One day, my mom asked one of our waitresses whether her parents would like to come for dinner. “Oh, no, ma’am,” she replied. “I asked, but my father said he wouldn’t eat at any place run by Chinese. You can’t trust what they will try to pass for meat.”
That sad stereotype continues to exist today, amplified by concerns over the origins of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. Rumors and reports that the virus may have been contracted by people eating exotic foods in China have revived suspicions here in the United States of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans alike.
There is no denying that some Chinese do eat things considered exotic. Media in the United States and elsewhere have regaled in reporting that a seafood market in Wuhan sold items such as rats and wolf pups. An Internet rumor took life in the British media that the virus was connected to the consumption of bats. This was egged on by a video showing a Chinese vlogger eating a bat. That video was from 2016 and not filmed in China.
But the consumption of exotic meats is not exclusive to China, and the definition of exotic is subjective. In the Mid-Atlantic United States, there is a dish called scrapple, which is a meatloaf made with the scraps of slaughtered pig. The common reference to the ingredients is, “Everything but the squeal.” I’ve tried it numerous times, and I can honestly say it is not something high on my list. Still, I’ve tried it. I’ve also eaten fried alligator, grilled octopus and roasted rattlesnake, none of which is in a Chinese restaurant or household. All of these may sound exotic — or even revolting to some, especially to a vegetarian.
Although dog, cat and rat can be found on plates in China and elsewhere, they aren’t found at restaurants in the United States. Still, rumors of Chinese restaurants serving these meats persist.
These suspicions are rooted in age-old tropes about Chinese food, and they are still used against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, especially during crises such as the current coronavirus outbreak. Since the first Chinese immigrated to the United States in the early 1800s, we have been viewed with distrust and racism. American media played a role in this, reporting on opium dens and asking the question: Do Chinese eat rats? Such sentiments culminated in the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Much of the misunderstanding of Chinese food comes from those early years. The Chinese custom of cutting meat and vegetables into bite-size pieces made it hard to discern ingredients. And the people cooking these dishes were low-skill, low-paid laborers, who were mostly men, trying desperately to use what little they knew of cooking to replicate dishes from home, while making do with whatever foodstuffs were at hand. This resulted in dishes such as chop suey, which is as close to authentic Chinese cuisine as SpaghettiOs are to Italian.
Just as American views toward Chinese have progressed, so has Chinese cuisine since those early days. Still, there is a separation between dishes most Americans are familiar with and those served in China or Chinese households in America.
When people ask me to recommend a Chinese restaurant, I ask them, “What is your favorite dish?” If they respond “sweet-and-sour” something or beef and broccoli, then I know which direction to send them. But if they say steamed fish or something involving a black bean sauce, then I know they have some experience with non-Americanized Chinese cuisine.
Still, there has been a slow acceptance of the broader menu, from dim sum to roasted pork belly. But what you will also find at higher-end Chinese restaurants in the United States are items like sea cucumber, geoduck clam and cuttlefish. All of these sound exotic, especially to people who think seafood consists of shrimp and cod.
Some of that hesitancy to explore beyond the sweet-and-sour list is rooted in those same suspicions that have existed for more than a century.
When I asked my mom why we didn’t serve Chinese food at our restaurant, she said because it takes too much work to prepare and she didn’t want to have to make the food that Americans would only want to eat.
We used to have a big annual Lunar New Year dinner at their last restaurant, which did have some Chinese items. At the dinner, my mom would pull out all the stops, serving up dishes that only top-line restaurants did.
One year, she made bird’s nest soup. When a customer asked me why it was called this, I explained that the name comes from the fact that Chinese gathered swiftlet nests, boiled them down to extract the bird saliva that is used as the binding agent. This material sells for about $110 an ounce. It is combined into a soup stock of multiple meats and other ingredients. At one time, this soup was reserved for the imperial court.
After I revealed that exotic ingredient, most did not eat the soup. My mother was so upset. That soup represented the entire profits from that dinner. She didn’t care about the money, though. She’d just wanted the customers to try something beyond sweet and sour.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed bird saliva extracted from larks’ nests as being used in bird’s nest soup. It is the nests of swiftlets that is used.