As one of the most misunderstood major cuisines in the world, Chinese cooking has for the most part been relegated to a common and unsophisticated position in America. This is rather regretful since Chinese cuisine has a very long history and has developed into a refined and complex cooking tradition. After decades of political isolation and turmoil, China is now more open and is beginning to be politically and economically active on the world stage. Consequently the American public is paying a lot more attention to Chinese food. So it is not surprising that this year the James Beard Foundation decided to select Chinese cooking as the theme of their annual fundraising gala and educational conference. Known as “Dumplings & Dynasties,” the three-day event will begin on November 13th with a sumptuous modern Chinese banquet, at the historical Edison Ballroom in New York, prepared by distinguished guest chefs from China, Hong Kong and North America. The foundation will then host a two-day educational conference at New York University featuring experts on food and food culture of China.
I recently conducted an email interview with Mitchell Davis, Vice President of the James Beard Foundation, to discuss this upcoming event and his views on Chinese cuisine. Davis eloquently talked about some interesting and revealing perceptions of Chinese food, as well as trends in Chinese restaurant business. I decided to create a series of posts to discuss some of the fascinating issues and insights that surfaced in the interview. The series will conclude with the full text of the interview.
Among my many interests in Chinese cooking are the cross-cultural influence and overall image of the cuisine. Cooking traditions are never static. They change with the introduction of new ingredients and cooking techniques. Such is the case with Chinese cooking. In discussing perceptions and influences of Chinese food I found one intriguing observation that Davis made. He said “The increased presence of China in world affairs has opened the people up to many western culinary influences… And if culturally charged food warnings, such as the one issued by the government not to serve dog while the Olympics were on, become more common, the Chinese will be forced to think reflexively about their cuisine vis-à-vis other cultures’ cuisines — for better and for worse.”
I believe the government’s decision to issue such warnings is misguided. Consuming meat of exotic animals or exotic plants should not be the concern of those wishing to control the image of Chinese cuisine. Many western cultures have traditions of eating exotic ingredients albeit a much more limited one. The government should promote understanding and awareness of Chinese cuisine rather than concealing it. They’d do better to enhance the image by promoting the diversity of regional and modern Chinese cuisine.
What is more important is to ensure that the production of these ingredients is properly controlled, humane and safe. The recent scandal of contaminated dairy products is just the latest of a series of problems that’s been plaguing the Chinese food supply. In 2004 an independent journalist, Zhou Qing, published a report on the endemic safety problems faced by Chinese food consumers after conducting two years of investigation. The book was entitled What Kind of God: A Survey of the Current Safety of Chinese Food. In it he contends that the rampant corruption and collusion between local government officials and food producers make it impossible to create an effective oversight system. An overhaul of this structure is what’s needed to improve the safety of the Chinese food supply and improve the overall image of the country’s cuisine.
In spite of these product safety issues, the more open and entrepreneurial environment in China is producing some very exciting new and modern cooking. Unlike during the Cultural Revolution when “palace” or refined cooking was discouraged or banned, innovative modern Chinese cooking is now encouraged. Furthermore regional cooking is thriving and many old cooking traditions have been revived. These developments are making Chinese cuisine current and vibrant.
“Dumplings & Dynasties” is very exciting in that for years I feel the James Beard Foundation had a very strong bias toward European cooking traditions in its program. Perhaps that was the result of the minimal knowledge and appreciation of Chinese and other cuisines. I applaud the foundation for making this bold step to embrace Chinese cooking. I hope that this is the beginning of the foundation’s move to broaden its program to include other Asian and non-European cooking traditions.