There are two Chinas inside of me.
The first is the China of my father, filtered through his 10-plus years in Hong Kong, as vividly related to me and my brothers when impressionable children. This is the China of incomprehensibly disgusting local delicacies (grouper’s maw was said to be particularly – indeed literally – emetic), of insane bouts drinking beer and native firewater, of dodgy masseuses and courteous smiling waitresses and hapless uncomprehending taxi drivers. So different, so – cringe – exotic, and yet translated – when in Chinese restaurants – to something so brownly safe: Peking duck, prawn toast, spring rolls, fried beef that even as a child I found too candy-sweet.
The second China is that of David Chang.
This is the China of incomprehensibly disgusting local delicacies
Filtered through his wonderful Momofuku cookbook, through his appearance on the fascinating Mind of a Chef, and the Lucky Peach quarterlies (founded under his aegis, now bearing his thumbprint despite – or rather through – the editorship of Peter Meehan), this is (yes) a China of intensely flavoured dishes that Westerners have missed out on for too long, but it is also a China of sublime encounters with steroidal versions of everyday foods (some, it must be said, more Korean than echt Chinese): straining dim sum, rice cakes sloppy with Chinese sausage ragu, skin-shatteringly crisp fried chicken heaped with dried chillies. Along with the cooking of Danny Bowien – a spiritual acolyte, even if he has now diversified into running a faux-ghetto taqueria – this is a Chinese food that it hot, sexy, trashy, messy and above all just f––kin’ dericious (Chang’s word, fortunately, not mine). Its apogee may be the spicy fried chicken sandwich now on sale at Chang’s new(ish) Fuku in New York, it may be the kung pao pastrami or mackerel fried rice at Bowien’s Mission Street Food (born, symbolically, in the guts of an old Chinese restaurant in San Francisco). It may, via several transatlantic changes of water, be the assortment of buns and Taiwanese small plates at Bao in London’s Soho. The point is that it’s not Chinese food as your dad knew it – maybe even if your dad was from China in the first place.
For years I thought my dad’s attitude to Chinese food had held me back. I didn’t go so far as to think of it as racism – although I will readily acknowledge it as an open-and-shut case of the sort of Orientalism that has blighted the British acceptance of Chinese food and culture for decades. But I knew – especially once I had started reading Chang, and Meehan, and had eaten at Momofuku, and Mission Street Food, and Bao – that his was not the right attitude. And so I resolved that I would be different.
But I can also see how Chang’s promotion of his version of Chinese food is also harmful, or (when taken on its own) detrimental to a useful conversation about what Chinese food is, or should be. I should emphasise that I have huge admiration for Chang: he is clearly a very smart man with great respect for tradition, for technique. But like any prophet, he is liable to have his message taken out of context and misread. The Shackfuyus and Bone Daddies of this world (and other bastardisers and distillers of Chang’s culinary gospel) might do well to remember that for the majority of people, Asian food is not INSANE, not DIRTY, not AWESOME: it’s just sustenance made to the best of their ability, and forcing a different reading on it is an act of cultural violence in its own right.
It’s taken me close to a decade to discover it, but I’m beginning to recognise what I see as my Chinese food, as formative to my life as it was to my dad’s and to the life of the weird, Oedipal Chang-dad my subconscious has created for me in its infinite wisdom. Maybe it’s a question of moderation: yes, please, to Peking duck (for really, what is there more delicious?), yes, please, to xiao long bao (a pork dumpling with hot pork broth in it – what could be more Changian or more sublime?), but yes please, also, to a side dish of fresh, quick-pickled cucumbers, with a little garlic, a little chilli, a little vinegar, seasoned just so.
I am in Singapore now, an ocean between me and my father, me and David Chang. About a week ago, I found myself at a Hawker Centre way out in the boonies (in another city they’d be Badlands; here they’re equally-good lands). It was late, I was ravenous. The sole stall still open had a row of roasted chickens hanging behind a narrow window; in a few seconds the stallholder had sliced a few bits of breast still pink near the bone, laid them on a bed of rice, and garnished the dish with a few slices of cucumber, a sprig of coriander, and a small side-plate of garlic-ginger-chilli sauce. I took a bite. It was delicious: no more, no less. C