There’s a story I’ve been telling since I was 16, about why my best friend and I stopped going to Asian buffets. In Birmingham, UK, we visited one of my favorites; they had salmon teppanyaki to order, crisp seaweed, braised aubergine and tofu, duck pancakes, sushi, an ice cream machine and more, for half my week’s pocket money (well-spent!). We ate seven plates of food. Each. After two hours, groaning over our swollen bellies, we were dizzied stepping out into the city’s rushing lights. “Must be tripping off the MSG!” we’d laughed at each other.
Over the years, the two of us recounted the experience many times, giggling while acting out the shakes and light-headedness we’d assumed was brought on by consuming so much monosodium glutamate (MSG)—despite good advice that it was likely just sheer volume of food. It wasn’t until much later that I realized this story isn’t a joke.
Even being British Singaporean-Chinese, I’d played into a false, racist trope about an ingredient stereotyped as exclusively “Chinese.” I have since learned that this oversight is part of an ugly, wider rhetoric, whose modern-day, sometimes violent repercussions are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, visibility in the West of sinophobia, or anti-Chinese sentiment, has surged, fuelling racially-charged hate crimes against East and Southeast Asians—which rose by 300 percent in the UK in the first quarter of 2020. Asian American advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate said it received nearly 3,800 reports of hate incidents in the United States between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021. Just last week, eight people—including six Asian women—were shot and killed in Atlanta, Georgia at three different spas.
Swine flu originated in Mexico and the U.S., and mad cow disease in the UK, but these countries and their people were not demonized to the extent anyone thought to be Chinese is now for COVID-19. Almost immediately upon its discovery in Wuhan, China, then-President Donald Trump began to refer to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu.” The situation is little better in the UK, where research found a third of images of East and Southeast Asian people in British media outlets were used to illustrate coronavirus-related stories that had nothing to do with Asia between January to August 2020. Diasporic Chinese (and many other East and Southeast Asians) became the image of the pandemic—and thus scapegoats for racist violence.
As many Asians like myself experience firsthand, “ethnic” food is often at the epicenter of racial trauma. (“Wok-face” and other catcalls about noodles and “fwied wice” are just some racial slurs I’ve personally received while living in the UK.) Coronavirus-fueled racism appears to be no exception. A rumor (which has since been debunked) circulated around the world that the pandemic began because a woman ate “bat soup”, and initial news coverage of the coronavirus’s origins fixated obsessively on Chinese “wet markets” where fresh food is sold—falsely portraying all of these markets as veritable breeding grounds for disease.
The coronavirus—and the racist violence against Asians it has fueled—appears to be yet another example of how fundamentally misconstrued and misunderstood Chinese cuisine and culture is in the West.
The “unhealthiest” dishes aren’t really Chinese
As one of the longest-surviving cultures, China’s cookery is steeped in philosophy, history, and emotion. Yet the label “Chinese food” condenses 56 ethnic groups—whose culture is generally split into eight recognized regional cuisines—into one term. This is without considering the wider multinational-Chinese communities, such as Singapore and Hong Kong… a whole Sinophone diaspora, many of which view our palates as “the most Chinese thing” about us. Instead, as a whole, Chinese cuisine in the West remains synonymous with fried food and poor health—in part, because it was designed to cater to the palates (and kitchens) of white customers.
Most “Chinese” dishes you’ll find at restaurants in the U.S. look nothing like what most Chinese people eat in their own homes. Barbecue spareribs and egg rolls are both American inventions. And the General Tso’s Chicken dish popular on North American Chinese menus is wildly different from the original dish created by a Chinese expat chef in Taiwan in the 1950s. (The original, which relies on Hunanese flavors, is not sweet nor deep-fried, as it is in the U.S.) As David Chang says in the “Fried Rice” episode of the Netflix series Ugly Delicious, Chinese and Chinese-American food “(is) not even remotely the same.”
Sammy Lee, owner and CEO of takeaway sauce producers Keejays Ltd, whose father opened the first Chinese restaurant in Britain’s Clacton-on-Sea, suggests that the relative difficulty of transporting kitchen equipment across continents in the 1920s could be partly to blame for the discrepancy in cuisines. The UK’s first Chinese restaurant was reportedly unable to source authentic utensils and ingredients, and so adopted Western techniques to create what we might recognize as Chinese food in the UK today. This is not the traditional Wok Hei (wok-heat or breath-of-the-wok) method of frying using very little oil and extremely high heat, but an altered method where deep frying in fat substituted traditional equipment, letting fried food emerge in place of traditional fare. Similarly in the U.S., many fried dishes commonplace on menus (such as chop suey) were created by Chinese immigrants adapting the flavors of home with available ingredients and techniques, to suit a new palate.
In reality, health is intrinsic to traditional Chinese food. Such importance is attached to the nutritional balance that the “five flavors”—sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy/pungent—accord to specific organs: spleen, liver, heart, kidney, and lung. Principles similar to the Ayurvedic apply to many Chinese dishes. Ingredients are categorized into types based on their bodily effect: hot (heaty), cold, cool, and neutral. At dinners, I get cautioned by family members against eating certain dishes depending on my menstrual cycle—Lamb is too heaty for this time of the month!—or having a sore throat. Friends make soups with cooling ginkgo beans or mustard greens for those with fevers or respiratory complaints—masked, sanitized doorstep deliveries of such dishes fed my vulnerable parents throughout the COVID-19 lockdown.
Quick Chinese dishes in real-life kitchens include congee (rice porridge), steamed fish with ginger and scallions, and stir-fried vegetables. Pork ribs are more often boiled in soups than glazed. When I’m homesick, I salivate over Lap-fai Lee’s #realchinesefood posts, watching another Asian mother choose steaming over deep-frying—I’ve never seen my mom deep-fry anything. As a Chinese cook, she is fastidiously clean, known to brush vegetables with a dedicated toothbrush to remove traces of pesticides and chemicals. She also abhors MSG, and derides my overzealous enjoyment of buffets, which I learned to love during dinners out with my British stepfather. My English family rarely shared the unique fresh produce my Asian family delight in: wood-ear mushrooms, lotus roots, bitter melon; savory cakes made of yam, turnip and pumpkin; exported fruit like durian and mangosteens we savor in place of desserts on birthdays and special occasions.
“Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” and the myths of MSG
MSG (aka monosodium glutamate) is perhaps the most potent example of how anti-Chinese racism persists in perceptions of our cuisine. Born in the UK, I first became familiar with MSG from signs declaring “No MSG” in Chinatown restaurant windows. The ingredient—which is typically used as a flavor enhancer—is still feared in health and wellness circles for its alleged side effects of headaches, flushing, sweating, and even chest pains. These side effects were first documented in a short letter published in 1968 in the New England Journal of Medicine after a doctor allegedly experienced them from eating Chinese food (coining the phrase “Chinese restaurant syndrome”)—a letter that since has been proven to be a racist hoax.
Since this letter was first published, decades of research by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization and the UN, and others “failed to confirm an involvement of MSG in “Chinese restaurant syndrome” and have never been able to confirm that MSG caused the reported effects of reports received.
Yet fears of MSG and “Chinese restaurant syndrome” persist. The latter had its own definition in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary for almost as long as I’ve been alive—since 1993—and was only edited in 2020 after manufacturer Ajinomoto launched a campaign to recover MSG’s reputation. (Merriam-Webster’s used to define “Chinese restaurant syndrome” as the following: “A group of symptoms (such as numbness of the neck, arms, and back with headache, dizziness, and palpitations) that is held to affect susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate.”)
The truth is that monosodium glutamate is molecularly identical to glutamic acid (which the human body produces itself) and occurs naturally in breastmilk, walnuts, broccoli, and nutritional yeast. Originally, it was made by extracting crystals from seaweed broth. These days, it’s commercially formed by fermenting starch, molasses, sugar beets or cane.
Artificial MSG reportedly found popularity in the States not with immigrants but with American soldiers who found they enjoyed the ration packs of the Japanese Army more than their own. This coincided with the initial boom of processed food and from the mid-1930s to 1941, the United States consumed more Ajinomoto than any other country besides Japan.
While many food companies in the U.S. have removed MSG from many of their products (such as Campbell’s, which was reportedly one of the first U.S. importers of the ingredient) and marketed “No MSG” reformulations, it’s still present in many processed foods today, including many bouillon cubes, ready meals, and smoked meats. The moreishness of Vegemite—a popular savory spread from Australia—is owed to hydrolyzed yeast, another glutamate. Yet none of these foods have been associated with the alleged side effects of MSG; only Chinese food has its own “syndrome” named after it. The late Anthony Bourdain put it best: “You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism.”
Food for thought
Beyond nutrition, Chinese food culture, like any other cuisine, is rich and complex. Symbolism is rife in Chinese gastronomy—tea rituals are central to wedding ceremonies, poultry represents phoenixes, shrimps dragons, and noodles longevity. At the Lunar New Year, a whole salted egg yolk glows within some mooncakes.
That social satisfaction can be found in food (a lauded trait of long-living Blue Zone communities) is especially true in Chinese culture. To me, eating Chinese-style is an inherently social experience: Dishes are generally not made to be eaten a-plate-to-a-person but as part of a centralized spread. Often, a host will take charge of ensuring a balance of seafood, meat, tofu, vegetables, and soup with crunch, umami, and bland—even when eating out. And families say “I love you,” “I’m sorry,” and “I’m proud,” through cooking or acquiring your favorite dish. For me, it’s Xiang La Xie 香辣蟹, fragrant spicy crab, despite my shellfish allergy— because a little eczema is a small price to pay for filial appreciation.
After the fevers of 2020, it’s become clear that before spreading rumors or even casual, humor-intended asides, we should spend time to understand minoritized cultures and cuisines. Growing up in England, I had been so quick to blame MSG for the discomfort I’d eaten myself into, but it was probably sugar and over-consumption to blame for my symptoms that day. Yet I, like many others, still spent years perpetuating an unfair and false narrative.
These persistent falsehoods have consequences. Entire businesses marketing “clean” Chinese food capitalize on damaging, false assumptions that so many marginalized people have suffered under. Meanwhile, Chinese-run businesses, particularly those in Chinatowns across the world, have seen their finances hurt particularly hard by the pandemic. And of course, there is the racist-fueled violence that continues to harm East and Southeast Asians.
No one is exempt—not even me, literally fed the truth from a young age. But fortunately, everyone has the capacity to learn from listening. I now know that there’s a different story we should be telling about the food that quite literally made us who we are today. Pandemic permitting, I look forward to discussing it all over a hot pot, Californian fortune cookie, and a slice of fruit to end.
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