There’s a lot of debate these days about the authenticity of food and the deeper meaning behind it all. Accusations of cultural appropriation seem to arise on the regular.
I’m sure you’ll have read about the restaurateur in New York, for example, who has been put on blast for saying her new eatery serves “clean” Chinese food that doesn’t make people feel “bloated and icky”. Arielle Haspel, who’s behind Lucky Lee’s, has since apologized for her comments.
This isn’t necessarily a rant about what I think of western restaurateurs opening up Asian-inspired establishments that don’t really serve an authentic version of anything — enough ink has been spilt on that already.
What I want to say is that I actually, secretly, kind of love “fake” Chinese food.
I’m talking about the uber-greasy chow mein, sesame prawn toast, broccoli and beef drenched in sauce, fried rice doused in Kikkoman soy sauce (which I would never use at home — it’s Lee Kum Kee all the way), and fortune cookies you’d typically find at takeaways outside of Asia. I do, however, draw the line at “chicken balls”, which are an atrocity.
For commenters who’d previously called me a “shameless banana,” please take a second to Google my work. I know real Cantonese food. I’ve been eating it my whole life, and now a large part of my work consists of talking to Cantonese chefs about their work and their philosophies. From homely stir-fries that boast plenty of wok hei to baller, exquisitely plated seafood, there’s nothing that beats real Cantonese cooking.
Yet there’s something kind of irresistible about faux-Chinese food and all its sodium-rich flavors. It also reminds me of my time at boarding school and university in England. The food didn’t cure me entirely of my homesickness for Cantonese food — but they were a consistent source of comfort on cold winter nights, an ideal cure for hangovers.
What I call “fake” Chinese food, for want of a better word, is not pretending to be the most authentic version of any variety of Chinese cuisine — and in fact, it’s pretty much evolved into its own thing. In Cantonese, we insult people who are not grateful for their food with the expression “mo yee sik”, literally “no clothes eat”. Sometimes, it’s not a bad idea to just appreciate something for what it is.
All Tea No Shade with Andrea Lo.
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