A Chat With Food Critics, Chefs And Restaurateurs From Asia

I gather my friends – Asian food writers, food critics, restaurateurs and chefs – asking them why they think Chinese food comes with such a bad reputation – ultimately being the poster child of ‘dirty’.

With hundreds of Chinese restaurants closed in this pandemic year, perhaps it is more timely than ever to ask the question – can Chinese food ever be seen as ‘fine-dining’ and will America lose its love/hate relationship with Chinese food with all these closures?

Let’s not forget Chinese-American cuisine is very much a part of the American culture as is BBQ to Southerners and bagels to New Yorkers Chinese Food is definitely a highly lucrative industry. 

Restaurateur and hotelier Loh Lik Peng

“I think (diners) are starting to be more appreciative for Chinese cooking and also the fine dining aspects of this cuisine. However one of the issues is that Chinese food encompasses so many varieties of cuisine ‘style’ with so many regions of China that its very hard to say what is definitive about Chinese cuisine so any definition only begins to scratch the surface. The Chinese themselves have a different concept of what fine dining looks like with both technique and ingredients. Things like sea cucumber and goose web would never make it into a Western fine dining menu. The amount of fermentation, salting, air drying and preservation that goes into Chinese food would also be’ alien’ to many Western chefs so it’s hard for most Western food critics to fully understand the full range of Chinese cuisine.

Is it fair or what are your thoughts on how people think Chinese food is ‘dirty’ or incapable of being ‘high-end’? This is a classic cultural misunderstanding. Many Western critics don’t quite understand why Chinese food comes in the form it does. Why do the Chinese eat chicken or duck feet or why the organs of an animal might be considered the most prized and delicate part. They see jellyfish or fish heads and this sort of food is alien to them. That’s fair enough because they didn’t grow up eating foods like this. Many Chinese people will think roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or Poulet roti quite bland. They would consider it a waste to deep fry a good quality fish for fish and chips and they would be horrified to learn that the heads, bones and fins of this fish are discarded because for many these are the best parts. None of this is necessarily ill-intended, it’s just a lack of understanding of the other’s culture.

Agnes Chee, Food Critic and Writer

From my observation, Chinese cuisines have only been learning that ‘ritual’ of being seen as fine dining in the last 10 years.  The positive is the plating of the dishes have improved, it’s more refined compared to just putting it on a dish (and serving it up) – the visual is more appealing.  The negative would be that some (chefs) are doing things for the sake of doing them, just following a trend, without taking into account the cultural differences of Chinese cuisine.  At the end of the day, a lot of Chinese dishes are about their temperature, if the temperature is not right, they taste differently.  Some restaurants while striving for presentation have neglected temperature which changes the taste.  In that sense, it’s going backward.

I think Chinese cuisine is similar to American, French, Mexican, (and all cuisines around the world), there are a variety when it comes to price range, from cheap eats, snacks, mid-priced and high end, depending on what you are willing to spend, you get what you pay for. 

I think restaurateurs, chefs and even the media all have their responsibilities.  For example, an old stereotype was red wine has to pair with red meats, but through sommeliers and media, this stereotype has been broken and has allowed a more open mindedness towards new pairings.