NYT Race Related | As american as chop suey

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Chinese food is as American as apple pie. But the dishes and flavors conjured up by the words “Chinese food” in a given person’s mind often depend on where they live. Just like regional dialects, there are many varieties of what can be considered Chinese food. At Trey Yuan in Mandeville, La., it’s alligator stir-fry and crawfish with spicy lobster sauce. In the outer boroughs of New York City, Chinese takeout-lovers call it hood food: pork fried rice and egg rolls the size of burritos. In San Gabriel Valley, Calif., dim sum reigns supreme. How we like our Chinese food is not just a reflection of our palates, it’s an expression of who we are.

That is why it’s fitting that Ligaya Mishan settles on the term “Asian-American Cuisine” for what’s happening now in the culinary scene with chefs like Diep Tran, Justin Yu, Niki Nakayama, and Chris Kajioka. This new generation of culinary stars is mining the nostalgic textures and tastes of their ethnic heritages and at the same time embracing elements of classic American cuisine. The result is food for Asian-Americans by Asian-Americans—a movement that is more revolutionary than it sounds.

In my own work with Chinese restaurant workers in New York, I’ve come to realize that our beloved institution of Chinese takeout is little more than a means to an end for many Chinese immigrants, much less an expression of their identity or even of their dietary preferences. What surprised me most about the conversations I had with cooks was how little of themselves they put into the food they serve. Most of them are in the industry not because they love food, but because it’s a job they can do without speaking English or having a college degree. So they make the food we like to eat and keep what they like—king crab legs, delicate-skinned wontons, noodles in a fish-based broth, savory fried donuts flecked with scallions—off the menu, only to be eaten with their co-workers-cum-family in the back of a kitchen, between orders.