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Dec 4, 2013 07:42 AM

What is "Real" Chinese Food

I've read yet another review of a Chinese restaurant in New York where the writer tries to circumscribe Chinese cuisine within the parameters of his or her own limited understanding.

What is "real" Chinese food? Why is this writer even using the term "real" Chinese food as opposed to evaluating the merits of the food in the context of modern Chinese cooking, good vs. bad food. I don't read about "real" Italian food vs. "proudly inauthentic Italian food". I find this type of behavior and tone is almost always, exclusively applied when talking about Chinese food, and especially in NYC. As if Chinese food is some monolithic, fossilized cuisine where 1.2 billion people eat the same thing as opposed to having a huge range of diversity, ingredients and tastes.

There are thousands of restaurants, millions of cooking households in China, using different techniques and ingredients. Not to mention the diaspora of millions of Chinese emigrants who have established new traditions and cooking in their adopted countries.

This is contrasted with the almost never mentioned lack of "authenticity" of other cuisines. Many common ingredients in French and Italian restaurants are not even native to their respective countries. In NY, many preparations of European foods have little resemblance to how the foods are prepared in their native countries. Foods are judged good or bad, not authentic, in-authentic.

Chinese cuisine is not limited to a wok. Nor do inferior products/produce denote "authenticity" in Chinese food. There is no "textbook" to Chinese cuisine. Innards are not the marker of an "authentic" Chinese experience. And the reviewer's coup de grace of cultural tone deafness, randomly referring to salmon roe as akura, to what purpose?

The number of offensive and blithely ignorant statements in this review make me question how a professional restaurant critic in a professional publication, could publish such drivel.

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  1. I read this review completely differently than you did. My takes is that he was taking shots at people who are seeking "real" chinese food as that's not what is served at the new Red Farm. I read a review about a restaurant that revels in its ability to provide tasty food that originates in chinese cooking but isn't bound by any rule of what is authentic chinese or chinese-american food. If you want good asian (whatever that may mean to the reader) influenced food, try Red Farm. If you are in search of the dish that matches your memory of what you had in some hovel on a riverbank outside Shanghai, keep looking is the message I get. The article makes no claim to whatever real chinese food is. At least that's how I read it.

    15 Replies
    1. re: Bkeats

      I might not be clear enough in my point. There is no real Chinese food anymore than there is real Italian food or real French food, etc. in NY. Why is he bringing up this term "real/authentic"? And in offensive ways. Food in a hovel in Shanghai is no more real or authentic than food at a 4 star restaurant in Shanghai. Chinese food is not limited to one narrow spectrum to be "authentic".

      If I'm not eating squid guts, or chicken feet, it's still authentic. He's painting this provincial, fetishist picture of Chinese food, while having little to no knowledge of the breadth of Chinese food.

      What was especially insulting was the remark about how high quality the ingredients are at RedFarm vs. a "real" Chinese restaurant. WTH.

      1. re: Pookipichu

        I read it the same as Bkeats. The "real" chinese food remark seems to tweak those who think you can only get authentic food in grimey places with all of the organ meat. Cuozzo clearly likes the food here and the review clearly implies that it doesn't follow the rules.

        By the way you certainly read about real Italian vs Inauthentic Italian in the context of Italian American food, it is a common troupe. The reason this is applied to Chinese food as well is that most people here in the states were introduced to Chinese American food well before they could get more authentic dishes.

        1. re: MVNYC

          Cuozzo is saying Redfarm, serves good food, because it is not "authentic", defies textbook Chinese cooking, uses better ingredients than "real" Chinese places... this offends me, it's simply ignorant.

          I read the boards throughly along with food reviews/articles, I see this authentic/inauthentic motif more so than with any other cuisine. I have NEVER seen a professional food review, where the reviewer talks about whether an Italian restaurant in NY is authentic or not and contrasting how the ingredients in a non-traditional Italian restaurant are higher quality than a "real" Italian restaurant.

          1. re: Pookipichu

            I took the quotes around real to be directed towards those people who only want "authentic" intestines and what not at some dive in Chinatown. He's implying that there is good food to be had if you break yourself away from that mentality and embrace that Red Farm is a good restaurant regardless of labels.

            1. re: Pookipichu

              I read it as his saying Redfarm was good DESPITE not being authentic, not because it was not authentic. While you might find millions of variations of food in China, you will never find what Redfarm serves, which is why it's not authentic.

              As Italian food being "authentic" or traditional or Italian American, it comes up often here on the boards. Just a quick NYT search:



     (Mr. Cipollone, an Italian-American, loves to play with pasta, but he is not chained to the traditions of Italy.


     (This is supposed to be the Italian restaurant where you celebrated your birthday before anyone told you that chicken scarpariello isn’t Italian)

              1. re: chowser

                The OP was commenting on the fact that the author showed a strange, somewhat amateurish disdain of "authentic" Chinese food as well as chefs that aspire to bring authenticity to their cuisine.

                He makes a dig at people who like to eat gelatinous innards, as if they are the only weird group of people who wouldn't enjoy this wonderful restaurant.

                He makes a vague reference towards "real" Chinese restaurants, with their only noted characteristic being that they poorly source raw ingredients.

                He makes a comment implying that "rules" of textbook Chinese cooking are singularly characterized as constricting.

                The OP is right. I got the sense the author either didn't like Chinese food or didn't like Chinese culture.

                1. re: calumin

                  I read it differently that he's poking fun at people who only consider eating Chinese food that are the innards. Not at the food itself. He's making fun of "foodies" who think that the only thing to Chinese food is the gelatinous innards.

                  1. re: chowser

                    That's just not how I read it, I've explained myself multiple times now. If other's don't see it, agree or understand it, I have nothing more to say on it. I don't agree with this alternative reading being proposed, there's an ignorant and condescending tone that is perhaps confusing people because Cuozzo is sending mixed messages.

                    I'm so glad I ate at an inauthentic Mexican restaurant today, because the ingredients are much fresher and higher quality than a "real" Mexican restaurant. (Sarcasm intended.)

                    1. re: Pookipichu

                      We will just have to agree to disagree. I understand how you read it however I had the same reaction as Chowser. The use of quotes and the declaration that its not for the peopel that seek out organ meats in grimey restaurants seem to address a certain type of "foodie". There are those people (including those on the NY boards) that view anything less than a hole in the wall with bowls of awful to be beneath them. Cuozzo is saying hey this is good food whether you want to label it authentic or not.

                      As to it being Chinese specific, Chowser linked to some good articles.

                      1. re: MVNYC

                        With respect, the reviews listed by Chowser miss the point completely. That you think they support your point means that you do not understand where I am coming from. It's saddening,especially given that there is an undercurrent of anti-Chinese sentiment in this country. Just because some people don't see it, doesn't mean it's not there.

                        1. re: Pookipichu

                          No I understand that you have been calling Cuozzo a racist this entire time. Again I don't agree and have explained why he made quotes around the "real" part. Even if he doesn't understand the cuisine it doesn't make him "anti-Chinese" as you put it.

                        2. re: MVNYC

                          I think the issue is that the stereotype that Cuozzo formulates is amateurish. I wouldn't say it's offensive, but it shows an immature understanding of Chinese cuisine -- which would be understandable if he didn't write about food for a living!

                          Although looking at his past articles it looks like he's not actually a food critic. Which probably explains a lot.

                          1. re: calumin

                            Like I said, the sterotype Cuozzo seems to be getting at is "the foodie" who scoffs at all Chinese that isn't filled with offal in a dingy Chinatown restaurant.

                            Also he writes for the New York Post which is one of the worst most xenophobic publications in America. Their Sports and Entertainment are less ridiculous than their editorials and "news" but not by much. The Post is pretty much a joke so it is hard to get offended by anything they print.

                            1. re: MVNYC

                              Well at this point it sounds like we agree. But I also agree with pookapichu in that Cuozzo's attempt to address the "foodie" stereotype actually says more about his own limited understanding of Chinese cuisine. Maybe if he's primarily writing to people who share that limited view, then it all makes sense.

                      2. re: chowser

                        If you re-read the passages I pulled from the article, you'll see he makes a dig at "authentic" Chinese food, restaurants that serve it, and people that eat it.

                        I don't know of any people that only eat gelatinous innards to the exclusion of everything else, but there are lots of people who enjoy traditional Chinese food of all types, who may also eat gelatinous innards, who got caught up in his amateurish remark.

          2. Without bothering to read the review, my personal understanding of "real Chinese" food is simply its separation from more typical "American" Chinese food. Regardless of cuisine (Cantonese, Sichaun, etc) the few restaurants (fewer than ever with the closing of Shunju) in my neighborhood that are/were more "authentic" would have a separate menu section for "American Chinese".

            1. I would disagree with your premise that chinese cuisines are the only ones subjected to this behavior.

                1. All cuisines are malleable. The idea that they can be shoe-horned into a box of a reviewer's personal dimensions is foolish. As if anyone can determine what is Chinese enough, or Spanish enough.

                  If you have the flavors of Mexico, but put them into a risotto, is that an invalid dish?

                  Who cares what meets some schmuck's definition of what is "real"?