Ming Tsai opened the doors of Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, more than 10 years ago. Since then, he's earned two James Beard Foundation Awards, hosted three Emmy-nominated cooking shows, authored four cookbooks and competed on Season 3 of Food Network's "The Next Iron Chef". Before that young Tsai could be found in the kitchen with his mom and dad at their family-owned restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen, in Dayton, Ohio.
On the eve of a state dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to the White House Nicole Dow spoke with Chef Tsai about regional Chinese cooking, the role of authenticity and how an American eater can up his or her chances of scoring the good stuff.
Previously - Five Things My Mom Taught Me in the Kitchen that I Still Use Today: Ming Tsai
What do you wish Americans knew about traditional Chinese food?
A lot of Chinese food is eaten towards texture, and that does not really exist that much in Western cuisine. For example, jellyfish is a traditional first course in a Chinese banquet. It’s part of a plate that has cold salads - like a cabbage salad and a jellyfish salad.
Jellyfish has no flavor. You usually get it treated with lots of salt, and you have to rinse it. The most traditional way it’s prepared is with chili oil, garlic and sesame oil and a little soy. You taste this flavor with a great crunch - like cartilage in a chicken bone. To the American palate, why would you want to eat that? To the Chinese palate, it is a delicacy.
Tofu is another great example. It's not made to be flavored, but it's all about how you cook it. With good tofu, you are eating it for its texture. There is something called "dou fu hua" which is twice as delicate as silken tofu. It melts in your mouth, and that texture is unbelievable.
Then there's sea cucumber. It has a hard gelatin texture and what you cook it with is what makes it so good.
There are a lot of great things that the Western palate would find strange, but is better if you understand that texture is the key to great food.
In Szechuan cuisine, there’s a term called, “ma-la,” which means, “numb spicy.” It’s a specialty of the Szechuan region that comes from the Szechuan peppercorn. It numbs your mouth a bit, and the numbness prepares your mouth to take more heat from the spice, without ruining the flavor of the food you are eating. It’s different from what you would eat in Beijing or Shanghai.
Does Chinese-American food stand as its own cuisine?
I don’t think so. Chinese-American cuisine is “dumbed-down” Chinese food. It’s adapted for the wrong reasons, to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public. Chinese cuisine was the rage in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the ‘80s it was Japanese food. In the 90s, Thai food. Now Indian cuisine and Korean food are huge. I just would not go to a restaurant that says it is Chinese-American.
What are some giveaways that it’s a Chinese-American restaurant?
If you look at a menu, you see 3-5 different Chinese regions, this restaurant is trying to be one restaurant for all people. It’s a red flag to me that it is a Chinese-American restaurant. If you see the chop suey, turn around. It’s fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce That’s not authentic anywhere in China.
If there are eight different sweet and sour dishes or If there is a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes – authentic restaurants have a couple of different variations – it’s catering to an American palate. Huge restaurants in New York and San Francisco have four chefs, each one doing specific food. That is not very common. But most Chinese, when they go out to eat have a specific style of food in mind.
What are some indicators that you’re in the right place?
The great way of serving of Chinese food, the family way, and it’s always like that - a beautiful platter in the middle of the table that everyone shares. Obviously, rice is always served. Nowadays, there is brown rice, which is something I love. There are going to be classic dishes, versions of Peking Duck or crispy chicken. Each should be specific to the restaurant’s region.
In this country, especially in the major cities, there are tons of restaurants that serve specific Chinese cuisine from a specific region. My biggest tip for anyone, especially if you are in a town with a Chinatown, is look for restaurants that specialize in region, like Szechuan or Hunan.
If you think about it, compare it to the U.S. If you are in the South and you do a great barbecue and also great New England clam chowder – how can that one chef be adept enough at both? How could one Chinese chef do fantastic Cantonese food, with the subtlety of ginger, soy, and scallion and the fiery heat of Szechuan food, or Mandarin or Cantonese? A Mexican chef can’t do great French food and vice-versa.
If you are calling, ask if they have a Chinese menu, if they do, it means they are catering to Chinese people. Also, if you walk in and see Asian people, that is also a good sign.
Does authenticity matter?
Absolutely. People are well-traveled these days. With the power of the web, you can get authentic recipes. With modern transportation, you can get any ingredient any time. You can enjoy authentic flavors that a lot of Americans do want. When people go to Hong Kong or Beijing, they don’t want Chinese-American food, they want to eat the food that Chinese people are eating.
People go to China in a tour group and say that the food is okay. The food is okay because they are in tour group and going to tourist restaurants. The food they are eating is kind of “dumbed-down” Chinese food in China. The Chinese people figure that tourists don’t want traditional food.
I’ve been to China four times in the last eight years. You can’t go in a tour group. It’s fine for travel and hotel, but you have to take the risk and eat where the locals eat.
If you are in China, go to where the Chinese eat. In this country, when I walk into a restaurant, I want to see only the locals there or the smart non-locals. I would go to a place that has mostly Chinese patrons.
Call up the restaurant and ask, “Do you have a Chinese menu?” That means, is there a menu that is written only in Chinese? If they have that, a lot of Chinese go to that restaurant.
What are some of the essentials of traditional Chinese cuisine? What are the dishes people should know about?
Royal Food/King’s Food: Mandarin
Mandarin style food is known for having full flavor, garlic ginger, soy, not that much chili. The heat comes the more south you go. The Ming Dynasty started dim sum, because wheat is from the north. All the dumplings and the wheat-filled steamed buns are considered Mandarin or Beijing style. The most famous dish is Peking Duck. That is the national dish of China to be honest, and the regional dish of Beijing.
Location: Hong Kong
Hong Kong is on the water and Cantonese food focuses on seafood. The first Chinatown that opened in San Francisco had many people from Hong Kong. There is a huge Cantonese speaking population in San Francisco. That style of food is famous for subtlety and delicacy with seafood, and use of soy sauce, ginger and scallion - not chilis. It’s more subtle, with steamed food and light braises.
Location: Fujian Province
It’s like Cantonese, lighter, seafood-based, more subtle
What is your favorite?
That’s tough because my grandmother is Szechuan, and they use ma-la in most of their cuisine. There’s a famous fish head soup - the whole fish is chopped up, skin bones, and all, placed in a fiery broth. You can see the chili oil on top. Scoop into your bowl, take one sip, and you really … wow, it is really spicy.
By the second sip, the Szechuan peppercorn starts numbing you, it’s no longer spicy. The peppercorn plays its part. I think it is just delicious.
Equally special is Hunan cuisine. It does not use Szechuan peppercorn, so when you eat the red chilis, the heat stays with you. It’s fiery, delicious, and tasty,
My favorite thing is to eat the spicy food. My favorite thing to cook and serve is the Peking Duck because it’s a labor of love, a 48 hour process and the most outrageous cooking technique I have ever seen. You’re essentially giving a tracheotomy to a duck. It really works. The fat does cook all off, and you’re left with a delicious, lacquered crispy skin and then the meat.
What is the best way for people to get a handle on traditional Chinese food?
The best way, get a Chinese friend (laughs). Same with any other type of food. In all seriousness, they know what to order, and if they speak the language, it helps so much. You will get more authentic food right off the bat.
Gee Ming, does that mean that you should only be cooking Chinese food? Your answers to some of the questions, #1 made me embarrassed that I own your cook book, #2 that I watched your show and #3 ever respected you as a chef and a person. Sorry but you got it very wrong. Maybe you forgot to think about your answers. Hire a publicist.
There is a lot of really good American food, but when I think of American food, I get the picture of a big hunk of meat, a big hunk of vegetables, and .. potatoes. I know it's not that simple, but you should get the idea. If you want to taste a really great and authentic Chinese dish, try Szechuan beef. There are many ways that I have seen it made, but the way that I am talking about is when the beef is crispy and matchstick size. It is stir fried with matchstick size carrot pieces and green onions with NO GRAVY.
Personally, I find dogmatism a real turn-off. I love much of the "authentic" Chinese food. I also love many Chinese-American dishes. I'm happy if authentic Chinese folks love jellyfish & ox penis soup. I'll pass. I've never known any authentic-anyones who loved every dish served by their native countries or regional cuisines. Food is sharing joy & health & culture among family & friends. For me that doesn't include mocking or denigrating others' tastes – I would just say perhaps that a certain dish isn't my cup of tea.
I liked the article, but after visiting China many times, eating the local, authentic cuisine that the author writes about, I must say, that I do not like many of the local dishes. I find texture either adequate, if it does not get in the way of flavor, or all the way to... disgusting. Jellyfish and Tofu are pointless to my palette. I understand the author's desire to share his romance with the authentic dishes as each person has their comfort foods and varied degrees. While I share his disdain for overly sugared "Chinese / American" dishes, I find that the word "delicacy" can easily become translated in my mind as "Achtung" or "Beware". Meaning, that I'm probably going to find myself gnawing on a sheep head, or attempting to avoid eating anything that is spending its last few corporeal moments staring horrified at it's visioned sudden death (i.e. fishhead soup). For my palette, please keep the heads, tails, feet, faces, internal organs, horns, eyeballs, other balls, and "delicacies" off my plate and reserve them for those wonderful souls who would appreciate them far more than I ever could.
I've had Peking Duck. We ate the skin only – the meat, no matter how appetising paled in comparison so you take it home to feed your dog. The skin is crispy and eaten like biscuits. We had lettuce wrapping cucumber and cilantro bits draped with a thick "duck sauce", sandwiched between two pieces of crispy browned duck skin. Bite into it, craaac ... craaac ... mmm salivating. Then you look at the duck meat, which would normally be tempting, but you now decide to take home to feed your dog.
So, you go down to China town, running from shop to shop asking where you could find "Peking Duck", but every China town you visit, you could never find that "Peking Duck". What they tell you as Peking Duck is actually roast duck and the skin? It's limpid and fatty. Even in restaurants filled with Chinese speaking people, you cannot find that authentic "Peking Duck".
I am told, "Peking Duck" is closely guarded recipe by the clan. Each clan has a variant recipe. You hang the uncooked duck to dry in cool arid air. You put it into the brick oven and once a while, turning it to blow air thro its rear end to puff it up. No wonder I could not find "authentic Peking Duck" in any China town. You have to get it from a clan who knows how to prepare it.
So I got an idea, I experimented with salmon (except you can't puff up a salmon) and succeeded. Yumm ... crispy salmon skin, eaten like crackers. Craaac ... But I did not feed the salmon meat to my dog – I selfishly ate that too.
China town peking duck skin – not exactly limpid, but lacks that opaque crispy-browned texture.
He's not being snobby. He's simply giving you a guide to a different food experience. If you think PF Changs is a deliciously whimsical and profoundly moving experience in Chinese cuisine, then by all means enjoy. If you love Panda Express and feel "cultured" eating with chopsticks in some food court, then awesome, but the article isn't for you. If you think of food in terms of something to gulp down when you're hungry, or in terms of how much of it you can get for how little you have to spend then the article isn't for you. However, It's geared towards those with an express interest in finding out what's out there in terms of authentic, regional cuisines. In this case it's Chinese, but the message holds true to any cuisine somebody might have an interest in. Honestly, we all should have a clear understanding of the phrase "dumbed down" by now. It's in no way a verbal assault and if you feel like he's calling you a "stupid American" then you're far too sensitive or else you don't have a grasp on idiomatic speech. What he's simply saying is that most Chinese restaurants, and those of many cuisines for that matter, especially in regions where there simply isn't a large enough ex-pat or first generation population find it difficult to serve (re: sell) items such as offal, fish eyes and whatever else Americans aren't accustomed to eating and therefore have had to adapt to serving food they wouldn't typically eat themselves at home. Thus he's giving those with an express interest a set of guidelines on finding out how to cross the culture barrier a little bit and try some regional Chinese cooking that exemplifies that offers a true experience. And, yes, I'm sure there are those who have went to a Chinese restaurant that seemed to fall under all of his suggested guidelines and it still sucked. To that I would say you probably need to take a statistics class. There are always exceptions to rules.
Actually more chinese are coming to America, this scholastic year alone there has been a 30% rise in the number of Asian students, namely chinese, coming to America to study. I don't blame them our educational system is much better than theirs in terms of flexibility and opprotunity. However I doubt they come for the fat-inducing Mcdonalds and artery clogging Taco Bells.
Someone once asked me about Chinese American food. I told him to imagine 'sweet and sour hot dog and tofu burger'. Try something other than Panda Express or PF Chang. Don't worry about us serving you EXOTIC meat. Unless you are my best friend and bring with you a bottle of 50 year old wine, we won't waste such a prized food on you.
What's with all of the food snobs? I've eaten in world famous restaurants where you have to book reservations months in advance, but I'm not going to judge someone because they've eaten "Chinese-American" meals. Who cares? If they like it, good for them. I happen to like 'Chinese-American" cuisine too (yes, cuisine), and I've tried many different authentic cuisines (Indian, Italian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, French, I could go on...) so it's not like I haven't tried different types of food. For those who turn their noses down unless it's completely authentic, man, you must be a lot of fun to go out to eat with.
I love the "dumbed down" cusisine but I'm game to try the authentic. Went to a Dim Sum restaurant in Raleigh and had some very good food. They presented a menu with pictures and as the cart came around you picked what you wanted. Had delicious congee (rice soup with pork or chicken), several types of buns steamed and fried. My daughter even tried chicken feet and loved them. Ended the dinner with lycee pudding. MMMM! BTW we were one of the few non-Chinese in the restaurant and the staff was very helpful in explaining the different dishes.
Here in the Dallas area there are very good Vietnamese restaurants. They are in the area where Vietnamese live and typically all of the other patrons are Vietnamese. It is very very good food. I like food that is different, anyway. It doesn't matter if it's dumbed down or if it's authentic to me. I just like trying new things. But, don't get me started on Tex Mex. That is just awful stuff. This is just food made for people that are interested in dying slowly.
I prefer Americanized Chinese food, call me crazy but eating Jellyfish and Duck doesn't exactly scream awesome to me. I prefer food with a kick, spicy & hot, not delicate. Delicate food sucks.
This is a bit narrow thinking and a bit of a generalization on Mr. Tsai's part. Where does it say that any one person can only do the dish of which the region he/she specializes in and cannot do another region's dish just as good if not better? The whole southern food and New England culinary specialization is simply bogus. Every region is influenced by the food of the region it sits next to. Does Mr. Tsai think that Chinese dishes simply developed from the particular region itself without any influence from other regions? Really? You mean to tell me you couldn't find someone who specializes in New England food that is also good with making Southern food? Really? You can't find a single Chinese food chef (be they from America, South America, Africa, Europe or wherever) that can't make both Cantonese, Mandarin and Szechuan cuisines? I bet Mr. Tsai also believes that the only folks who know how to make a particular ethnic food correctly are the folks from which that particular cuisine is from, right? So if you want real Mexican, get a Mexican to make it. In general that may be true, but that's a generalization isn't it? They better fire all them Hispanics at all the breakfast places and Italian resturants, because I'm sure the flavors would change if they didn't have Hispanics making the food. Pahleeze.
Chinese food (ie fried rice/noodles) is as much an American food as the pizza & the hamburger. There will always be good & poor versions. Ming is sometimes thoughtful in his term usage of "Westerm cuisine" instead of "American cuisine" although not consistent throughout his commentary.
I live in Shijiazhuang, a city of about 8 million Chinese and 200 foreigners. I rarely see another American. I eat lots of places and have eaten stuff you have never seen in America...I'm from Colorado. A real Chinese meal is a progression of foods, textures and tastes. The "syntax" of food sequence is interesting and follows the thought behind Chinese medicine. Every food has a reason for being served where it is on the "lazy-susan" which continues to turn during the meal. You know you have been accepted by the Chinese when they help you with servings from the turning table into your plate. Between getting servings of food, there are many toasts of tea, bisju (white spirits), beer and red wine.
I have live here since 2004. I sometimes find a little street, turn and go down it on my bike and find very good street food and small places to eat. Chinese however, use lots of salt, MSG, sugar and cook everything in hot oil, except for dome roasting, a little baking and steaming or boiling. I have been invited to Baoding for "Donkey-burgers" but have not been, yet.
While at the end of the day people should eat what they like, I do think authenticity is important. When you eat foreign food, it should be a learning experience too. I am Italian and I had so many Americans come back from vacations in Italy completely dumbfounded that the food was nothing like they expected. Yes, because what's passed as "Italian" food isn't Italian at all. Same with most other ethnic food. People here post that they know what they are eating isn't "real" Chinese food, I beg to differ, most people wouldn't know the difference. Now if you are content in your ignorance, that's fine and dandy. Me, I don't like to be swindled, so when I go for Chinese food, I actually do expect CHINESE food. But then, that's just me.
“Can you respect that it is the product of history from the immigrants that have come here. If it was a "product of history from the immigrants that have come here", it would be authentic, not imitation. So I guess you like jarred tomato sauce also? Domino's pizza? Arn't they a “product of history from the immigrants that have come here” of whomever started those companies? Sigh. This is why we have crappy food. Be sure btain is engaged before putting mouth in gear.
This guy is full of crap. P.F. Changs is legit, it doesn't get any more authentic than that.
If PF Chang's is about as legit as Panda Express.
As a Chinese, I must say that P.F. Chang is even worse than "dombed-down" Chinese American food. The latter is Chinese food trying to taste good for Americans. But P.F. Chang is ????? food trying to fake itself as Chinese one. The company is not started or owned by chinese at any time at all. I seriously think they made up the entire menu out of nowhere.
I would say that even Panda Express is more authentic.
well the thing is do you want Chinese food or American food? It's that simple. he's saying that if you want Chinese food, you have to go where Chinese go. Nobody is stopping you from eating American food.
Guy is talking about Jellyfish that has the texture of chicken bone cartilage and I'm the Philistine because I think that sounds like a crappy meal.
oh I love bone cartilage, especially the beef kind that comes with the ribs. Jellyfish is just crunchy and cold. It is a good starter for a 10 course meal. It is not meant to be eaten by itself. That's another thing for Chinese cuisine. Each meal consists of 3, 4 dishes. They all go together to make a meal.
I've had real Chinese food, and quite honestly, I prefer the 'dumbed-down' version. The authentic stuff just doesn't appease my palette. Speaking of which, my favorite dishes are Hunan Chicken and Szechuan Beef from Raleigh's own New-China Express! By the same token, I as an Indian cannot stand 'dumbed-down' Indian food! Suffice it to say, if my Mama didn't cook it, it's some str8 up baloney!
I beleive that the point he was trying to make with regards to the "find a Chinese friend" is that you are more apt to find and experience more authentic Chinese Food if you are at a restaurant with a Chinese person. I have experienced it myself may times: Was taken to a Chinese restaurant by a Chinese friend and we were served some of the best food I have ever eaten. I went back without the same friend and took some others, who I felt would enjoy the great food, only to be served "American-ized" versions. This has nothing to do with the establishment wanting to give us food of a lesser quality, it has to do with what "American" consumers are looking for. Does it really make good business sense for the owner of a Chinese restaurant to make a truly authentic tasting meal only to have the customer make a statement along the lines of "Doesn't taste like what I expected. I won't be back." and lose that customer forever. Or does it make more sense for them to cater to what the customer wants? If the typical customer wants chow mein in a thick soy sauce, that has no resemblance to authentic Chinese food, yet will come in once a week for it, then that is what they will get. Our main problem in America is that we want the "McDonald's effect". That is: we want chow mein in San Francisco to taste like the chow mein in Los Angeles and in Dallas and in Miami and in Des Moines. That is not going to be the case. Yet another reason why steak is such a popular item in the US: it is seasoned with only minimal spices, if done right, so it tastes relatively alike, depending on what the heat source is(i.e. broiler, wood grilled, charcoal, etc).
Its not the restaurant people, it is us.
I've always been a fan of authentic cuisine, and generally when I eat ethnic food I try to find something that I think is more authentic. I've had authentic Chinese cuisine in Chinatown and I can honestly say that I enjoyed it. having said that however, I don't feel that I should apologize for my "american palate." I grew up in America, and therefore things like jellyfish, with cartalidge texture, and sea cucumber do not sound appealing to me and you can call me "dumbed down" or close-minded all you want for it. I bet the Blue Ginger is really good, and I want to try eating there sometime, but I don't see why people are surprised when something as foreign as Chinese food becomes "americanized" in the form of General Gaos chicken or Orange Peel Chicken or whatever. My whole thing is lets have the meat fresh and have it cooked well.
I agree whole-heartedly to "to each his own", but not when a food culture that is as potentially as diverse as ours is being stifled by corporations that would rather us eat the same big mac that our parents ate (which we do–only increasingly cheaper for the corporations to produce). I'm not a champion of authenticity per se because in the absolute sense, there is no such thing. For example, what is authentic BBQ or authentic chili. Everyone, every region, every city in America has a different take.
But in our country the idea of authenticity exists because of the assimilation and bastardization of foreign cuisine. We then have the nerve to pass the bastard dishes like burritos and egg foo yung as "Mexican" or "Chinese". Few of us know what foreign cuisine truly tastes like unless we get it homemade.
Consider that we live in a country where the article we are all commenting on is even relevant. I think that we should at the very least acknowledge cuisines for what they are because it allows our food culture to develop. Compared to other nations that are ethnically homogeneous, our food culture is relatively stagnant. Sure we have fads, but there is no synthesis of new ideas in order to create a cuisine that is trully representative of America. We should instead be looking to Cajun and Creole cuisine as what American food can be. Its regional made of local ingredients grounded in local ethnicities and traditions. Yet it is the most uniquely American of all our cuisine. Still the American food culture writ large is either busy stuffing themselves with high-sodium processed foods or with gimmicks like throwing lobster on a hamburger and charging $30 for it.
No one's asking for apologies, but we can be better if we just be a little more open minded. There's nothing lost as food lovers for being open. The only people who don't want to see that are the corporations.
I agree; we have a weak food culture. Mac n Cheese, cheeseburgers, pizza, bud light. Americans generally eat unimaginative cuisine, even when we're not eating fast food. Consider Indian food... many Indian restaurants have been popping up, at least in my neck of the woods, and most people I talk to about it have never gone to one (out of limited palate), or have gone and hated it. To them, its completely exotic and bizarre. But honestly, most of it is chicken, beef, lamb, maybe seafood, in rich thick, creamy sauces with tons of curry and spices. Its not all that "exotic" or bizarre. I champion restaurants that serve things that are more off the map, because its enlightening our taste buds, and our knowledge of other cultures. But because we're so used to beef, chicken, fish, etc., we're always a challenge for a restauranteur who wants to serve things like, lets say, sea cucumber. For better or worse, thats the reality, I don't know how much of it is corporate America's fault. I do think that its mostly the fault of our limited sense of adventure when it comes to food however. Im an advocate of trying new things, at least once, even if you think youre going to spit it out. Example, I tried frog not too long ago for the first time.... my opinion is with the cliche.... Tastes like chicken. Now because I grew up in America and am culinarily limited, Im not going to start seeking our frog when I know that it tastes like chicken and I can more easily have that instead (and theres more meat to chicken) As far as corporations go, they pretty much want to cater to whatever the market wants. If Americans started eating tons of frog, I bet McD's would soon come up with a McRibbit.
The other side of this is as far as authenticity goes, what exactly does it represent? Who eats this authentic food back in its country of origin? My background is Portuguese. A very under the radar demographic here in the US. There are a few Portuguese restaurants in the area where in live, and most of them are pretty good.... I can vouch for them. But honestly.... a lot of the food they serve isnt what common Portuguese people eat either here in America or back in Portugal. Mostly richer people. So thats another factor to consider when you are specifically seeking authentic.
Who cares if the food is “dumbed-down” I don’t know about the rest of you, but all I pretty much care about is does the food taste good. I don’t see why its shocking to people that restaurants tailor their menus to better fit the taste preferences of the local market. Most of the time the restaurants don’t even claim to be authentic Chinese, a lot of times they say “ Chinese-American”, or “Asian-American” which makes perfect sense, its Chinese inspired food tailored to please the American palate.
Speak with clarity Sman1234!! Asian-American simply put is not generally known for quality Asian cuisine. A genuine Asian food enthusiast knows the fundamentals of choosing the right place to dine.
I believe Asian food is all around the best food on the planet. I've traveled the globe and one thing you can always find is a great Thai, Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese restaurant abroad. And the food is generally consistent no matter which country you travel to. Wish I had gone to culinary school to become the greatest (Texan) Asian Chef. Comment: Most of the people posting comments here won't know quality Asian food if it was delivered to them on silver platter
It so happens that I DO have several Chinese friends, both foreign and American born and I have eaten ALOT of "authentic Chinese food . I know about the texture thing and I'm glad that I've learned to apreciate it.
However, Philistine that I am, my favorite Chinese food is still the "dumbed down" kind. No Chinese food gives me as much pleasure as a big plate of American chow mein with those little round crunchy noodles and a place that serves a good, absurdlly inauthentic egg foo young is a a place of happiness.
I like fake sushi too.
A lot of my Chinese friends like the "dumbed down" Chinese food, too. We have a restaurant near us that serves a lot of "dumbed down" Chinese food to a large Chinese customer-base. What makes them stand out is that their dumbed down Chinese food happens to be the best of the dumbed-down Chinese food in the area - and it is very, very tasty. I was actually surprised to learn that my Chinese friends seem less picky about average Chinese food than non-Chinese friends. The only thing they all seemed to commonly hate was PF Changs - probably because it's ridiculously far outside of the Chinese box.
If the food's good, who cares if it's "authentic?" Authentic stuff tastes like old boots half the time, and about one third of Asian dishes taste as if a sheep knelt in them. Give me a buffet so I can pick and choose, please, and don't sneer at me for not wanting to eat a bird nest or a shark tail or a sea cucumber unless you gonna drop by the shack and help me eat a mess of frog legs and gator tail.
I love some gator tail...not so big on the frog legs though. I like food in general; authentic or not....if it tastes good and feels good who cares. From a cultural aspect yes I would try to go to small hole in th walls if I was traveling abroad...of course some of us aren't so lucky to do that so I'll stick to the "dumbed down" version in the us for now and just watch the travel channel
Frog legs taste just like chicken. Really rubbery chicken.
I love a good gator tail po-boy. And it's really hard to find frog's legs that aren't overcooked. But I live in a HUGE metro area in Texas and have yet to find more than ONE so-called Chinese restaurant that is not one of those disgusting, unsanitary buffets. The food in them is uniformly awful even for 'dumbed down Amerinese'. The only non-buffet one I found had been there for about twenty years and professed to be Cantonese but was just terrible.
The best Chinese I ever had was in a hole in the wall in Metairie, La, a suburb of New Orleans. The owner was the waiter and his wife was the cook. My parents took me there for a birthday dinner, and I still remember the guy saying over and over we were ordering too much food. We shared the dishes between the three of us and took the rest home. It was good we did that; we got to taste the best of everything on his menu. Less than three months later he was having such success he got a couple of waiters and a chef to relieve his wife. Things went downhill pretty fast after that. Yet for another couple of years it was still considered the top Chinese restaurant in the area, because they were still trying to serve authentic food. Those of us lucky enough to eat there while his wife was still the only chef remember the tea-and camphor duck with utter rapture.... give me authentic, preferably home-cooked Chinese any day over the "Americanised" version. Once you have tasted the difference, it's next to impossible to choke down the 'dumbed down' stuff.
If it's Dallas, that may be understandable as Dallas seems to have a bigger Korean population.
Houston? If so, you are not looking in the right neighborhoods.
Authenticity only matters if you're interested in eating things you haven't had before and learning more about a culture through its food. If you just want bland fried noodles, you're not the right audience for this kind of food.
My big question is why do we need to know someone Chinese to be served authentic Chinese food. Restaurants that have Chinese menus have refused to have English versions of the authentic food. Wouldn't it make sense to offer the authentic version in English for those that want to try it.? And why does Ming think it is ok to only get authentic food if you can read Chinese?
Perhaps for the same reason Mexicans don't serve Americans authentic Mexican food.
Tsai talks about the trends of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai, and how the current trends are now Indian and Korean. It serves us better if I can explain some of the cultural context. The Chinese and Japanese, in addition to having fine culinary sense and traditions, are also well known for their business sense and traditions. These trends started when the immigrant entrepreneurs figured out how to cater to more customers, which as we all know is good business. With that came the "dumbening" of the menu. The Thai trend followed suit although much later just because it took awhile longer with there being a smaller Thai contingent in the US, that increased sharply with the influx of Asian immigrants in the 70's and 80s.
Koreans and Indians, on the other hand, are notorious for their yielding authenticity. Their popularity rose with the rise of the modern foodie, whose interest was piqued by the promise of unique and foreign flavors. (For the unaquainted, both Indian and Korean flavors are very different from anything offered in the West, let alone other Eastern cuisines.) While the interest in Indian and Korean food has been the catalyst for novelties like Korean tacos or has served to
While it may be irksome that its even necessary that there be a separate Chinese menu, the moral of the story is that Americans as a whole need to prove we can be more open to different cuisine. We mustn't depend on the foodie hipsters keep to being different for us to trend to the foreign. To be blunt, the hipster foodies only want what's different for the sake of being different, whether they would admit to it or not. Authentic is used by them as a vessel for elitism.
Once we become open to what other cuisine is authentically, then our own food culture can flourish. Our food can become as diverse as our nation is. After all, food culture as all culture should strive, shouldn't be about assimilation but synthesis–especially in America.
Is your name really Patrick?
Even in "authentic" restaurants the owners do try to cater differently to "American/Westerner/White" customers by reducing spiciness or offering different choices of spicy foods. E.G. if a White American orders spicy catfish soup from a Nigerian restaurant, the cooks may make the spiciness lower unless the customer requests the spice levels to be higher.
I agree with this. My fiance is Chinese and speaks fluent Mandarin, but we can't even order off of the "Chinese" menu because his reading skills are not so great. This may or may not be the restaurants' intention, but to me it feels like they are intentionally trying to block Americans from ordering their more traditional dishes. They would probably find that by having the menu in English as well, the adventurous Americans will actually try the dishes! Until then, I have only had the opportunity to try more traditional dishes (sliced pigs ears, chicken feet, pork belly, tripe, tendon, moon cakes, nian gao, etc) when I eat at my future in-laws' house. It shouldn't be a requirement to "find a Chinese friend," though.
While I think it's great to have the opportunity try more traditional dishes, I wouldn't expect every Chinese restaurant to feel like they need to start offering the traditional dishes. It really depends on the restaurants location in the U.S. A more traditional restaurant may sustain well in a major city or in an area where a lot of Chinese/Asian people live. If a more traditional restaurant were to move into an area with little cultural diversity and next to no asian population, it likely won't make any money and will probably not last long. It would just be a bad business move and not worth the risk.
There are things that cannot be translated easily or with the same type of eloquence. Egg drop soup is "egg-flower soup". Who knew eggs had flowers?!? Mapo tofu – scarred face/pocked-face old lady tofu? Yummy? Embedded in a lot of dishes are the meat, the cut, the sauce, the preparation.
And along with the Chinese menu may come expectations of how the entire meal will go. With an Chinese menu comes pickled veggies, boiled peanuts, cold meats in place of the fried wontons. With a Chinese menu comes orange slices instead of fortune cookies. With a Chinese menu comes an understanding that food is family style, plates pushed and pulled over the shoulder the "lowest ranking member" at the table, there will probably be a point person ordering food, asking for clean plates, and generally overseeing the dinner.
Is it that convoluted all the time? It can be. And that is part of the charm of eating "authentically". You just have to enjoy the ride.
Great Article. But definetly being a patrick.
+1 for you! Nicely done.
I've eaten the food of top Chinese chefs in China, Hong Kong (before it was China), San Francisco, New York...and I've eaten in plenty of Chinese homes. While I take issue with the snarky "dumbed down" comment, it is true that there is a huge gulf between mediocre, generic Chinese food and authentic regional cuisine. But that's true in all styles of cooking, Ming. There is a huge difference between Olive Garden and Marea.
I've had people tell me that you just need to look for where Chinese people are eating, and the food will be great, authentic, reliable. Not true. I once ate in a highly regarded neighborhood restaurant that was constantly full of Chinese customers, where I ordered a whole-fish dish, which was one of the higher-priced items on the menu. The platter-sized fish comes out, decorated and succulent. When the meat is eaten from one side, we flip the fish over and...there is no meat! The fillet had been used in another dish. But then...maybe that's authentic.
The problem lies in the fact that Americans are far more fixated then ever before on the "Olive Gardens" and "TGIFs" than they are the mom and pop's who try to serve authentic food of all cuisines, but are finding it harder and harder to compete against the corporate restarants. The foodie movement, while I am against it as far as it is indicator of our collective culinary shortcomings, comes as a rebellion against to the palate of profit as has been dictated and perpetuated by the corporations. So yes, in essence our palates have been dumbed down (like network TV that panders to the advertising dollar–but that's another story!). As long as we are in denial of our dumbed down palates, the suits will keep serving us whatever will keep their profits up, at the detriment of our waistlines and our own culinary edification and pleasure.
Corporate restaurants seem to hurt areas along major freeways and in suburbs.
In out of the way small towns and in ethnic neighborhoods of big cities, you will find plenty of mom and pop restaurants
BTW there are a few American-Asian cuisine chains out there, but they don't seem to be in the Nowheresville, KS towns along US freeways. AFAIK most American-Asian restaurants in small towns are small businesses.
Fi, they might have been telling you to go eat somewhere else.
Bubba, you are living up to (down to) your log-on.
The best French pastries can be found in Tokyo!
I love Ming Tsai, but think he is showing his "food snob" colours. "Dumbed down?" How rude! Like all food in America, Chinese food has to be prepared quickly and of course cater to the palette of its customers. Who has time for 10 courses of jellyfish anyway?
hey Food-D – he never said 10 courses in jellyfish – you can't really understand chinese food until you have it without gravy, sause and MSG – chinese food is great in it's rural china origins – you are the food snob – just go back to your precious McD's
Hey Robert – you're a douche.
@ THE WITTY ONE – See Comment @ SNOW BUNNY
@Robert – Its great that you like authentic Chineese food so much, because im sure it really is amazing, but its pretty messed up that you have to fight everybody about what they think is good food. "Good" food is going to be different for everybody, be it authentic or "Dumbed-Down". As it turns out, there are people who do enjoy the less traditional meals, just like there are Meximerican dishes and Half-Italian meals. It shouldn't be an issue what you eat as long as you enjoy it.
@Robert. The time of your posts show up, so everyone can see that you keep coming back. What for? Just to see what people have said about you? Let it go.
Now. About the article. I liked it. It was a different point of view, and I always enjoy that. Unless they are mean like Roberts. Lol! Chinese food here in America is all I have had, so I can't compare.
Gee Robert, I don't have time to 'understand' Chinese food, and frankly I can eat the stuff without needing to converse with it. Unless it's sushi and still twitching it's not going to be communicating anyway. But we all understand your need to one-up everyone, and we are sure that you were eating Chinese food way before it was 'cool' and that you know SO much more about it than we do. Here, put this in your mouth and hush.
Dumb-down, this is the right word for any foreign-American food. I like tasting new foods, but foreign-american food all tastes the same; they even have the same dishes regardless of what restaurant you go. You go to a Chinese-American restaurant and all the dishes look and taste the same, too sweet. Same thing with Japanese foods; i had a Japanese girlfriend when in i lived in California, her cooking was so much better than restaurants (even though she claimed to only be an okay cook). You can go to a Mexican Restaurant and it's the same story; i grew up eating Mexican food.
Even in all-american food like stake, even a novice stake-eater will know the difference between a good stake and a piece of meat. Dumb-down American food, it sucks; it all tastes the same. My advice, take a detour to a restaurant that isn't upthight or incorporated, try a locally owned restaruant and taste the difference. You may find something amazing.
Its giving a chance to the experience. Just to understand that Chinese food in the US is "regionalized". Cartilidge is a large part of chinese food – we pay MORE for that than we do meat sometimes!
Ming is not asking anyone to love congealed pig blood or fight over who gets the steamed fish head. He is just saying there is more to Chinese cuisine than the average Chinese take-out resturant will provide and that the world is bigger than General Gau chicken...this is the case with ANY food. To be fair, the Chinese tend to BUTCHER American food as well!
BTW, 10 courses? The Chinese style banquet is AMAZING. We had one for my wedding and my Polish Husband still talks about the flavors, textures, CEREMONY of the event to this day.
I went to Shanghai a few years ago and LOVED it! I definately scoped out the local restaurant/bar scene to see what the locals do. The biggest surprize was plate sharing. My husband and I didn't understand until a local took us for lunch and we picked up what to do through him.
I agree, make friends with a Chinese person! I had a manager who was from Hong Kong- and I went to plenty of great places in Chinatown, NY that I wouldn't have otherwise. It does help to be around someone who understands the language and the culture, it makes for some great learning experiences.
Why is authenticity always a requirement for people? Food doesn't HAVE to be about authenticity, it can also be about... um, taste! He says authenticity is important because people are well traveled; anyone that is well traveled can also tell you that other nations have their own spin on int'l cuisine; for instance, Chinese food in Japan is not like that of Chinese-American or authentic Chinese. It's its own thing. When it comes to American-Chinese in specific, can you respect that it is the product of history from the immigrants that have come here? You can respect or enjoy food for what it is and how it reacts to your own palette, not what people tell you it's "supposed to" taste like. It's only important to recognize authenticy from an educational perspective - and if you are privy to, AND enjoy that particular "authentic" taste.
If a restaurant says it serves Chinese food, the food ought to be "Chinese" and reasonably authentic. I get that the American palate may not enjoy the same textures as Chinese people enjoy. I personally don't like the thought of eating anything with the consistency of cartilage. I live in the Bay Area, even here, Asian restaurants cater to the American palate. So much of the Chinese food is served in nasty, cornstarch thickened, brown sauce. It's horrible. Yet Anglos revel in the salt and browness of what they are eating. What tastes good to you may not taste good to others.
Although authenticity isn't an important feature of food from a taste standpoint, it is one of the most important things to consider with regard to culinary history and culture. While the Western palate isn't necessarily keen to the same textures the East is, let's be clear that the problem doesn't lie in the Western palate, but rather the American palate. Because of the principles of capitalism and marketing which we cherish as Americans, for better or for worse, our food producers (who are now predominantly corporate) cater to our tastes and our desires. This may be good for the bottomline, as well as our own gratification, but our culinary history is lost and our culinary compass for the future becomes defunct. In our own country, just think of how much harder it is to get an "authentic" American hamburger these days. Even in the country of its birth, the very concept of the American hamburger has devolved to evoke ideas of golden arches and/or frozen pucks of meat allegedly deemed fit for human consumption that we ceremoniously grill at our backyard events. What happened to the grass-fed cows and meat freshly ground just before being cooked to order, not to mention all the other ingredients prepared with all the necessary care? And how can the hamburger evolve if the main purveyors and ambassadors of it are coporate suits and clowns dressed in red and yellow.
In the same token, we're American, not French, so I'm not asking for foie gras or caviar here. It's a sad day when we defend our distaste for authenticity as it only marks our closedmindedness and ignorance culinarily speaking and otherwise.
One last thought: think of how few American's really know what Mexican food is when they are our next-door neighbors. If Mexican food conjures thoughts of talking chihuahuas and burritos (which are as American as the hamburger–not Mexican), then you have proven my point. Let me go out on a limb and say this might have something to do with the underlying racism and anti-immigration sentiment that's been around for years.
Let us all strive to at least taste what is authentic. We will better each ourselves individually and as a country whose collective palate is about as sophisticated as homo erectus. Perhaps it will open our eyes beyond to what is on our own plates.
Damn, well said!
Hamburgers are German, they did not originate here and we have altered them quite a bit to suit our tastes.
The real Mexican food thing really depends on where the people live. I've lived in southern California my whole life. There is authentic Mexican food all over the place here. You don't even have the issue of ingredient availability as the same things will be available at the same time in both northern Mexico and Southern California. In San Diego we even have some local Tijuana restaurants opening locations in the US. I think a lot of it has to do with the number of Mexicans here. You can easily run a successful business in LA or San Diego just catering to Mexican clientele. I can see with other groups that have smaller populations it may be hard to stay in business serving food that would only be popular amongst that particular ethnicity. Oh yeah and you can totally get the hook up on things at Mexican restaurants if you speak Spanish.
That's a good thing then. German food totally sucks.
I don't recall the chef ever saying we shouldn't eat American Chinese food, only that we should know it isn't really Chinese. And there is no question that that is the case.
Also, Gidget I hate to break it to you but just because there is a city in Germany called hamburg does not mean that hamburgers are from Germany. The city of Hamburg New York has the strongest claim to the origin, although there is no actual proof of the original location of the hamburger.
"“Can you respect that it is the product of history from the immigrants that have come here. If it was a "product of history from the immigrants that have come here", it would be authentic, not imitation. So I guess you like jarred tomato sauce also? Domino's pizza? Arn't they a “product of history from the immigrants that have come here” of whomever started those companies? Sigh. This is why we have crappy food. Be sure brain is engaged before putting mouth in gear.
"If a restaurant says it serves Chinese food, the food ought to be "Chinese" and reasonably authentic." In practice "Chinese" can mean "American Chinese food." Just like how "Chinese" in Canada often means "Chinese Canadian."
And there isn't a market for "authentic" Chinese food in Nowhereseville, KS. A "Chinese" restaurant there WILL cater to American tastes and will be American Chinese.
True, I was married to a Chamorrorita from Guam for 17 years, I loved their food so much I immersed myself in it. The ex very rarely cooked it, but through her relatives and the various fiestas, I learned as much as I could. Came to a point I was asked to cook their traditional foods for visitors from the island, this coming from a Mick that could ruin a potato. I am as white bread as they come, but I love being able to experience a little of another culture as least through their food. There were a few things that I had hesitation about eating, but my rule has always been to try it once at least, never disrespect your host. I was never disappointed. Another rule that ties into the first is stop being a pansy on what you think food should be and just eat and enjoy. You might be surprised.
Love him! Watched East Meets West faithfully for years. His honest devotion to food and family shines in his cooking.
"Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food." Well said.
Dumbed-down, but very very tasty.
Dumb-downed is exactly what it is – it is not tasty, it is dumb – and you would not know good food if it came up and kicked you in the gut
What an @ss.
@Robert - you sound a lot like Patrick (eatocracy.cnn.com/2011/01/19/lunchtime-poll-do-you-you-have-a-patrick/?hpt=Sbin)
@Snowbunny – how long did it take you think of that response – and yet you have nothing to say about the article.- WOW INTELLIGENCE IN ACTION
@TONY – or are you SNOWBUNNY's parrot...squak , squeak, DOH
It is definitely dumbed down, and while it is tasty, it is only tasty in the way that Taco Bell is tasty, or cheap pizza is tasty. Taco Bell sure as hell isn't mexcian food, and cheap pizza is not italian. That does not mean they taste bad per se, but cannot be spoken about in the same breath as real authentic cuisine. The same goes for american chinese food.
Actually Robert, if the food kicks you in the gutt, it is probably not very good.
very tasty indeed!
Wow, are all foodies such rude jerks?
Peking duck from Dadong in Beijing remains, and probably will for a long time, as the best meal I have ever eaten.
P.S. Ming, you were robbed on Next Iron Chef.
I also had Peking Duck in Beijing, at the Great Wall Sheraton, as the climax of a 2-week tour in 2001. We ate various Chinese food at Shanghai [where we also did a Mongolian BBQ], Wuhan, on a Yangtze Cruise, Chongqing, Xian, and Beijing. Most of the food was lightly-spiced for our American palates, compared to what the Chinese themselves ate, and we ate Western breakfasts.
Ming was so robbed on Next Iron Chef. Who cares about that show anymore? Good to see Ming Tsai "unplugged."
You are right about Da Dong (Big Mr. Dong) that offers one of the best Peking Ducks in Beijing. Other famous duck places in Beijing include Ya Wang (duck king) and Made in China (In the Grand Hyatt Hotel). All these places serve skins first before the meat. Skins are thick and crispy, free of fat, and go well with touch of sugar. Ya Wang serves their duck with the traditional pancake as well as "hollow heart" buns. You will be in heaven in all three places. Locals however do not go to these places. They go to neighborhood duck places where the cost is 1/3 if not less.
I was in China for three weeks in May 2008 doing earthquake relief. We lived mostly on c-rations, but I did have one really good meal in HK on the way home. Good stuff. Wish i had been able to see more of the country under better circumstances.
Why do they call anything 'americanized' as dumbed down. Yet we are the greatest country in existance and all the Chinese people want to move here. I dont see any americans jumping in shipping crates to try and escape.
Haha – this is the dumbest comment I've seen in a long time (and there are plenty around here). Fact that your screen name is "drinkinmyhand" seems about right.
That's not true. Time has changed, actually less and less Chinese now want to come to the U.S. now, especially Chinese people live in the major cities.
lololololol wow. You look like an idiot.
We have been the greatest country. That is fading.
America is the promised land. Americans are the chosen ones. Either George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Generals Eisenhower/Patton/MacArthur, Reagan or Obama, or a combination of them are the anointed messiah. English is the sacred language we received from Divine Providence. In fact, America means USA, not anywhere else in north or south Americas and Americans are citizens of this country, not of any other place in north or south Americas. Long live USA – the nirvana, the Sabbath fulfilled, the greatest place on earth where there is no comprehensive healthcare.
America is great, but not in food. Chinese cuisine has been developed over thousands of years. Give America a few more hundred years and the palate will likely get a lot more refined. French & Italian cooking is pretty good too; their cultures developed much earlier than American culture and they're the European nations closest to the spice-trade and the fresher produce of the warmer south.
yanny: America's not a mold that started in 1776, though. US cuisine had developed since Spain colonized the new world
American exceptionalism – what a bad joke.
have a big mac and a slurpy.
Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.
Join 8,077 other followers