It’s been a big week for Chinese-Americans making questionable generalizations about Chinese food.
“In China, however, mom-and-pop restaurants are avoided by even the locals. Sanitation standards aren’t at all what they should be. Trust me. I’ve gotten food poisoning in China more times than I can remember when I lived here last year.”
She then continues:
“My boyfriend’s aunt–who used to be Gulangyu’s health inspector (now retired)–is adamant on us eating at home. According to her, only the restaurants with government-approval plaques or Western fast-food chains, like KFC, are “safe.”
For sure, sanitation standards in China can be dodgy. The lasting damage done to my digestive tract after years in-country can attest to that. But to suggest that mom-and-pop restaurants are avoided by the locals is just completely untrue. OK, so your boyfriend’s aunt doesn’t eat at small restaurants because she doesn’t think they’re clean. But every city, town, and village in the entire country has mom-and-pop restaurants and they are always completely packed with people. To extrapolate one person’s personal dining habits to reflect the habits of the entire Chinese nation is just nutty.
And then there’s this article at the Asia Society, a Top Ten list of Chinese restaurants in America by a Los Angeles based accountant and attorney named David Chan, who was thrust into the public eye in an LA Weekly profile written by none other than Clarissa Wei. Chan’s claim to fame is that he has eaten at more than 6,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, and keeps a spreadsheet on his computer recording the details of every visit.
First, Chan says:
“As you see, all 10 of the restaurants I listed are in California, most of them are in the Los Angeles area, and most of them serve Hong Kong style food. That might lead one to believe that I am biased towards restaurants in the city that I live that serve a particular cuisine.”
Uh, yeah, it would.
And then he justifies his methodology like this:
“Virtually all observers, particularly Chinese themselves, agree that the best Chinese food comes out of Hong Kong. Furthermore, the great thing about Chinese food is that it continues to evolve and improve. And most of the evolution starts in Hong Kong, where food obsession is the norm.”
He then continues:
“Not to say there aren’t a lot of other different Chinese regional cuisines represented in our restaurants here. Many of them are very good. But few of these other regional restaurants reach the elite level.”
The problem is that Chan assumes that “virtually all other observers, particularly Chinese themselves” share his assumption that Hong Kong is the epicenter of Chinese cuisine, Cantonese food is real Chinese food, and that Chinese food from anywhere else should be considered “regional.”
Sure, people from Hong Kong think that the best Chinese food comes from Hong Kong, and so do a lot of Chinese Americans, many who (like Chan himself) are of Cantonese descent.
But China has a rich culinary tradition dating back thousands of years. It is an enormous country with great geographical diversity, and different areas of the country have sprouted disparate and distinct styles of cooking.
What if a third-generation Italian-American wrote a top ten list of “Best European Restaurants in the USA” and said “virtually all observers, particularly the Europeans themselves, agree that the best European food comes out of Rome?”
It may come as a surprise to David Chan — who, incidentally, seems like a cool and eccentric guy I’d like to eat with someday — but people from Sichuan think the best Chinese food is from Sichuan. People from Shanghai think the best Chinese food is from Shanghai. And so on. It’s his top ten list, and of course he’s entitled to his own opinion about what good Chinese food is.
But he should also know that while he might have a personal preference for Cantonese cuisine, it’s just that, a personal preference, and not one that’s shared by “virtually all other observers, particularly Chinese themselves.”