Inside China Canteen, a restaurant in a nondescript strip mall in Rockville, Md., novelist Lillian Li digs into her favorite Sichuan dish: braised pork intestines in blood. This was one of her family’s favorite restaurants when she was growing up in Montgomery County, where Asians compose 15 percent of the population, and Li was exposed early on to the depth of Chinese cuisine, from Shanghai specialties to Taiwanese and noodle-shop dishes. But that does not mean she understood it.
“For a long time, I thought of Chinese food as food that I had to eat — that I had no choice in eating,” she says. “I didn’t even know exactly what I was eating. I think that it was only once I got old enough to be able to order off the menu myself that I started being able to pick up that Chinese food is not just this food that I have no understanding of.”
Li’s experiences eating at Chinese restaurants in Montgomery County and working at one in northern Virginia helped inspire her first novel, the story of a fictional Rockville restaurant she calls Beijing Duck House. “Number One Chinese Restaurant,” which comes out in paperback this month, charts the intergenerational conflicts that arise when the son of the restaurant’s founder strikes out on his own to open a modern, pan-Asian restaurant in Georgetown.
A deep dive into the emotional and physical toil of working at a Chinese restaurant, Li’s book focuses on the personal lives of the restaurant’s overlooked, hard-working staff. In fact, in an early draft she so effectively detailed the industry’s blood, sweat and tears — not to mention salt, heat and grease — that her editor questioned her love for food. In response, she sprinkled in a little more of the joy that goes into feeding others.
But her goal was a larger one: to write a novel that “felt effortlessly and organically Chinese American,” she says, and to show that resilience — a word often used in reference to immigrants — is twofold. “Even as my characters shape the environment of the restaurant to find pockets of connection and dignity and respect, they’re also irrevocably shaped by the environment as well,” she says.
Li’s own stint working as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant was short. It was in 2013, the summer before she would head to the University of Michigan’s MFA program. She lasted a few weeks before she quit, exhausted physically and emotionally. She would not say which restaurant inspired the fictional restaurant of her novel, but Peking duck is its signature dish. That and other similarities might prompt readers familiar with the Washington area’s dining scene to assume the inspiration was Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church.
In her novel, the immigrants of Beijing Duck House are the latest in a long tradition of Chinese immigration to the United States, starting with the Gold Rush of the 18th century and broadening with the 1965 passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. What once was seen as “other” ultimately became integrated into the American food scene when Shun Lee Palace became the first Chinese restaurant to receive a four-star review from the New York Times in 1967.
As with any immigrant group, the food in Chinese-American restaurants and home kitchens changed in response to local ingredients and customers. When Li’s own parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1980s, they inadvertently created their own subset of Chinese American food based on what they could easily find in stores. Their recipes, such as the sweet-and-sticky spare ribs featured on Li’s website, are no replica of what is served in China, she says, but that doesn’t make the food any less valuable. Demonize Chinese American food, and “you end up demonizing the entrepreneurial, enterprising spirit that allowed those earlier immigrants to now create a real base in America.”
Li closely follows the ongoing conversation about cultural appropriation, something that came up during a question-and-answer session at a stop on her book tour last summer, a panel on food writing at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City. An audience member asked how she should feel when Americans — especially white ones — “discover” her food and help popularize it.
“You used that word ‘discover,’ and I think that’s a really key distinction,” Li replied. “Within it, there’s a lot of hubris, right? ‘I discovered this thing that so many people already knew about.’ . . . The difference between appropriation and appreciation [when] cooking with flavors that are not from your region or background is humility.”
Take Andrew Zimmern, who caused an uproar late last year by saying that with his new restaurant, he was “saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these horses--- restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest.” As Li said in an interview later, the biggest problem was his attitude. “If there’s no humility when approaching, let alone profiting off, another culture’s food, then I consider that venture to be made in bad faith,” said Li, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Li sees the same sorts of issues at play in attitudes about MSG, which was vilified for decades after reports of ill health effects from “Chinese restaurant syndrome” that have long since been debunked. In fact, one of the most recent instances of an outcry about alleged cultural appropriation involving Chinese cooking touched on the ingredient, which adds umami to dishes. The owner of the new Lucky Lee’s in New York City promised she would serve “clean” versions of Chinese dishes, meaning without gluten, wheat, refined sugar, GMOs, additives — or MSG — and was pilloried for implying that other Chinese restaurants don’t “make people feel good,” as hers would.
When Li was growing up, MSG was that nameless white powder her parents stored in a small crock and added to their home-cooked dishes. Later, she realized that most Americans didn’t seem to feel the way her parents did about the ingredient, as signs touting “No MSG” started to pop up in her neighborhood Chinese restaurants. In retrospect, she sees xenophobia at work, pointing out that Chinese restaurants were unfairly targeted for using a “magic powder” that imitates a natural chemical reaction.
In “Number One Chinese Restaurant,” Jimmy Han brushes aside his family’s heritage when he opens his pan-Asian fusion restaurant, but disgruntled customers convince him to return some classic dishes to the menu. Li sees MSG making a similar comeback. Celebrity chefs David Chang and Grant Achatz have spoken out in support of it, as have such food writers as the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner. Now Li’s seeing it in more places.
“I have friends who have a salt shaker of MSG on their kitchen table,” Li says. “I love that. It’s like the lineage continues.”