Whenever I return to Seattle from China, I cannot eat Chinese food for months. I simply do not want to spoil the memories. I know I am not alone on this. And since Seattle has a large Asian population and a relatively sophisticated food scene, I very much doubt things are any better in other U.S. cities.
Just a couple of days ago, the Seattle Times did a story on Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, British Columbia (that’s Canada, people), entitled, "Have chopsticks, will travel? Go north for Chinese delights." The gist of the article is that Vancouver is THE North American city for Chinese food:
This is where hotshot Hong Kong chefs create innovative dim sum that trickle down to restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
This is Vancouver, where the Chinese culinary bar is raised higher and the Cantonese restaurants are more trendsetting than anywhere in the United States.
"Hands down, I think [Vancouver's Chinese food] is superior to other cities’ in North America," said Nathan Fong, a Vancouver-based food-stylist and noted expert on Chinese cuisine.
The Chinese food scene here exploded due to mainland China’s takeover of Hong Kong 10 years ago, which brought a flood of wealthy Chinese immigrant’s and injected much competition in the Vancouver restaurant industry. That’s why the Vancouver area has been serving Chinese food that is arguably as good as in the homeland, much like Vietnamese cuisine is in Westminster, Calif., or Indian cuisine is in London.
The article goes on to describe my favorite Chinese restaurant in North America, Sun Sui Wah, as follows:
But the overall star attraction remains Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant in Vancouver, considered by many critics and local chefs to be one of the best Chinese restaurants in North America, especially for seafood and dim sum.
I once suggested (begged?) a friend of mine, whose wife’s family owns a number of very large and very successful Chinese restaurants in Asia, talk to his in-laws about opening one in Seattle. He reported back that Seattle could not support such a restaurant because such restaurants need to serve meals late into the night and there are just not enough Seattleites who go for that. He then noted this was why Seattle did not have any great Chinese restaurants and why it never would.
Nina and Tim Zagat (of the Zagat Guide) wrote an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, entitled, "Eating Beyond Sichuan," first bemoaning and then explaining the extreme dearth of great Chinese food on these shores:
Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what’s available here. Where are the great versions of bird’s nest soup from Shandong, or Zhejiang’s beggar’s chicken, or braised Anhui-style pigeon or the crisp eel specialties of Jiangsu? Or what about the tea-flavored dishes from Hangzhou, the cult-inspiring hairy crabs of Shanghai or the fabled honeyed ham from Yunnan? Or the Fujianese soup that is so rich and sought after that it is poetically called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” meaning it is so good that a Buddhist monk would be compelled to break his vegetarian vows to sample it?
The historical explanation for why "the lackluster Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in this country do not resemble those you can find in China" is the lack of "key ingredients" from China, but that is no longer the case. The reason the United States is today mired in Chinese restaurant mediocrity is that it is nearly impossible for Chinese chefs to get visas to come over here.
Not sure if the Zagats are right about this, but they do provide some anecdotal proof. And, hey, if opening the floodgates to immigration would raise the level of Chinese cuisine over here, than I say "open." Food trumps politics, hence the call for dumpling diplomacy. Might even improve China-US relations. Of course, our visa policy holds back more than just great Chinese cooks, but people, let’s stay focused here.
In its post, entitled, "Hear, hear for dumpling diplomacy!" Foreign Policy Magazine weighs in on this crucial issue with its own whine:
And they’re [the Zagats] absolutely right. Let’s face it most of what America considers "Chinese" food SUCKS. It’s too sweet, too sticky, too oily, too heavy, and too bland. There are exceptions, of course. (Notably, my mom’s kitchen and the Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco, and LA.)
But take Washington, D.C., [please do!] for instance. I’ve been living in this city for nearly two years, and have yet to understand why it’s so hard to find a single decent Chinese restaurant in the nation’s capital.
Again, so true. I have always suspected PF Changs to be the leading cause of increasing sugar prices.
The Rose Cantine Blog is skeptical of the reasons given by the Zagats for the "abysmal state of Chinese food in the United States." According to its post, "Is 9/11 to blame for bad Chinese food," Thai, Vietnamese and Korean chefs are subject to the same restrictions and yet their food is good. The Rose Cantine, posits the following reasons for the difference:
1. Thai, Vietnamese and Korean restaurant owners are relatively new immigrants to the US and have not lost touch with the authentic recipes. Because US-born Chinese are no longer in touch with their homegrown cuisine, restaurant owners have to import Chinese chefs and the visa restrictions are making this impossible (Zagat theory).
2. The type of Chinese cuisine that got locked in was Cantonese which is relatively bland.
3. The Chinese who settled in the US and Europe cook differently when they make dishes for Western people than they do for themselves.
This posts makes me wonder though if what the Zagats are saying about Chinese food holds true for most Asian cuisines. I know very little about authentic Thai food, so though I love what get of it here in the United States, I am not qualified to compare it to the motherland. I have eaten great Vietnamese food in both the United States (particularly in California) and in Vietnam. I am generally not a big fan of Korean food (seeing as how I do not eat meat and I do not think food should be judged on how long it has been buried in some old auntie’s backyard), but every Korean in Seattle with whom I have discussed restaurants has told me there are no good Korean restaurants here.
Daniel W. Drezner, in his post, "I want to believe the Zagats — I really do," is also skeptical of the Zagat explanation and he also posits three of his own:
1) Because China has a larger internal market, there is more innovation and competition at home, leading to more frequent innovations. Without a reliable transmission mechanism (i.e., migrating chefs), Chinese cuisine in China will improve at a faster rate than in the U.S.A.
2) Law of averages. There are 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but only 9,000 Japanese restaurants. If quality is a function of quantity, then the average Chinese restaurant will simply be of poorer quality than other cuisines.
3) Innovation in a different direction. As this Washington Post story from last year suggests, American restaurants tend to innovate by using new cooking styles to present more traditional foods. Indeed, as the Zagats observe, this tendency is strongest in cuisines that have been here for a while — like Chinese. This roils devotees of "pure" national cuisine, but delights everyone else.
The Zagats end their article with this clarion call:
So, we welcome Chinese chefs to share their authentic cuisines with us. American palates, unlike those of previous generations, are ready for the real stuff.
To which, I would think we can all say, amen.