The New York Times

February 9, 2008

Op-Ed Contributor

A Rat in the Kitchen


BEFORE I begin, a wish to all for good fortune in this Lunar New Year, annum 4706, a Year of the Rat in the cyclical Chinese zodiac. It is a custom each year to look into the character and traits of the creature that governs one’s birth year, and to ask if they might mirror one’s own propensities. The rat, for example, is notable for his guile and clever talk and for being an occasional toady, yet as the year goes on he has the capacity to become an upstanding fellow. So, happiness and growth to all rats, most of whom will begin celebrating their year, as will we, dining festively.

Eating and knowing what we eat is my concern this new year as we ponder the stubborn inability of Americans to understand Chinese food.

In recent years, the pages of this and other publications — as well as the airwaves jammed with gastronomic programs — have been filled with discussions purporting to be about Chinese cookery. Too often these discussions have been rife with error. Chinese dishes are misidentified and misunderstood. Food is routinely declared Chinese simply because it is marinated in soy sauce; cookbooks tout misguided concepts like the “flavor principle,” encouraging home chefs to “re-create” Chinese dishes simply by studding them with bottled and packaged products.

After reading and rereading such nonsense, I have resolved this New Year to stop stewing and to begin questioning how and why Chinese food is so horribly misunderstood.

Let’s start at the beginning. Virtually all of today’s so-called Chinese cooking in the United States can best be described as undistinguished, served in restaurants generally indistinguishable one from another.

The how of this is easy. The Chinese who sailed to the Golden Mountain of America to lay the ties and tracks of the transcontinental railroad were all men. In this womanless society, these workers ate a food of survival; unfamiliar ingredients were cooked in rudimentary Chinese fashion. This coarsened cookery is what evolved into the Chinese-American genre. It is bastardized food, prepared first to feed a worker and then to please an American palate that dotes upon overcooked vegetables and sauces thickened with cornstarch and sugar.

The why is more complex. Chinese-American food is regarded unquestionably as Chinese by an American public that consumes it by the ton. And while the public bears some responsibility for its love of these sodium-assisted flavors, much of the blame must be placed on those of us who are responsible for interpreting Chinese cuisine. I include those who collate its recipes, those who critique it, those who rate its restaurants. They have failed to do their jobs.

Over the years, news organizations with reputations for accuracy and thoroughness have told me the following about Chinese cuisine: The “spring roll is similar to a typical egg roll”; “Chinese black tea is difficult to find” in America; “yum cha” is Australian for “dim sum”; Italian prosciutto is virtually identical to, and may be substituted for, the hard salted hams of western China.

All of these are egregiously incorrect. What is one to make of an authoritative Chinese cookbook that suggests “chopped California dates” as a substitute for red bean paste; opines that string beans will stand in nicely for bamboo shoots; sweet potatoes for taro; almonds for ginkgo nuts; a bouillon cube for soy sauce; salt for fermented black beans?

We are told that beggar’s chicken, traditionally cooked encased in clay or a hard dough, can be made authentically in an oven roasting bag. It cannot. It is reported that cutting up and sautéing a black-fleshed chicken is an authentic preparation. No, it is not. In China, black chickens are never eaten; rather they are steamed at length, with the resulting broth drunk as a health tonic and the meat discarded. In the last year, I have read that there are five, six or eight great regional traditions of Chinese cooking. In fact, there are four, always and ever four.

What’s most troubling about all this is that there is a sufficiently broad record to consult, to learn from and then to transmit. Books like “Food in Chinese Culture,” published 30 years ago, and its younger companion, “The Food of China,” are fine, precise and exhaustive sources. Yet they are consistently ignored; what seems more pertinent, of more interest, are courses in “Chinese takeout” like the one offered by a New York cooking school.

Let us be clear: authentic Chinese cookery is not so elusive. It can be found in the United States; the chefs capable of re-creating China’s greatest dishes are here. What these cooks need, I suggest, is to be challenged. I urge this New Year that those charged with informing us about true Chinese food make resolutions to educate themselves so that in time they may issue, with confidence, such challenges. And then the rest of us can follow. Gong xi fa cai. Happy New Year.

Fred Ferretti, formerly a reporter for The Times and a columnist for Gourmet magazine, writes about Asian food for Food Arts magazine.