When my family lived in Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid ’90s, my mother would send me and my sister to school with lunch in the form of hot noodles in a thermos or fried rice in Tupperware. As we were pretty much the only Chinese kids — and immigrants — in our grades, her attempts to comfort us with memories of home back in Singapore were short-lived: our classmates would wrinkle their noses at the strange smells; not even my sister’s affinity for eating her noodles with ketchup could save her. I remember frequently receiving Handi-Snacks in my Pocahontas lunch box, an apparent attempt to win social acceptance for which I’ll never forgive my mom, although I know four-year-old me sure as hell relished that artificial cheese.
“Didn’t want you both to feel displaced,” she recently texted me, when I asked about that year of calculated lunch decisions in the South. “As long as they were not recognizable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or Lunchables, your lunch would be considered ewwww.”
Chinese food has deeply shaped my experience growing up in America, in ways that are tough but also wonderful (and tasty) to remember. These memories from Alabama; Washington, DC; and my current home in New York flooded back when I visited Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America, an intimate and thoughtfully designed exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). Its title, drawn from a Chinese saying, nods to the role food has played as a source of hardship and joy for Chinese people navigating this country’s challenging cultural landscape. Far more than simply providing nutrition, Chinese dishes have served as vital sustenance for the self, helping us develop our relationships, memories, and identities.
At MOCA, an elegant fusion of oral histories and visual art exemplifies Chinese food as a signifier of the familiar and the foreign. The show smartly adopts the form of a banquet to explore contemporary conversations about the cuisine and its related identities. Table settings offer tastes of the personal, food-based memories of 33 chefs from around the country, all but three of whom are of Chinese descent.
Their culinary biographies, printed and displayed like menus, convey their diverse backgrounds as well as their inspirations, signature dishes, ultimate comfort foods, and essential ingredients. Spread across the table are sculptures by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang that resemble dishes, each of which encapsulates the complexities of Chinese- and Chinese-American food and identity in striking colors and alluring form. The smaller works draw inspiration from the chefs’ stories, visualizing their diverse relationships to Chinese food; the larger ceramics, positioned on functioning Lazy Susans, are glistening tributes to 18 regional cuisines, from Cantonese to Fujian and even Chino-Latino, evoking and weaving together characteristics of each place such as renowned dishes, architecture, and landscapes. Lau’s representation of Beijing recalls the architecture of the Forbidden City and integrates decadent gold paint and slices of sculpted Peking duck. Next to it, Lu’s vision of Zhejiang cooking takes the form of a local bridge, over which march little chunks of the region’s popular dish, braised pork belly.
As with any memorable meal, you can’t digest all this splendor without meaningful conversation. A four-wall video installation surrounds the table, playing interviews conducted by curators Audra Ang, Kian Lam Kho, Andrew Rebatta, and Herb Tam with the featured chefs. Their voices, incredibly varied and spanning generations, touch upon everything from their upbringings and new lives in America to their paths towards current cooking styles. In another room, objects from their kitchens, such as charred woks and mooncake molds, further speak to years of labor.
Among those featured are Shanghai-born Cecilia Chiang, a renowned restaurateur who fled her country in the 1950s for San Francisco, where she introduced Americans to authentic Chinese food; Chinese-Americans Yvonne and Mike Thompson, who serve Asian-influenced Southern comfort food (think Velveeta egg rolls and parmesan wontons) at their Virginia eatery; and BiYing Ni, a cook from the fishing village of Fuzhou who continues to prepare Fujianese food for friends and family in her present home, New York. Many Chinese visitors will relate specifically to their shared memories, which include moments like eating duck at Thanksgiving, encounters with peanut butter, and being the only Chinese kid in class. Yet, in touching on themes of alienation and comfort, they also resonate with anyone who’s lived in a foreign setting.
The chefs’ stories relay the complex, unpinnable definition of “Chinese food,” evolving as it is, along with our understanding of it, as we adapt to different environments. And the exhibited spread affirms the diversity of the cuisine, with sculptures created in an array of shapes, textures, and colors. As informational text emphasizes, Chinese food is so much more than those dishes endemic in the popular, standard eateries — Lo mein, chow mein, and variations on chicken doused in sauces in every shade of orange.
What’s particularly refreshing about Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy is that prior knowledge will only get you so far. The show is welcoming, situating us all, in a way, as newcomers to this feast. Lau and Lu’s cryptic sculptures set viewers on an even plane of knowledge and interpretation: The ceramic pieces don’t simply replicate identifiable dishes; they demand careful scrutiny to pick out familiar details — shrimp tails here, soft cabbage leaves there, one egg roll painted black and broken to reveal golden guts. Taken in its entirety, each is an enigmatic meal that nods to the continued evolution of Chinese cuisine as shaped by the lifestyles of the Chinese diaspora. The artists have also devised a kind of matching game to further educate visitors: the style of each large-scale sculpture reflects that of at least one smaller sculpture, so connecting visually similar dishes teaches you about the specific traits of the different cuisines.
The pairings also suggest how chefs have placed their own individual spins on tradition — a more sophisticated version of what my sister was doing with her mixture of noodles and ketchup. Each of us has our own definition of Chinese food in America; what we need to overcome is letting food define Chinese people in America in ways that assume and limit. Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Spicy not only opens your eyes to the kaleidoscope nature of this cuisine, but also leaves you hungry to taste it all.
Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America continues at the Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre Street, Chinatown, New York) through September 10.