Dishing Some Thoughts on Chinese Food



WORDS || Anne Tong

It’s pretty obvious: the representation of Chinese food in Australian society has come a long way. It’s no longer just a quick and easy takeaway option for those lazy nights. While we can’t deny that it’s still a popular Menulog choice, Chinese food has certainly ascended the culinary ladder in recent years.

Born in Australia to Chinese parents, much of my own childhood was spent immersed in their daily cultural cooking rituals. Not once do I remember being served sweet and sour pork, or lemon chicken for dinner. Rather, we indulged in zongzi (sticky rice), handmade jiaozi (dumplings) and mantou (steamed bread).

As literally the only Chinese kid in an all-white primary school, lunch boxes weren’t so easy. While my friends enjoyed their crust-less ham and cheese sandwiches and fruit rollups, I was busy wondering whether the canteen would be kind enough to heat up my hong shao rou (braised pork) leftovers. After a few incidents involving long-forgotten and untouched lunches at the bottom of my schoolbag, I stopped packing Mum’s leftovers.

I said, “I’ll have what they’re having”.

In my home life, Chinese food epitomised warmth and comfort. In public spaces amongst my white peers, it signified cultural difference and exclusion. The thought of kids turning their noses up at my lunch while complaining about the odour filled me with all kinds of anxiety. Back then it seemed that anything which fell outside of spring rolls and honey chicken were considered “too ethnic and foreign”.

I’ve always enjoyed devouring the dishes my parents plated, but I’ve only just begun to appreciate their inherent value. As I’ve drifted from home, I slip further from those practices and routines that help keep my Chinese identity grounded.

Food and language.

I now see every morsel of traditional, home cooked Chinese food as symbolic of so much more. Casting my thoughts back to little-me, in her playsuit and pigtails, I remember Mum lifting me up onto the kitchen bench to watch her knead and roll out fresh dumpling wrappers. I sat in quiet observation as she relived memories from when grandma first showed her the ropes in the kitchen.

Mum always told me it was important to learn, but I was impatient. One defeated frown and several attempts later I would think, “Why don’t the ones I roll look as round and symmetrical as hers?”

The lens through which I perceive Chinese food is a direct product of how I was brought up. I adore it, but I also sustain a very personal, often complicated, relationship with it. It feels as though Chinese cuisine has reached a stepping stone in Australian society, wherein less ‘Westernised’ dishes have gained mainstream prevalence and greater acceptance. Knowing the hottest spots for ‘authentic’ ethnic cuisine is now a sure-fire way of appointing oneself with valuable culture points. Do you remember the last time you and your mates went out to gorge on plates of steamed dumplings? Maybe you found it while you were perched behind your computer, scouting Zomato for Chinese restaurants with ratings over eighty per cent.

My feelings on this are riddled. On the one hand, I’m glad that the consumption of Chinese food is no longer limited to the typical honey chicken, stuffed in a flimsy, fold up, cardboard box. The diversification of ethnic cuisines is perhaps one of the most obvious “takeaways” from Australia’s multicultural melting pot analogy. I see the uptake of traditional Chinese food as a culinary form of gentrification. However, the connotation of Chinese food as being “trendy” often sits uncomfortably with me; it’s as though it only gained appreciation by being “discovered” by the Western palette.

Less glamorous foods like pidan (Century Year Old Egg) and chou doufu (stinky tofu) are also culinary delights, but I’ve been told time and time again that they are too sensorily offensive. Mind you, it’s often expressed far less articulately. Generally speaking, vomit sound effects and “ew, that’s disgusting” are popular responses.

Where do people’s appreciation and respect for Chinese food begin and end?

I take issue with the “cherry picking” of Chinese food, with little to no appreciation of its cultural importance. Preparing and sharing food is an integral component of Chinese culture, and the sheer enormity of distinctive cuisines is reflective of this. Dumplings aren’t simply “the latest craze to hit Sydney-siders”. To engage with such a simplistic notion of Chinese food is to disregard the fact that for so many, these dishes are reminiscent and symbolic of beautiful things; familial gatherings and the passing of cultural traditions and stories.

*You can follow Anne on Twitter @tong_annie