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Sep 6, 2008 11:18 PM

WSJ: "Why Chinese Food Isn't Hip"

I think the author is completely wrong in his views of what "hip" Chinese food ought to be.

I mean, after all, he's looking to Chinois on Main, Mandarin Express (WTF??) and Yujean Kang's as exemplars of the genre??

Your thoughts?


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  1. Whoa that's a weird one...how do you respond to that?

    The guy has a general point about a lack of "nice" Chinese places targeting non-ethnic types and fusion eaters in non-ethnic neighborhoods and the lack of hipness but it's completely over-shadowed by him being an idiot and/or food critic with a very limited understanding of food, culture, immigration and economics...and the perspective things should come to him...not the other way around.

    It's a bit of an odd article...but then if you're reading the WSJ for food tips...well you sort of deserve what you get...or they have indeed targeted their audience.

    4 Replies
    1. re: ML8000

      I'm not sure what you mean by deserving what you get for reading the Journal for food tips. The article above was written by Raymond Sokolov, the former NYT restaurant critic now WSJ food columnist. He has credentials beyond that but having read him regularly for many years I'm willing to accept that he knows what he's talking about.

      As far as recipes go, I actually keep a file of recipes clipped from the Journal. Not all of them are to my taste but I've been very pleased with any that I've made. They come from restaurant chefs around the country and, from what I can tell, cooking doesn't have a political or fiscal bias.

      Have you ever read the Weekend section of the Journal? From your comments, I tend to doubt it. What do you see as their "targeted audience?" I can guarantee you my age and politics are not what you seem to assume. If the Weekend section is a foodie secret, I'm happy to be in on it.

      1. re: rockycat

        <The article above was written by Raymond Sokolov, the former NYT restaurant critic now WSJ food columnist.>

        Sokolov has not been the NY Times Restaurant Critic for MANY years. I've lived here 15 years, and not at all during that time.

        1. re: ChefJune

          Well, "former" does mean "previous, in the past." It does not necessarily mean "yesterday, the immediate past." He was with the Times in the 1970's. Does it really matter exactly when he was there? I used that credential to show that he had food writing cred, but it seems as if some readers don't feel the Times has any cred. Oh, well. To each his own. He also writes on American foodways for the American Museum of Natural History. Does that work for more people?

        2. re: rockycat

          I get the WSJ at work. There are many well written lifestyle articles. It works very well for stuff I'm not in or for something I'm not going to invest time into. For food, I don't see it...and this article sort of proves it. He might know NYC well but his whole "I have to leave Manhattan" thing says more then not.

      2. I didn't read it that way -- I read his discussion of those places as being places that were sort of what he was looking for, but not really. And there does seem to be a dearth of restaurants that combine Chinese cuisine with Western service, wine, etc. Where's the Chinese Nobu? Or Slanted Door?

        It is an interesting question. So many top level chefs seem to be incorporating elements of various Asian cuisines in their cooking, but generally either Japanese or Southeast Asian rather than Chinese.

        I think the author is right that Chinese isn't "hip" -- there is some residual snobbery about Chinese cuisine based on decades of American experience of Chinese cuisine being sweet and sour pork and chicken chow mein. Other Asian cuisines are less familiar to Americans, and thus have less cultural baggage and fewer stereotypes to overcome.

        1. What do you think should be "exemplars of the genre?" What is "hip" Chinese food?

          I think Ruth's comments are right on target.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ccbweb

            I agree that Ruth is right on target. If a cuisine is more "hip" if one can push its envelope with spices, sourness, new techniques, etc., then Cantonese (being the original Chinese standard in America) doesn't accommodate hipness at all, the way Thai and Vietnamese cuisine seem to do.

            That said, there are a lot of chefs who riff well on Chinese, and a lot of exquisite Cantonese dishes that are not well known to the general public.

          2. Haven't Japan and SE Asia been much more accessible than China to western chefs over the last 20 years? If you can't visit, it's hard to be inspired.

            13 Replies
            1. re: babette feasts

              Great great point. Simple and right on.

              1. re: ccbweb

                Not really: what about Hong Kong and Taiwan? Although there is such a thing as Taiwanese cuisine, a lot of the chefs and restaurants there are run by or cater to ex-Mainlanders.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  I'm asking far more than saying here:

                  Haven't both Hong Kong and Taiwan been heavily influenced by the various countries (and cultures) that have ruled them over the years? Are the cuisines to be found in those places very much like the cuisine to be found in various regions of China? Are there enough of them to stand in for the kind of exposure that western chefs can get going to Japan?

                  1. re: ccbweb

                    Probably less influenced than, say, Vietnam was by the French. My impression is that Hong Kong wasn't influenced very much by the British at all. Unlike India, there wasn't a huge British colonial population there. In Taiwan, the mainlanders brought their cuisines with them from all over China pretty much intact when they fled the Communist revolution.

                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                      Within the last decade or so, a distinct Taiwanese cuisines has definitely developed on the island, and it transcends what ex-pats here in the States commonly attribute to Taiwanese food -- i.e., pub food with things like oyster omelets, stinky tofu, vermicelli noodles, etc.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        Oh absolutely. I didn't mean to imply that Taiwan hadn't developed, and has continued to develop, its own cuisine, only that in addition to that there's a wide variety of regional Chinese cuisine from the mainland, and that some of it is still close to its "authentic" roots. So to answer the original question, which was "Are the cuisines to be found in those places very much like the cuisine to be found in various regions of China? Are there enough of them to stand in for the kind of exposure that western chefs can get going to Japan?" I would have to say yes.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          Gotcha. In fact, I think some of the best Tianjan cooking nowadays is done in Taipei.

                        2. re: ipsedixit

                          Stinky tofu didn't originate in Taiwan, it was brought there by the mainlanders.

                          1. re: Phaedrus

                            I didn't mean to imply that stinky tofu originated in Taiwan (after all the island was originally populated mostly by Japanese folks).

                            But after the mainlanders settled the island, they developed what can only be described as "Taiwanese stinky tofu" which is distinctly different than what you'll find in China.

                            1. re: ipsedixit

                              Taiwan is home to an indigenous population (ben di ren) that has lived there for thousands of years. The Japanese invaded Taiwan in 1895 and ruled it until 1945. Mainland Chinese influence was minimal until the Nationalists lost the Civil War in 1949 and fled to Taiwan with some one million mainlanders. Settling is far from the right word - ask any Taiwanese about 2-28.

                        3. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I think we might be a little grateful that the Chinese chef was not influenced by the Brits.

                        4. re: ccbweb

                          Not counting historical events (such as the arrival of sesame and cilantro from Central Asia and hot peppers from the Americas), the one regional Chinese cuisine I can think of that has a marked foreign influence is Macanese, which bears a strong stamp from Macau's period as a Portuguese colony.

                    2. re: babette feasts

                      There's a bit of history behind Chinese food in the U.S., starting in the 1850s.

                      When you apply immigration patterns to it, there's pre-1960s Cantonese food. After 1965 there was a slow immigration boom that crested in the '80s/'90s with a more dymanic HK-Canto food, i.e., better dim sum and higher end places that have since gone a bit little stale. This boom latched onto the existing infrastructure and communities

                      Conversely, sushi has been more of a post-80s thing based on the immigration of sushi chefs. Like-wise with Thai cuisine and Vietnamese.

                      Like the resurgence of many cuisines in the U.S., things are often immigration based. How many good new French or Italian places are started by recent immigrants?

                    3. It is kinda odd how there aren't any upscale full-service Chinese restaurants in the U.S.

                      It's not that Chinese food isn't hip or upscale. It definitely isn't the food's fault. But it's true, I've never been to a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. with the kind of service that many Westerners find requisite for a "nice" dining experience.

                      Chinese restaurant service in the U.S. can be blunt, rushed, sloppy at its worst, informal and back slapping at its best. Its not bad, once you get yourself out of the mindset of the Western style of dining out.

                      Yes, most people DON'T think that Chinese food can be all that glamorous because it only evokes images of take out sludge.

                      However, real Chinese food is absolutely delicious for those with open palates and open minds, just no one really influential seems to have teased it into a cute little tower yet and presented it on a big shiny white plate in a posh interior. (Even Ming Tsai seems to have gone the Japanese-fusion route, turning his back on his Chinese roots :( )

                      That said, I'd kill for some of my favorite restaurants in Beijing to somehow pop out an American branch. Full tableside service, lotus garden views, the works.

                      12 Replies
                      1. re: fuuchan

                        There's a place in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas called Pearl that is an upscale Chinese restaurant with full wine list, more western style service but food that was more authentic than most Chinese places I've been. (I should note: more authentic based on what I've read, not what I personally know.)

                        While we didn't enjoy Vegas, we did enjoy this restaurant. There's nothing really "hip" about it, though. The food was decidedly higher quality than our favorite takeout in San Francisco.

                        1. re: fuuchan

                          There's a lot going on with the lack of high end Chinese restaurants have to do with the capital needed to do a place right and big. A 500 to 1,000 seat place gets pricey and I'm sure a bit shocking to anyone coming from overseas.

                          1. re: fuuchan

                            Large formal banquet style Chinese places can't make it in the US, there just isn't a regular clientele which would ask for that kind of restaurant. Most of the restaurants that supply that service will serve a higher level of the Sino-American stuff that everyone is familiar with.

                            Another thing is that Chinese restaurants need to cater to the lowest common denominator, which is essentially catering to the American palate, and that has improved incrementally over the years, and the Chinese palate. As someone else had stated, the nature of Chinese immigrants have changed. From the Cantonese laborers, to the students and business people from Taiwan and Hong Kong, to the students and businessmen from China.

                            One thing that I have noticed is that the students from China have tended to prefer the all you can eat buffets more than the old guard Cantonese, Taiwanese, and HK people. So all of a sudden we are seeing more buffet style Chinese restaurants that cater to the Chinese customers. Recently, I have noticed that the buffet places have gotten much more sophisticated and the not so sophisticated ones have closed up shop. I don't know what is next, but it certainly won't be haute Chinese cuisine.

                            1. re: Phaedrus

                              Those are a lot of sweeping statements. There are large formal banquet style restaurants in places where there's a big enough Chinese population to support them (SF Bay Area, Greater Los Angeles, etc.). There are half a million Chinese immigrants in the Bay Area (not including ABCs), more than enough to provide a "regular clientele" for a diverse and thriving restaurant culture. In fact, part of the problem is that with enough Chinese customers restaurateurs don't see a lot of need to reach out to non-Chinese customers. Thus, a significant number of places where Chinese customers get one menu with the "real thing" on it while non-Asian customers get a menu of Chinese-American standards.

                              That doesn't explain why there aren't more Chinese restaurants in the vein of Nobu or The Slanted Door: restaurants that serve food that is only marginally fusion on the plate (except for dessert), but that have the service and atmosphere of a Western style restaurant, that have a serious wine list, etc. And it also doesn't explain why American chefs are interested in learning about Japanese and Southeast Asian cuisines and incorporating elements of those cuisines, while for the large part ignoring Chinese cuisine.

                              My impression is that Chinese students in the Bay Area like noodle shops and Chinese-style coffee shops, but I guess I could be wrong about that.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Large volume formal Chinese places do exist in the Bay Area and other large metro areas and are well on the non-Chinese food map.

                                The lack of the "bridge over" / fusion places like Nobu and Slanted Door...that's a bit more complex. That sort of place takes either a polished chef from another country or a second generation'er (or someone who came here early and is very acculturated) who has a broader sensibility, some luck or some capital, or both. Nobu Matsuhisa is the polished chef. Charles Phan is the young immigrant with broader sensibilities.

                                Also 2nd generation kids from restaurants families tend not to continue in the business...their parents want professionals, not restaurant workers/owners.

                                As for fusion, and Westerns chefs being attracted to non-Chinese food. I think you're right that there's a bit of a stereotype, non-newness factor, as you mentioned before, but there's also some hardminded traditionalists in Chinese cuisine that keeps change from the other side happening.

                                Japanese have a tradition of liking Western concepts as long as it can be Japanese. Other Asian cultures sometimes don't challenge Western ideas either because they don't feel the need or feel a need to return inquiry in-kind. Unfortunately some of the Chinese thinking is -- we've done this for 5,000 years, what's the matter with it? A Chinese chef is just as likely to say, "you can't do that," and when asked why they'll just say, "becuase you just can't" at least in regards to food.

                                1. re: ML8000

                                  Cantonese cooking can be especially innovative and chefs frequently create new dishes. Foie gras and truffles are not unusual ingredients in high-end Chinese (Cantonese) restaurants in Singapore. With the availability of more western ingredients, it's not unusual to see more "fusiony" dishes appearing on menus of mainstream Cantonese places.

                                  1. re: limster

                                    And then self-appointed Chinese food experts diss them for being "inauthentic"!

                                    Limster, I just wish you could have tasted what a master Chinese chef in Fresno does with shrimp and local, in-season Chandler strawberries.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      I wish I could have Chef Liu's cooking too! I suppose will have to make do with a bit of hunting the next time I'm back in Singapore, or go splurge at Hakkasan or its look-alikes....

                                      1. re: limster

                                        Sam Lau of Zen Fine Chinese Cuisine outside of Vancouver also uses foie gras. I think most of the fusion in Chinese cooking happens in the melding of the many cuisines - the influences they take from other regions. Twenty years ago I had ice cream with sweet corn in Taipei. Served in a sort of popsicle and it was great. Long ago Fujian fisherman brought sweet potatoes from the Philippines during a famine and now it is featured in their cuisine. All it takes is to add or subtract one ingredient and voila, fusion! Jennifer 8 Lee in "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles" maintains that Chinese people do not want "modern cuisine."

                              2. re: Phaedrus

                                Large formal banquet places can make it in the U.S. but it take capital and places tend to be handed over to new ownership in a serial manner...which reduces innovation and change. The few new places that open and do well...charge a lot. There's Koi Palace in SF (Daly City) that gets excellent reviews but people often are shocked at the prices. Real estate prices also factor into new places.

                                1. re: ML8000

                                  Yeah, people are shocked at the prices, even though they wouldn't think twice about spending that much per person at a French or Italian restaurant. But that's part of the cultural baggage: decades of cheap Chinese-American food have conditioned people to think that Chinese food should be cheap. Mexican food has a similar problem.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    Right, and yet the high-end banquet places are serving up costly ingredients like abalone and, yes, foie gras, cooked with great skill. The farthest thing from a $30 two-from-column A, one-from-column B meal has to have a price far higher, too. And as far as the audience goes, some Chinese diners are prepared to pay for such meals, and some feel Chinese restaurant meals should be cheap, even if it's authentic cooking not glop - but it's cooking of a different order, in an atmosphere and with service that don't match what you'd expect in a high-end place.