Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America

Exhibit Reviewed by Minju Bae

Museum of Chinese in America Exhibit open until 26 March 2017 Co-curated by Audra Ang, Kian Lam Kho, Andrew Rebatta, and Herb Tam

Museum of Chinese in America
Exhibit open until 26 March 2017
Co-curated by Audra Ang, Kian Lam Kho, Andrew Rebatta, and Herb Tam

New Yorkers regularly feast on Chinese food and order takeout, part of the diets and rituals of eaters across class, race, and ethnicity. With restaurants throughout the five boroughs, Chinese food is familiar, whether from Chinatown’s family-style restaurants, Harlem’s counters, or Sunset Park’s dumpling spots.[1] Chinese food is embedded in the gastronomic fabric of New York, but who are the people who prepare these dishes, and what are their stories? “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America,” the new exhibition at Museum of Chinese in America, in the heart of New York’s Chinatown, invites visitors to engage with the cultural, social, and political stories of producers and consumers of food.[2] The curators -– Audra Ang, Kian Lam Kho, Andrew Rebatta, and Herb Tam –- ask a simple question: what constitutes “Chinese food?”
They push us to think about Chinese food as a product of many migrations. The oral histories of thirty-three chefs and home cooks of Chinese cuisines -– from New York, San Jose, Houston, Honolulu, and throughout the United States –- are central to this exhibit, revealing the ways in which China and America have shaped this dynamic cuisine. Ang, Kho, Rebatta, and Tam deftly capture the diversity of foods and flavors, curating a welcoming space for visitors to tap into a memory from their own culinary journeys, to re-examine the stories of their family recipes, and to desire more from the diverse palate of “Chinese food.”

The curators of “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy,” reconstruct a conversation at a dining table, making the exhibit relatable for all visitors. The exhibit has two gallery spaces. In the main gallery, visitors flow around a large, rectangular, white, banquet-style dining table, typical of large restaurants in many Chinatowns in the United States. There is an hour-and-a-half video installation, a compilation of segments from the oral histories of the home cooks and chefs, providing a soundtrack for the gallery space, as visitors admire and interrogate representations of Chinese food and its descriptions. The video shows the informants telling stories about tasting artichokes for the first time, the magic that a mother’s jook (rice porridge) could conjure, and the magnetism of Chinese food for Asian Americans in search of a home. The video is organized from sour to sweet to bitter to spicy, and it reveals the personal journeys of each cook and chef from their challenges of migration, to their memories associated with food, to their hard work, and to their conversations about what makes food ‘authentic.’ This installation also projects ancillary images of prepared dishes beside the video of the informant, indulging visitors with the idea that Chinese food is not a singular palate. Instead, foods are informed by the locale of the preparer’s homes in the United States, inspired by recipes from all over China, and blended with ingredients of local surroundings from each preparer.

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The exhibit takes particular care to de-center China. In the main gallery, the curators reveal eighteen different regions and flavor profiles -– displayed on the six lazy Susans on the table -– undermining the essentialization of Chinese people and their foods. Throughout the table, there are beautiful ceramic arts –- by Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang -- interpreting regional flavors such as the lamb skewers of Western China, the arroz chaufa (fried rice) of Chino-Latino, and the “powerfully spicy” foods of Sichuan. There are thirty-three settings, one for each chef and home cook. Corresponding notecards display their migrations in the world, within and beyond the United States. The gallery crafts these stories about Asian American foodways, or the cultural, economic, and political study of foods’ producers and consumers. It is an exposé of im/migrations and cultural blending, questioning what it means for food to be labeled “Chinese food” in America. Consequently, the curators take great care to map every flavor, chef, and home cook. All of the components collectively create a dining room that masterfully exhibits the chefs’ and cooks’ experiences of food preparation and culture as proxies to understand belonging in America.

As far as “the stuff” on display, “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” is a minimalist exhibit, and much of the material objects are largely concentrated outside of the main gallery. In the secondary space, the curators asked their informants to identify a significant object from their kitchens. The objects are personal items, ranging from quotidian tools like noodle-cutting knives to menus and moon-cake molds. Using the objects to signify the priorities and memories of the chefs and cooks, these items represent narratives of coming to America, feeding families and children, working hard and long hours, questioning the terms of belonging, and the intimate nature of kitchens. For example, Kimmie Lee Tie of Raleigh shared the menu of the Canton Café, which was the name of the restaurant that she had bought in an auction in 1957. This menu has come to represent a previous chapter of her life, a keepsake from a difficult past. These objects that the informants have shared are temporarily on display at the museum, and they will be returned to the contributors after the show. The video installation from the main gallery is overwhelming for one visit, but the longer oral histories with each cook and chef are available for more careful and individual study in this secondary gallery. This is an important moment in public history, as curators highlight the stories of their informants and move away from displacing material objects from its homes and communities. The centrality of oral histories is a thoughtful curatorial choice that prioritizes the experiences of the home cooks and chefs.

“Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” successfully explores the diversity of Chinese diasporic experiences, through a study of food and its preparers. In addition to paying close attention to the different foods and regions from throughout the US and China, the curators presented the stories of women, men, chefs of high-end and trendy restaurants, as well as home cooks known for their epic gatherings and delicious meals. Surprisingly though, many of the food-industry and restaurant workers are left out of the exhibit. In broader studies of urban Asian America, servers, dishwashers, grocers, and growers are central actors in the examination of Asian American labor and identity. While the video installation reveals complexity as the chefs and cooks describe kitchens, street vendors, and the intricacies of food preparation, other restaurant staffs are underrepresented. Of course, curators cannot do everything. The video installation reveals the work of home cooks and chefs as a labor of love, and the curators created a rigorous exhibit about the ways in which food can challenge preparers and visitors to think about questions of belonging in America. The use of oral histories to drive this exhibit is an important move, revealing voices that can enhance the stories of material objects and the historical record. Through “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy,” MoCA has continued a long streak of thoughtful public-history exhibitions, committed to its diverse Asian American communities and the emergent and interdisciplinary scholarship of Asian American Studies.


[1] For an important article about the human cost of cheap dumplings, see Anelise Chen, "The Story Behind Great Taste’s ‘Five Dumplings for a Dollar’ Deal,” Open City Magazine (3 Oct 2012), Accessed 22 Oct 2016. http://opencitymag.com/five-dumplings-for-a-dollar/.

[2] For more on the scholarship of Asian American foodways, see Eating Asian America, ed. Robert Ji-Song Ku, Martin F. Manalansan IV, Anita Mannur (New York: NYU Press, 2013).