Discovering Some Roots 20 Years Too Late

For a majority of my life, exploring my culture as a Chinese-American meant I grew up learning about traditions like feeding cabbage to the lions every Chinese New Year or lighting the lanterns during the August Moon Festival. Or it meant keeping lists upon lists of cultural specificities in my head, to be employed whenever I was around my relatives. Make sure to use two hands when you're accepting your red envelopes. Never put only four dishes on the table because it's sure to be bad luck.

But I'd never really thought about the dishes outside of the context that was my own family. After all, it wasn't like they'd been the first ones to bring over their sense of Chinese food from overseas - the many Chinese restaurants around the country can attest to that. I'd never gotten to think about Chinese food in context to the rest of the country and how it'd had an influence on how I or anyone in my family lived. After all, I highly doubt that every single technique that was used by my parents or grandparents is the same in the States as it was during their earlier days.

So to New York City, it was. Not only was it home to at least two Chinatowns (Flushing in Queens and Manhattan Chinatown, right next to Little Italy), but it also was home to the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, which was hosting Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant.I also may have taken advantage of the fact that I'd been able to get to New York and back for only $15. Thanks, UMass.

A three-hour bus ride (despite having taken the trip three times beforehand, I'd no idea that the trip took three hours instead of the usual four. You learn something new every day, I guess) and one long L train ride later, I fit myself through the surprisingly small door and emerged into a well-lit, open space made entirely of brick. Aside from the small greeting desk in the front, this was what greeted me:

The display is supposed to represent the number of Chinese restaurants in the country, with each box representing seven restaurants. I reckon that if there was one box for every restaurant, they'd probably have to lease a bigger space. Just a guess.

The exhibit itself is actually fairly simple: brightly colored boards with pictures and video screens explaining the historical context of Chinese immigration into the United States over time. There wasn't much I hadn't already learned in my high school American history class, but granted, I hadn't taken the class in about three years, so the refresher was nice.

(According to my dad, the Chinese says 'grafting', not 'inventing'.)

I also got to look at (and excuse the way I'm probably going to slander the tone of this) an authentic wok. They were used to stir-fry foods in China, when stoves had open flames that allowed chefs to cook with both the fire and the steam that accompanied it. They fell out of use in home cooking in the States because most stoves had evolved to induction rather than open flame, and there was no need to use a wok when a flat-bottomed pan would do. The wok shown below even had an audio story attached to it, with the author explaining how she'd discovered the wok in her parents' attic and the story behind it.

One of the most surprising things was how central of a role chop suey played in the evolution of the Chinese restaurant. Embarrassingly, I'd always assumed that American chop suey was called as such because there was some other version out there that wasn't Americanized. I'd never imagined that it was because of the fact that chop suey was instead a vital dish to the start of Chinese restaurants. In fact, it was the only thing that seemed to be on the menu for a good number of years, and restaurants would only be known for their chop suey.

Of course, one of the prime things there was the fortune cookie machine. It was everything I expected it to be and more - small circles of cookie batter were poured out onto mini griddles and run through a circled grill before stopping before a small furrow that folded the cookie circle, fortune and all attached. It was everything I dreamed of in a fortune cookie - even infused with the slightest bit of orange. Luckily for me, they were unlimited fortune cookies. Yet another sad day where I forget to bring Tupperware and it fails me.

The last part of the exhibition included a small cooking demonstration with the chef - a small bowl of ma po eggplant over rice. While he was cooking, the chef took the time to tell us about the history of the dish, from how it was actually considered blasphemy to put eggplant into the dish instead of tofu to the different methods that were used to cook the food depending on the region. Between smoke and steam, the dish was served smoky, the chilis searing my tongue to the point where I was gulping down the tea being offered on the side.

Unfortunately, the tasting marked the end of the exhibit, and, on the tiredly long ride back, I had time to ruminate on what I'd learned. I'd gotten to have a glimpse of what exactly was in my gastrointestinal history, from every which way you could cook chop suey to the rise and fall of the wok. I'd almost say I came away a little more sophisticated from the air of the place; from the moment I walked in I could tell it was full of that hipster level I just didn't have enough money to exude.

I can't wait to see what next exhibit MOFAD pulls up.

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