A Chat With Food Critics, Chefs And Restaurateurs From Asia

I gather my friends – Asian food writers, food critics, restaurateurs and chefs – asking them why they think Chinese food comes with such a bad reputation – ultimately being the poster child of ‘dirty’.

With hundreds of Chinese restaurants closed in this pandemic year, perhaps it is more timely than ever to ask the question – can Chinese food ever be seen as ‘fine-dining’ and will America lose its love/hate relationship with Chinese food with all these closures?

Let’s not forget Chinese-American cuisine is very much a part of the American culture as is BBQ to Southerners and bagels to New Yorkers Chinese Food is definitely a highly lucrative industry. 

Restaurateur and hotelier Loh Lik Peng

 “I think you are starting to see much more appreciation for Chinese cooking and also the fine dining aspects of this cuisine. However one of the issues is that Chinese food encompasses so many varieties of cuisine style and so many regions of China that its very hard to say what is definitive about Chinese cuisine so any definition only begins to scratch the surface. The Chinese themselves have a different concept of what fine dining cooking and ingredients are. Things like sea cucumber and goose web would never make it into a Western fine dining menu. The amount of fermentation, salting, air drying and preservation that goes into Chinese food would also be alien to many Western chefs so it’s hard for most Western food critics to fully understand the full range of Chinese cuisine.

Is it fair or what are your thoughts on how people think Chinese food is ‘dirty’ or incapable of being ‘high-end’? This is a classic cultural misunderstanding. Many Western critics don’t quite understand why Chinese food comes in the form it does. Why do the Chinese eat chicken or duck feet or why the organs of an animal might be considered the most prized and delicate part. They see jellyfish or fish heads and this sort of food is alien to them. That’s fair enough because they didn’t grow up eating food like this. Many Chinese people will think roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or Poulet roti quite bland. They would consider it a waste to deep fry a good quality fish for fish and chips and they would be horrified to learn that the heads, bones and fins of this fish are discarded because for many these are the best parts. None of this is necessarily ill intended, it’s just a lack of understanding of the other’s culture. Eventually people become more adventurous with their dining and gradually become more attuned to another’s culture and diet after more exposure.

Agnes Chee, Food Critic and Writer

From my observation, Chinese cuisines have only been learning that sense of ritual from fine dining from the last 10 years.  The positive is the plating of the dishes have improved, it’s more refined compared to just putting it on a dish, the visual is more appealing.  The negative would be some are doing things for the sake of doing them, just following a trend, without taking into account the cultural differences of Chinese cuisine, and if it is suitable to just copy and paste.  At the end of the day, a lot of Chinese dishes are about their temperature, if the temperature is not right, then they’d taste different.  Some restaurants while striving for presentation have neglected temperature and in effect their tastes.  In that sense, it’s going backward.

I think people who made these sorts of comments have a lack of knowledge to the culture of food and more specifically Chinese cuisine as a whole, it shows a prejudice and their naivety.  I think Chinese cuisine similar to American, French, Mexican, etc. there’re a variety of price range, from cheap eats, snacks, mid-priced and high end, depending on what you’re willing to spend, you get what you pay for.  If the person only eat in Chinatown or order Chinese takeaway, and then he/she will lack a vision for the high end Chinese cuisine, like London’s Hakkasan, China Tang, or Hong Kong Three MICHELIN Stars Lung King Heen, or T’ang Court, because he/she has never experience that world.  There’s a Chinese idiom: well-dwelling frog, a frog living in a well, can only see so much of the sky, it doesn’t know there’s much more to the world, it’s apt to describe the people who doesn’t know much about Chinese cuisine, but prejudice against it.

I think restaurateur, chefs and the media all have their responsibilities.  For example, an old stereotype was red wine has to pair with red meats, but through sommeliers and media, this stereotype has been broken and has allowed a more open mindedness towards new pairings.  A lot of westerners associate Chinese food with takeaway and has never otherwise tried Chinese, so media must have the foresight to write about related topic that could provide a wider scope, to educate the readers.  While Chinese chefs also need to think outside the box, as they’re often stuck with dim sum being only serve during breakfast, brunch or lunch, but why couldn’t a har gow, so technically difficult but beautiful thing, or a version of it, be a amuse-bouche or starter?

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