Giving Chinese Food the Poptimist-Revisionist Treatment

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
March 5 2010 3:02 PM

Giving Chinese Food the Poptimist-Revisionist Treatment

Last week,  The New Yorker  and  The Oxford American  each ran stories about the enigmatic, vagabond Szechuan chef Peter Chang an award-winning cook who has, over the years, set up shop in a string of unassuming, strip-mall-type restaurants from Virginia to Georgia to Tennessee. Chang has a tantalizing m.o.: After a while often no more than a matter of months he will ditch a restaurant, leaving his growing camp of devotees to groan in dismay, speculate about his motives on message boards, and, in some cases, hunt him down at his newest gig. In his delightful  Oxford American   piece , the food writer Todd Kliman recalls with a mixture of awe and shame the day he drove a full six hours to gorge himself on Chang's  ma la  wizardry, and Calvin Trillin's  New Yorker   story  features a similar, if less epic, pilgrimage.

The stories got me hungry. But they also got me thinking: Is it possible "authenticity" is overrated in the cult of Chinese cooking? Both stories have in common an implicit privileging of real-deal Chinese cuisine over its Americanized, beef-and-broccoli incarnation. In Kliman's story, he steps into one of Chang's restaurants and momentarily fears he has the wrong place when a man "in running shorts" picks up his order: "chicken and green beans, orange beef, General Tso's chicken."

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Kliman isn't snobbish about this (although his decision to mention the running shorts suggests, perhaps, some low-level irritation at this patron's lack of reverence in the temple). But his piece (and Trillin's) invokes some received foodie wisdom about Chinese cooking: That the stuff they make for themselves is better than the stuff they make for us. Chowhound types often fill message boards with their scorn for the ignorant diners who think "Chinese food" means General Tso and his sham, mongrel army.

Interestingly, this isn't really a question of high versus low cuisine, nor is it a question of native versus non-native chefs. The foodie line on the supremacy of authentic Chinese cooking pits one perceived "folk" consensus (everyday Chinese food, cooked by Chinese people, as Chinese people like it) against another (everyday Chinese food, cooked by Chinese people, as Americans like it). But it's important to note that what we understand as authentic Chinese cooking is often itself a hybridized beast to begin with: Dishes from Qingdao, for instance, feature pine nuts, creamed corn, and,  according to the critic  Robert Sietsema, a pervasive German influence. Qingdao-based Chinese food has an impure bloodline, in other words-and it can still be fantastic. Are we participating in a sort of knee-jerk exoticism if we decide that impure, American-based Chinese food is of a lesser order, by definition?

Of course, if you only ever order General Tso's Chicken at your local take-out spot, your experience of Chinese food is a narrow one, mediated by the desires and preferences of the "mainstream" American palate. But isn't it possible, say, that Peter Chang's General Tso's is a divine dish in its own right? Would a chef this stellar really send out a sub-par plate just because it falls on his restaurant's "American," rather than Chinese, menu? If I order orange beef at a Chang restaurant or, say, one of its Flushing, Queens, brethren am I necessarily getting the weak stuff and squandering an opportunity? Sure, it won't be as nuclear-fallout hot as the chengdu spicy aromatic fish broth, but does that mean it won't be as delicious a taste worth savoring and knowing about?

The answers to these questions may be simply: "Nope," "Yep," "Yep," and "Nope!" I'm ready to accept that there's an intrinsic limit to the complexity of Americanized Chinese food or that otherwise virtuoso chefs phone it in for that half of their menu. But don't we owe it to our stomachs to at least interrogate the prejudice a bit? 

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.