Boer Deng is the author of “How to Order Chinese Food,” which was published on Slate on Sept. 18. In the piece, Deng delves into the nuances of regional cuisine, mysteriously named dishes, and more.
Slate Plus asked her about the story behind her piece.
Listen to her read the piece here.
How did you become interested in Chinese food?
I think it can be said that food is universally felt to be an indispensible part of life for anyone of Chinese heritage, and perhaps especially for me, as a first-generation immigrant still with ties to China, where—even in the midst of all the change the country is undergoing—the importance of food remains a constant. I think there’s an ancient line from a poem that says, “For people, food is heaven.” You memorized poems about drinking and dining as a child. There’s also a famous quote from Mao, who is supposed to have said that a meal is not a meal unless it is spicy. (He was from Hunan, which is famous for spicy food.) The other night, I was at a dumpling place and the server—a young man recently arrived from Beijing—was saying to me that he greatly admires the American people: “I don’t know how it is that they can eat such terrible food and yet have been so successful for so long,” he told me. Basically, I mention all this to illustrate just how much food saturates all aspects of culture past and present.
So I think given the pride and care Chinese food is treated with by its originators, I always feel a bit disappointed when I go out and hear someone at the table next to me ordering some horrific broccoli dish. I fully admit that this makes me a bit of a snob, but I can’t help it. And I promise it comes from a generous place! There’s such tragedy in feeling that a fellow diner has missed out on something great, and I want people to experience that.
How much research did you have to do in order to write the piece? Who did you talk to, and what was that like?
I did a fair amount of reading, but mostly what I read confirmed knowledge that had been instilled from a lifetime of cooking and eating Chinese food and talking to Chinese restaurant chefs. I also watched a documentary series called A Bite of China on CCTV1, the main television channel in China. As far as mysteriously named dishes, the story about Qianlong is a well-known one—one of those semimythical stories that’s handed down and talked about, not unlike Washington chopping down the cherry tree or what have you. And chefs today still have a romantic streak when it comes to naming food. Fuchsia Dunlop, who is an excellent and very knowledgeable writer, described a dish called “nameless hero” at a fancy place she went to in China for a piece in The New Yorker a few years ago.
What’s your personal relationship with Chinese food (and cooking?)
A lifelong one. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had the chance to eat a lot of different Chinese food in a lot of different places, in China and elsewhere. Some of the most memorable foods for me were street foods (which, sadly, these days, are disappearing in China) eaten in my early childhood. When I was very young, living in Beijing, soymilk, youtiao (which is a stick of fried dough), and shaobing (which is a kind of flat bread) from street stalls were a tremendous weekend breakfast. I later moved to Jiangyan, a city in the mid-southeast, and after school, my grandfather would treat me to lamb kabobs that a woman parked with her little griller outside the school gates would cook—I was 6, and I don’t think anything will ever quite match that delight that you experience as a kid. On various trips back, I’ve been able to sample other regional cuisines. In Yunnan, a province bordering Tibet, I was served something similar to British-style chips, which surprised me. They also stir-fried the leaves of prickly ash (a spice I write about in the piece), which was surprisingly delicious, and I still haven’t forgotten about it even after many years.
There’s a mistaken assumption that vegetarians would not do well in China since there’s such fondness for pork, but this is not the case: Chinese Buddhists have been perfecting faux-chicken and duck for centuries, and the chia-soy-whatever stuff eaten in the West is inedible by comparison. Outside China, the best place I’ve been to for authentic cooking was in Vancouver, though, actually, there are good dim sum places in Leicester Square, London. One place even has a Michelin star.
As someone who likes to eat, naturally I came to cooking. Before embarking on a career as a journalist, I actually used to work as an organic chemist—and cooking is just chemistry you can eat, which is not recommended for what you make in the lab. The lovely thing about Chinese cooking is that it is open to a great deal of experimentation and creativity. When I cook, I like to do this, and bring various Chinese flavors into different dishes. I kind of disapprove of recipes (perhaps a subject for a future piece?) and don’t use them—I think they take away from the fun of figuring out for yourself what tastes good and works. But for that reason, I’m awful at baking.
What’s your relationship with Americanized Chinese fast food?
Oh gosh, I try to stay as far away from it as possible. (Apologies to readers who are fans of General Tso’s chicken—but not really.)
What’s your favorite regional cuisine? Dish?
That’s a tough one. It’s changed over time and changes with time. I love Cantonese in the summer (especially xiajiao, which is a steamed shrimp dim sum dish), and Sichuan when the weather’s cold. I always associate dumplings with long weekends, because growing up, that’s when my family would make them (friends and neighbors would often come and pitch in). I’ve mentioned the things I ate as a kid that were unforgettable, but I haven’t had them in so long I don’t think I could claim one as a current favorite.
I also think balance is important. For a proper meal, you need all the food groups, so it’s better to have more than one dish. Chinese food is meant to be shared, so really it would be more right to name three dishes together that I like, but I can’t do that either—good Chinese food from any region is just all really good. Perhaps in the end it comes down to the company that makes some things seem better.
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