Sarah Webb rolls her eyes as ignorant “foodies” instagram their dumplings.
Being Australian, I had many pre-conceived notions about what Chinese food is, and had become well versed in all those tales that people associate with Chinese food.
Convergences are increasing between Chinese and Western food cultures. When the first Chinese restaurants catering for Westerners opened in Australia, they offered something of an exotic or aesthetic experience, but much of this was to be lost with the proliferation of ‘chop suey’ restaurants and takeaways that offered inexpensive dishes, which had been modified to suit Western tastes.
In the 1970s, many imported Chinese chefs came to Australia and worked in the strange, new land that housed a crew of locals who were unadventurous when it came to their food. While food in China used only the freshest produce and ingredients, Chinese chefs like Michelle [surname withheld], owner of Ten-Yuan Chinese Restaurant, saw huge disparities between this attitude and the eating culture in Australia.
“Foreigners, the flavours they like are a little overpowering, stronger,” Michelle says. “We [Chinese] like to eat things that swim; seafood, drink clear broth. Westerners like eating meat; heavy flavours.”
If the only mainstream idea of eating fish was frozen, filleted and caught months earlier, a live fish steamed whole would have made people’s heads explode. As such, new dishes at local Chinese restaurants are now “dumbed down” from their traditional flavouring to please the Australian palate.
Today, these foods are still on the menu and the conspiratorial prejudice against foreigners persists. Yet, it’s harder to laugh.
I wrote this article with good reason because of something that happened to me out at dinner.
I had met up with a friend at a cheap, Chinese restaurant that we’d been going to for years, on the Central Coast. In my eternal charity, I made a feint gesture that I’m really not the most critical eater of Chinese cuisine, and that I don’t hold any and all unavoidably terrible culinary choices against my friends like tallies on a prison wall.
For a while, we danced the social tango of smiling, nodding, until the conversation hit a lull and my friend couldn’t help herself. “Damn, these are the best dumplings I’ve ever had!”
She was a dead white girl walking.
Looking down at the oily, rubbery buns filled with mystery meat, the vision of those $4 dumplings were an emetic of Chinese ancestral rage.
I could no longer pretend any other of the expensive Chinese restaurants frequented by self-acclaimed “foodies” could stand on its toes and reach average. I really couldn’t pretend that any dish prepped with enough five-spice powder and chilli is even remotely Chinese. Nor could I pretend that aak gwai lo, “food to trick foreigners [white people]”, is a legitimate Chinese cuisine.
John Roberts’ book China to Chinatown: Chinese food in the West highlights that the very cheapness of Chinese food in such places, the boorish behaviour of a minority of customers, their ignorance and indifference, not only on the subject of Chinese food, but also on many if not all aspects of Chinese culture, certainly betrays colonial attitudes. Yet, the distinctive features of Chinese culture and cuisines prevented their food from becoming colonialised.
However, the defined techniques of Chinese cooking, the use of characteristic veggies and sauces, and the claims of benefits to your health may have enabled Chinese food to retain a status somewhat higher than that of Western food.
Encouraged by the fruits of globalisation and sexy, kitchen television shows, Australia is now hungrier for what they consider to be ‘foreign’ cuisine, to become sophisticated and judicious in palate. Yet, many Chinese restaurants aren’t willing to play ball, and are struggling to provide what diners want while maintaining their authenticity.
It seems that dishes created on the basis of prejudice were a glass house waiting to shatter. Most traditional Chinese restaurants have failed to recognise the way the weight of the industry is shifting toward a ‘fast-food-like’ service, where patience and time to prepare food dwindles.
In contrast, Western celebrity chefs have noticed the demand for Asian food and capitalised on it through restaurants, such as Neil Perry’s Spice Temple. But why aren’t fresh kitchen talent, hired by these marketing savvy ‘foreigners’, producing authentic Chinese cuisine? Michelle says the anti-social personalities of elder Chinese chefs have eroded knowledge about the food, keeping it out of reach for younger generations.
“They can’t learn everything. It’s illegible now. They stuff they do learn, it’s not bad… it’s just not ours,” Michelle says. What are lost are the traditions of Chinese culture that had been passed down for centuries to chefs like Michelle, who dedicate their life to honing these skills.
Interestingly, the chance that these chefs can continue is dependent on adopting the attitudes put forward by the former “foreign” idols of scorn.
As a signal of change, Michelle is determined to shift the phrase which describes those dumplings I had at dinner from “food to trick white people” to “food white people like”.
While we do have authentic Chinese cuisine in the West, nothing can match the intense flavours, huge variety of tastes and styles, ingenious techniques and presentation skills and overall love for food that can be found in China.
Image (Flickr): katiebordner. Image has been cropped.