September 18, 2019


 In search of the soul of Chinese food in the Upper Valley (FANG DU, 9/17/19,  Valley News)

I was born and raised in China, and so when I came to live in the Upper Valley last year, I was eager to try the American version of my native cuisine. What I found in the area's Chinese restaurants both appalled me, and invigorated me.

Let me start by saying that "Chinese food" in New England is quite different from what you'll get in my home country. China, it goes without saying, is a big country, with a culinary tradition that's as deep as it is broad. The American version simplifies it and heightens a few qualities. And some of it is just plain odd. The chefs here -- whether they operate out of take-out storefronts or conventional restaurants -- are fond of deep-fried wontons and of stir-frying sweet vegetables in way too much oil.

This recalls what you'll get if you go to an "American" restaurant in China: greasy stew, weird cheeses, cloying cookies, as if cooks had decided to wipe away all the flavor and leave nothing but sugar, salt and fat. Shadows of oily meat and sickly sweetness ran through both of these ersatz versions of great, complex cuisines made somehow lesser in translation.

But then I decided to look deeper, and went on a quest to find the soul of Chinese food in the Upper Valley. Our area represents a small drop in a big ocean. According to "Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant," an exhibition at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, N.Y. (on view through Dec. 8), there are nearly 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. -- three times the number of McDonalds. You can find them everywhere with similar names: Peking Star, Oriental Garden, Star of the Orient, Dragon Garden; a real game of mix-and-match. They offer similar menus, and similar fortune cookies -- a Japanese invention that I've never seen in China. Most of them are run by staffers from the province of Fujian, which is as dependable a source for the global Chinese Food Industrial Complex as the Napa Valley is to wine or MIT is for scientists. All of these restaurants are working from a similar template, and we see it in clear focus in the Upper Valley.

Posted by at September 18, 2019 2:57 PM