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In Search of Authenticity in New York’s Chinese Food

In Search of Authenticity in New York’s Chinese Food

New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt with Little Tong Noodle Shop chef/owner Simone Tong, Café China owner Wang Yiming, and Junzi Kitchen co-founder Yong Zhao at the China Institute. Photo credit: Xueqi Sun

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By Nina Huang

In the new wave of Chinese restaurants opening in New York City, authenticity has become a keyword that differentiates them from the Chinese restaurants of yore that offered up such Chinese-American fare as General Tso’s Chicken and Egg Foo Young. But what is authenticity? Does it mean to keep everything the same as the original? Is innovation allowed in the process of searching for authenticity? Fundamentally, is it even necessary to search for authenticity? In a jam-packed panel discussion at China Institute on January 24, Chinese restaurateurs Simone Tong, Yiming Wang and Yong Zhao had a robust conversation with New York Magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt.

Yiming Wang, owner of Café China, China Blue, and Birds of A Feather, opened her first restaurant in 2011 in quest of serving authentic Chinese food in Manhattan. Born and raised in Harbin, the renowned “ice city” in China that is known for its ice sculpture festival, Wang said she “was not happy with how Chinese food was presented in New York City,” and thought “it’s ruining something really great.”

While serving authentic Chinese food seems to fall in a safe zone for restaurateurs and foodies in China—recipes have been proven successful over the ages¬¬––Wang is taking a risk in New York. In the U.S., where Chinese people historically have been a minority group that weren’t affluent enough to support restaurant businesses, serving authentic Chinese food could risk putting off non-Chinese who haven’t yet acquired such tastes. When Wang opened her first restaurant, Café China, she had a debate with her chef about whether a special menu—a menu with Chinese American food specially designed for Americans—should be included. She thought authentic Chinese food should be able to survive. And she was right. Within one year after opening, her Café China was awarded with one Michelin star.

Wang’s success is partly owing to a growing Chinese middle class in New York who are searching for food to satisfy their palette and nostalgia. “You need a class, a trendier class to support real authentic food,” commented critic Adam Platt. This statement was echoed by Yong Zhao, a former Yale graduate student who started Junzi Kitchen, a fast-food Chinese restaurant near Columbia University. Speaking of the earlier generation of Chinese restaurants that served Chinese American food, Zhao said, “They are not here to think about authenticity; they are here to survive.”

Even though Chinese restaurants owners can afford to offer authentic Chinese food now, a younger generation of chefs is also purposefully searching for the soul of China through non-traditional and non-authentic Chinese food that might mix flavors in surprising ways.

“Little Tong Noodle Shop doesn’t do Chinese authentic food,” said Simone Tong, the chef-owner of the Little Tong Noodle Shop, which opened last year. When her Yunnan rice noodles were praised by customers as authentic, she asked back, “Is it authentic or delicious?” After all, Tong is not even from Yunnan Province. She is a Sichuan native who creates Yunnan rice noodles based on her understanding and creativity.

To Tong, the modern interpretation of authenticity of Chinese food lies not in simple emulation of what’s already there, but rather in a creation that’s based on an understanding of the tradition. “To me, authentic really just means delicious,” said Tong.