Chinese food plays cultural ambassador

Editor:Sharon Lee
Updated:2016-05-03 09:31:33
By Amy He in New York(China Daily USA)

  For many Americans, Chinese food is their first gateway into Chinese culture - something that has become incredibly prevalent in America and continues to provide some semblance of what China is and how its 1.4 billion people live.

  Chinese cuisine went from being something only served at restaurants to something that's readily accessible to customers, making it the "best bridge and best ambassador" for Chinese culture, said Martin Yan, a Chinese-American chef most known for his award-winning PBS show Yan Can Cook.

  "I remember when I first came over here, when I went to the supermarkets, all I saw was beanstalks," he said.

  "At the most, there was tofu. But now, anywhere you go, every single supermarket you'll see an entire aisle with Asian seasoning - not just Chinese, but Korean, Vietnamese, Thai."

  "You go to the produce department, you see bok choy, long beans, Nappa cabbage, even taro or water chestnut. I think Chinese food - or Asian food - has become more mainstream," he said, speaking at a panel discussion on Chinese food at the 2016 National Chinese Language Conference held in Chicago on April 29.

  Documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney talked about his experience making The Search for General Tso, a 2014 film about General Tso's chicken, one of the most iconic Chinese-American dishes and one popularly identified with Chinese food for Americans.

  Cheney was working on a film about corn in the US when he and a partner popped into a Chinese restaurant and he ordered his usual, General Tso's chicken. The dish is a sweet and spicy chicken concoction served at most Chinese-American restaurants, and it got Cheney wondering: just who is General Tso and what is the origin of the dish?

  Through making the documentary, Cheney talked to Chinese chefs across the US about the dish and went to Central China's Hunan province, where General Tso, whose real name is Zuo Zongtang, was born and is a celebrated figure.

  "I think food is for many people their first window into a place they may not have traveled to," he said.

  "It's kind of a weird window - as we all have experienced, food adapts as it travels around the world, the chefs who are preparing these foods and adapting by using local materials, local flavors, but also to meet in the middle with their audience. There's this constant, crazy reinvention."

  "As Chinese restaurants began popping up all over the culture, people started associating Chinese food and Chinese culture with positive family memories, and I think that shifted a little bit the cultural exchange and the cultural attitudes in America,"