometimes it’s Mother Nature who blows a few stray seeds your way. Sometimes it takes a whole galleon of Spaniards to execute the Columbian Exchange. The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World sparked a global transfer of plants, animals, and microbes, just as the Silk Road was a conduit for people and their foods to cross into China.

Many of the things we think of as uniquely Sichuanese emerged from the blend of Western ingredients with the culinary techniques from northern and eastern China. Take doubanjiang, a fermented fava bean paste described as the “soul of Sichuan food.” Fava beans only came into Sichuan in the 10th century from the Middle East. Same with sesame. And although people think of Sichuanese as a fiery cuisine, the chilli pepper only arrived in the 17th century from Mexico

Jenny Gao, owner of spice purveyor Fly by Jing and panelist at “Authentically What?”

Beans versus Rice

Alright, let’s concede the point that some ingredients of the Chinese kitchen might not be native to China. But surely there is a certain palate development unique to China? Well, I suppose that depends on which part of China you mean. In the north, they eat wheat. In the south, they eat rice. Food in Hong Kong bears little relation to what you eat in Harbin.

Authentic jiaozi
Jiaozi. Photo and cooking credit: Paul Verhagen

But, of course, you already know that. You know the difference between a Sichuan hot pot and Xinjiang BBQ, Cantonese dim sum from Shanghai-style dumplings. In short, you understand that all food is local. But did you know that it’s also deeply personal?

Meet Paul Gepts. He’s a professor of plant sciences at the University of California at Davis. He calls himself Mr. Bean. According to Gepts, bean eaters are creatures of habit. If it doesn’t look like the beans they grew up with, they won’t eat it. So, too, Chinese food fans. If it doesn’t taste the way Mom made it, it can’t be authentic. Does this mean that authenticity is a purely subjective concept? No, says Peter Kim, executive director of the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Brooklyn, New York.

the question really ought not be, “Is this food authentic?” but rather, “For whom is this food authentic? And for what time is this food authentic?” 

Peter Kim, panelist in “Authentically What?”

Feeding the Homies

Roy Choi and I came of age in the same city though a decade apart. His mother, like mine, was a wicked cook. In Korean, they call it sohn-maash. Flavors in their fingertips. His book, L.A. Son, is part memoir, part ode and, most importantly, a cookbook.

You’ll find straight-up Korean fare like abalone porridge made from anchovy stock and raw eggs. If you’re an Angeleno, your heart will warm to the chili spaghetti (Bob’s Big Boy), chorizo, and “Chinatown Almond Cookies”. For sure, there’s nothing “authentic” about these recipes and yet they taste like home, the one I remember.

If home is where the heart is, the kitchen must be just out back. You cook with what you have: the ingredients you recognize in the grocery store or on the shoulder of the road. You nibble on the strange ones until you find something that jolts a memory.

In China, McDonald’s and KFC are on the rise for the same reason they’re so popular in the West. Processed food is a fast and easy way to fill their stomachs. But never fear. At KFC China you can get congee for breakfast and Portuguese egg tarts for dessert. The next time I’m in Shanghai, I’m ordering the Old Peking Roll. Apparently, it’s a fried chicken tender bedded with scallions and Peking duck sauce, wrapped inside a tortilla. How’s that for authentic Chinese food?