Thoroughly Thursday

Tuesday night: I caught most of NBC’s “My Name is Earl” (wherein actor Jason Lee plays this Southern hick, Earl, who decides to improve his luck by improving his karma – i.e., redeem himself for all the bad things he did). The ads in Entertainment Weekly (wherein you flip open a page and listen to a recording of the hick say words to the effect of, “My name is Earl and I believe in karma…”) was a huge turn-off, but the show’s first episode itself was interesting. It has potential, although I’m not sure how much Earl can pull off all 100-odd items on his list to improve his karma.

FOX’s “House, M.D.” – Dr. House gets all sensitive about saving a dying girl by actually killing her for a few minutes. Aww. Pleasantly amusing that he continues to (psychologically) torture Dr. Chase (who deserves it for having betrayed House to Vogel, the opposing ex-CEO of the hospital of last season).

Wednesday’s NY Times had this interesting article on Hyphenated Chinese food. Julia Moskin notes:

NEW YORKERS always think they know the real thing when it comes to Chinese food. Forty years ago it was egg rolls, chop suey and drinks with paper umbrellas. Then it was General Tso’s chicken and sesame noodles.

But over the past decade, as large communities of people from India, Peru, Korea, Trinidad and Guyana have formed here, New York has had to expand its ideas about what Chinese food can be.

“I call them second-generation Chinese restaurants,” said Cheuk Kwan, who has directed a documentary film about the spread of Chinese restaurants around the world. “These restaurants always have a hyphen: Chinese-Venezuelan, Chinese-Norwegian, Chinese-Mexican.

“Chinese-Malagasy,” he said, on the island of Madagascar, “was the best food, with lots of coconut milk and spices.”

Dishes like chili-spiked, deep-fried chicken lollipops, which are a Chinese-Indian specialty, and lo mein topped with chunks of peppery jerk chicken, served at De Bamboo Express, a Chinese-West Indian restaurant in Brooklyn, are what Chinese food is now to thousands of New Yorkers.

The city’s first hyphenated version of the cuisine – after Chinese-American, of course – was Chinese-Cuban, which arrived in the 1960’s, when thousands of Cubans of Chinese descent came to New York after Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

“My grandfather was born in Zhanjiang, but his whole life was in Havana,” said Manny Liao, a musician who lives in Washington Heights. “He always ate Chinese food, but he cooked Cuban.”

Seafood soups, fried rice with pork, scallions and tiny shrimp, and chicharrones de pollo -chicken cut into small pieces and deep-fried in the Cantonese style – were and are standbys in restaurants like Caridad la Original on the Upper West Side and La Chinita Linda in Chelsea. [….]

But for others it does not matter how real the food tastes, so long as it tastes like home.

When New York’s young Korean-Americans go out for Chinese food, they often eat ja jiang mien, boiled noodles in a rich meat sauce, mixed with Korean brown bean paste and studded with Chinese fermented black beans. “Kids grow up on Chinese noodles in Korea,” said Jinny Song, a customer at Hyo Dong Gak in Midtown.

In Elmhurst, La Union, a Peruvian chifa (slang for Chinese restaurant), serves platters of chancho, a Hispanic rendering of char siu, Chinese for roast pork.

The roots of these hybrid Chinese cuisines around the world are the same as those of Chinese food in America. Millions of Chinese men, most of them from the province Guangdong (formerly known in English as Canton), left China in the late 19th and early 20th century. Only men were allowed to leave the country, often by becoming indentured workers to companies in need of cheap labor in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and South America.

Professional cooks were usually not among the emigrants, so the earliest Chinese restaurants outside China were started by men with little knowledge of cooking and a desperate need to improvise with local ingredients. The dishes they came up with, like chop suey, have long since been dismissed as “not Chinese” by scholars of the culture.

But Chinese food has never been quite what outsiders think it is.

“The term Chinese food represents an area four times larger than Western Europe and the eating habits of more than a billion people,” Mr. Kwan said. “You could say that there is really no such thing as Chinese food.”

Eugene Anderson, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, and author of “The Food of China,” disagrees. “Chinese food is defined by a flavor principle of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and green onions” and methods including stir-frying and steaming, he said. “Once you get too far away from those rules, it is no longer Chinese.”

Whatever and wherever it is, it is in flux, said Eric Kwan, a New York native and chef and owner of Hip Hop Chow, a new East Village restaurant serving a hybrid of Southern American and southern Chinese cooking.

“Chinese food in China didn’t change much in 2,000 years, but now it’s changing,” he said. “And Chinese food in America is something totally different.”

At De Bamboo Express in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, Chinese cooks toss rice and vegetables in huge woks, then top that with peppery jerk chicken wings and handfuls of raw cabbage, which steams gently in the rice and adds a crispness to the plate. “Chinese food and Jamaican food are tight-tight,” said Monica Lambert, a customer who was eating the dish. “This food is both. You know, like Naomi Campbell,” she said, referring to the supermodel whose father is Chinese-Jamaican.

Questions of ethnicity, some of them awkward and others simply mysterious, inevitably come up when tracking the cuisine of the Chinese diaspora. The passionate relationship between American Jews and Chinese restaurants, for example, is well documented. [….]

Naomi Campbell’s part Chinese? Really?

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