CROSS x TALK is RADII’s live conversation series on Instagram. Hosted by editors and contributors, RADII speaks to thought leaders about the trends shaping their fields, and shares inspiring stories of creative resilience that bridge cultures.
Ask any urbanite their top three favorite cuisines, and chances are some variation of Chinese food will make their list. As Chinese immigrants dispersed across the world, the foods they brought with them have evolved, adapted, and become cuisines of their own.
In the globalized world we live in, Chinese food today looks like a mix of authentic, regional restaurants, inspired localized dishes, and all-new creative fusions from chefs and food entrepreneurs.
On Friday, December 18, 2020, RADII hosted a live chat on our Instagram between RADII’s Life Editor Mayura Jain and Danielle Chang about Chinese food in a global context.
Chang is the founder of LUCKYRICE, a lifestyle brand that has been shining a spotlight on Asian culture through food and drink for the past decade. LUCKYRICE has also birthed two additional projects: Danielle’s first book Lucky Rice: Stories and Recipes from Night Markets, Feasts and Family Tables (Clarkson Potter) and the nationally broadcast TV show Lucky Chow, now in its fourth season, in which Danielle is the program creator and host.
Below are some edited highlights from their conversation. You can watch the full video embedded here:
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Mayura Jain: As you’ve travelled around the world, over the past four seasons of Lucky Chow, what are some of the surprising or striking food trends you’ve come across?
Danielle Chang: There have been so many. The show started off because PBS felt like there was a need for a voice to talk about Asian culture — specifically food and the US — so we told stories mostly around America. We traveled from coast to coast. In Season 3, we were fortunate to travel to China and Korea and filmed in Hangzhou, Seoul, and Shanghai.
Mostly, I’ve been surprised by how familiar, popular, and in love people are with Chinese food. In the ten years I’ve been working on LUCKYRICE, we witnessed this tremendous growth of interest in Chinese food. I think that comes from so many different things, but certainly, it’s a role of cultural diplomacy — of soft politics as well.
Jain: Can you specially talk about cultural diplomacy? What are some examples of that?
Chang: I think food is such a great, rich medium through which to explore culture and share stories. Especially in this age, we’re careful with words and how we share different cultures and differences. Food is an easy way to bring people together because it’s universal, we all eat. We all love food. It’s so sensual, so inviting. It’s just really in your hearth and in your culture.
I found that to be particularly true during COVID as well.
People tend to be culturally starved, and the only access you have is through somebody else’s kitchen or social media. Food is a shining example of how people come to understand cultural differences.
Jain: Growing up Chinese American, what in your opinion has made [Chinese food] so beloved or adaptable?
Chang: It’s hard for me to answer that question because Chinese food courses through my blood. I grew up sustained on Chinese food, even though I immigrated to the US when I was about five.
I really did not eat non-Chinese food until I was a teenager. We were brought up in Texas and would bring these stinky lunch boxes every day, consisting of things like stewed eggs. Things that are now fetishized, but that people looked upon then as the “other,” as different, as gross, as marginalized.
It’s kind of crazy that what was so made fun in a different generation is now a point of interest. I think the success of LUCKYRICE, or the interest and popularity of Chinese food and Asian food globally, is a testament to that — of how Chinese food was so marginalized before but now has become coveted, and really honored in a way.
Jain: Definitely. I think that makes it so much more important to have these platforms to highlight this. A lot of my friends who are Chinese-American grew up in the States have the common theme of the lunch box, and people being like ‘What are you eating? Ew! Where’s your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?’ The fact that you’re seeing this shift to, “This is my culture, this is my food — and it’s cool.”
I think that’s so important how you package that. Like what you do at LUCKYRICE — showing not only the fact that these foods are incredible to eat, but also the people are taking that, modernizing, and bringing it to new audiences.
Chang: Yeah. I think that’s really fascinating to follow these chefs as artists and how a new generation is taking these foods and reinventing them for new audiences.
That lunch box analogy is so apt because I think the same people that mocked the smells, flavors, and textures of food I brought in my lunch as a 10th grade student are probably those who stand in line for a 22 dollar bowl of chef-packed ramen noodles today.
I think people are learning to value food, the craft and artisanship of Asian cuisine.
Chang: I think authenticity is such a personal thing, especially today, because we’re all sitting at home cooking what’s authentic to us — what we are finding in our fridges.
I was just talking to a friend of mine who grew up Jewish in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, New York. He is about as Chinese as you can get because he grew up on Peking Duck on Sundays. That was his Christmas dinner.
He’s actually taught me a lot about Peking Duck and the nuances of northern Chinese food. But he is not Chinese by blood. Nevertheless I feel like I could never take Peking Duck away or a Chinese Christmas from [him]. It’s what he grew up with. There’s nothing more real than that — and isn’t authenticity about finding what’s real to you?
Jain: I think it was one or two years ago, there was a restaurant in New York that got flack on social media because it was a non-Chinese, white entrepreneur who opened a restaurant and marketed it as ‘clean Chinese.’ Everybody was like ‘don’t do that.’ There are pitfalls to this. So for people who engage with Chinese food are not Chinese, what would you advise them — whether they’re a home cook, or opening a restaurant to make Chinese food?
Chang: I like to break all rules on Chinese food because I wanted as many people to enjoy and share as possible. I think there are rules and fears in approaching Chinese food as a home cook, myself included. I have a Chinese cookbook. I should be the last person saying this, but I failed at the fried rice experiment for my daughter. She wanted me to cook up this fancy Hong Kong-style fried rice, including separating the yolks and eggs and frying them up.
What I would tell a Chinese chef, or somebody who is approaching Chinese food and cooking at home, is to not pay much attention to the rules. There really aren’t many. You can have a lot of fun cooking with it, experimenting. It’s quite easy. Most work involved is with prep. The actual cooking is fun and entertaining. Give it a go!
Jain: Do you feel the average knowledge in the US — not only of different countries but also of regional cuisines, such as within mainland China — has increased a lot?
Chinese Food for Dummies, Region by Region
Chang: It’s definitely available. I think a lot of Americans who eat Chinese food are still looking for the consistent take-out variety, which is kind of predictable and cheap. So we still have progress to make on that front.
But in urban cities like New York, LA, and elsewhere, you do find that variety and you can eat across China within a mile. It’s kind of amazing.
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