Recap: Chinese Comfort Food, 6.9.21
This program was part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, exploring modern China through food all June!
Craving Chinese Comfort Food: The Dishes That Save Us During Times of Crisis was the first delicious, digital panel discussion as part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival! As Chinese family life is centered around food, we explore how the flavors of family recipes and the fragrances of childhood memory carry us through hard times. With an in-depth conversation around food culture and storytelling, this thoughtful program highlights what it means to eat Chinese comfort food that not only nourishes the body, but also the soul.
Betty Liu (BL) is an unlikely foodie: A surgeon in training, she recently published My Shanghai: Recipes and Stories from a City on the Water. She started writing about Chinese food in 2015 on her award-winning blog bettysliu.com and found joy in talking about the food that reminded her of home. Since then, her work has been featured on sites such as BonAppétit and Saveur.
Vincent Chao (VC) is the co-founder of Milu (米路), a Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. A Hong Kong native with a History of Science degree from Harvard University, Vincent worked as an investment banker before deciding to follow his passion in the hospitality industry.
Hsiao-Ching Chou (HC) is the author of Chinese Soul Food and Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food. She is former food editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. By day, Chou is a communications manager in the biomedical research industry, and lives in Seattle with her family.
Full Video of Chinese Comfort Food:
Selected Quotes from Chinese Comfort Food:
HC: What are 2-3 dishes you would pick for our virtual meal?
BL: The Dragon Boat festival is coming up so sticky rice dumpling in the Shanghai way, wrapped in bamboo leaves, and a side of seasoned eggplant and some stir fried beans.
VC: I am from Hong Kong- and I miss curry beef brisket with rice 港式咖哩牛腩- it is in all the fast-food restaurants in Hong Kong. It is very aromatic and very deep in flavor but not something many would think of as Chinese- though it is very [popular] in Cantonese restaurants.
HC: How did that make its way to the Hong Kong café?
VC: Well there is the obvious British influence form Hong Kong, and Indian recipes that came along with the migrant workers. But having to feel like normal Chinese people to learn about British were eating, it increasingly became something very popular with a strong flavor profile. Not too spicy, and beef was never popular in HK until later when people were more prosperous. So, it incorporated the Chinese cut which incorporated tendons and had more texture. And then fish balls…
HC: I love mapu dofu [see a previous CI program on Mapu Dofu to learn more]- my ancestors are not from the Szechuan region but my parents love the food of that region. So that is something that would definitely be on my table. What does comfort food mean to you?
VC: For me, it is something that reminds me of being at home and with family- a HK curry brisket- my mom would make it at home. She is Shanghai-ese, and for me it is personal not only for the city that I grew up in, but for the dish that my family cooked for me when I was young. Does it remind me of my identity? I think it does- it reminds me of growing up in a multi-cultural society and people cannot pinpoint where you are from.
BL: Comfort food for me is any food in which I can find comfort. My mom’s red braised pork belly is a very classic, famous Shanghai dish. Everyone makes it differently, some people include tofu or egg, or the thickness of the cut of pork belly…it is the dish she would make to welcome us back home from college. It would send a message of welcoming us home.
HC: I wrote two books with the word ‘comfort food’ in it, so it was about capturing the dishes that we remember…the dishes that despite our different paths, we have managed to have a lot of these similarities. It is not something that tastes good, it is all the stuff around it. It is about having this invisible connection with however many millions of people around the world. Vincent, tell us a little about your restaurant and how comfort food weaves into your business.
VC: I am not the only owner…my understanding of comfort food is tied to Shanghai/Cantonese cuisines. My business partner who was a chef at Eleven Madison Park…she has been cooking French and American cuisine, so her technique is quite different. Our third partner is from Australia lived all over mainland China. So his understanding of Chinese food is more Northern than mine.
We look at the current landscape in China, and everyone is experimenting and doing new things. So we want to bring in familiar flavors represented in the way we think it makes sense. It is really comforting but also, a little bit out there.
HC: Tell us more about the name of your restaurant.
VC: The name ‘Milu’ means ‘the rice road’ but if you pronounce it in a different tone, it means being lost directionally or emotionally. So, it is about being lost but not being confined by [what Chinese food represents].
HC: Betty, how have you approached treating recipes?
BL: A lot of my recipes are traditional, but how I describe them is that these are the classic dishes that are being cooked in a kitchen by a Chinese-American. Even when my parents cooked these dishes for me, they were using local ingredients in the Bay Area. So, we have seen these online wars about authenticity, and that there is just one certain- and authentic- flavor. But in reality, food is dynamic and is always evolving, [especially] with time. So, I try to stay away from the word ‘authenticity.’
HC: How do we stay rooted, and yet do the things we need to do with food?
VC: My journey has been this association with what is Chinese. When I had American Chinese food for the first time, I did not know what it was. So, I would judge Chinese food with a palate of what is quote-unquote authentic. But then when I worked more in the industry, I began to see how people approached recipes. And then when I worked in China, I saw Chinese chefs wanting to do more with different ingredients. So, after all this time, the word ‘authenticity’ is very much loaded- authentic to who?
All the dishes we cook in our restaurant, the moment they eat it they know the [classic] flavors. It is about understanding why the flavor works- and what you can do with it!
HC: I have tried to make my recipes streamlined and doable. One of the issues I had with a lot of cookbooks- and I saw this as part of my professional life- I saw a lot of books that were published just to publish the books. Any number of reasons that people publish these cookbooks, and for the home cook they were just not accessible. If we want people to cook everyday Chinese food, there has to be an approach that is more of an on-ramp.If you think about the Chinese diaspora, you use what you have wherever you are. So, for me, it is trying to make this kind of cooking more forgiving. And if they get more into it and want to geek out, there are plenty of books to take you through 5,000 years of history! Betty, take us to Shanghai. Where do you go?
BL: My entire extended family lives in Shanghai. The very first thing I like to do is go with my aunts and uncles to one of the local breakfast markets. I wouldn’t even be able to pinpoint where they are, but everything is so fresh and seasonal over there. They would go out every single morning to select the produce for the next one or two days and base what we cook on what you can find locally. That is what the epitome of what the cuisine really is.
HC: What is the local Shanghai cuisine? It is even more local than we think…
BL: Across China and America, people would label Shanghai cuisine as sweet. To really label it that way is an over simplification. It uses a lot of vibrant flavors, but above all else the cuisine respects the natural flavor of the food it [features]. Every way we cook is a way to enhance the natural flavors.
VC: Yes, I think people have a simple view on what Shanghai cuisine is. Across America…you are seeing more and more regional Chinese restaurants and that is a great starting point because China is huge! It is about appreciating the nuances, like Betty was talking about, and I am seeing more people doing that in restaurants and people writing about it in blogs.
HC: There may also be a misconception that if you write a Chinese cook book you know everything about all areas of Chinese cuisine.
Love the session so far and thanks all for sharing. Curious to get your thoughts on Chinese food (i.e. General Tsao’s Chicken, etc.) labeling as a comfort in the American pop culture (i.e. takeaway boxes), and how you are doing today to shape or even change that by bringing more nuanced regional cuisines?
HC: We had to learn how to make Crab Rangoon and General Tsao’s Chicken in my parent’s restaurant. That food put me through college. But that is different than the food we grew up with and the simple, more natural flavors, but I don’t think it has to be curbed…
BL: I agree it is different and there is nothing wrong with it. Sometimes my parents would go out and get Chinese take out food, it was almost like a different genre of food for us, and who are we to say what makes comfort food or not, because it is so individualized?
VC: I love American Chinese food. To me it is a new cuisine and there is nothing wrong with it. But what is problematic is that people associate that all with Chinese food- that everything is gooey, fried and unhealthy. It is a great thing that brought a lot of people their livelihood and an integral part of American culture, but as people understand more about American Chinese food they will understand that it is just that. But yeah, once in awhile, General Tsao’s chicken really hits the spot!
Having these kind of talks, people learn more about the nature of the food itself and hopefully [the recent anti-Asian sentiment] gets better. I am actually quite hopeful!
This program is part of China Institute’s Food & Ideas Festival, a month-long exploration of modern China through food, happening all June!
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