Huang’s Words and Tian Mian Jiang Pork (Jiang Rou Si)
On Immigrants and Chinese Food: ‘No Coupons’~~
The National Immigrant Integration Conference came to Nashville this past weekend, and one of my favorite immigrant writers showed up to give the opening talk. The one and only Eddie Huang—Taiwanese-Chinese American chef, author and provocateur of Fresh Off the Boat and Huang’s World fame—was in fine form (and even wore a suit!), giving a speech he wrote called “No Coupons.”
I dragged my little Chinese immigrant along with me, hoping she would take to heart what he had to say. He talked about how his dad ran a steak house when Eddie was young—because Chinese food was too cheap to make a profit from—but that he always offered coupons for the prime rib because, as his dad explained, “no one is going to pay full price to buy steak from Chinese people. We have to compete on price…
“Eddie,” he went on, “immigrants can’t sell anything for full price in America.”
Twenty-something years later, the wildly successful son stood in a ballroom full of immigrants and those who support them and said, “My name is Eddie Huang. I was born in America, my ancestors are from China, and my parents were born in Taiwan. I sell Taiwanese guo bao for full fucking price.”
The audience, who had just heard from a Black Southern woman preacher that “these are dark and dismal times” for immigrants and refugees as Trump prepares to take office, roared in approval at Huang’s words. He went on to make the point that he refused to be “discounted” as an American because he’s not white.
This conference was about much more important things than my little blog, of course, but his words were perfectly timed for me personally, since my immigrant daughter and I had just opened an online Sichuan specialty food shop one week prior. Our prices were a little high, and I knew it. And within a week, I had lowered them slightly. But only slightly. Because along with the fact that it’s not cheap to source, store and subsidize the shipping of products, I am not willing to discount premium ingredients and products just because they are Chinese and people expect Chinese food to be cheap.
You might argue that we can get away with selling Chinese food at its rightful price because I’m white, and that could be true. But I would argue that it is often Chinese merchants, cooks and consumers themselves who undervalue and undersell their cuisine. Though that fortunately is beginning to change, with acclaimed Chinese restaurants—many of them Sichuan—popping up all around the country and charging prices that match the quality of their food.
This NPR story, for example, highlights the other MáLà Project (who apparently loved our name) and other new-wave Chinese restaurants in NYC and puts them into context by quoting a stellar recent book:
“In his book The Ethnic Restaurateur, the food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray writes that economic and cultural reasons, largely revolving around class and race, play a crucial role in determining why certain cuisines are ranked higher in what he calls the ‘hierarchy of taste.’ In other words, the richer the immigrants from a country, or the more economically developed the country, the more prestigious—and expensive—the cuisine.”
Ray also tells the author, Esther Wang, that as China and its immigrants grow increasingly wealthy “… 20 years from now, the perception of Chinese cuisine in America will have undergone a shift, much like Japanese cuisine.”
Back at the immigration conference, Huang said during the Q&A that he doesn’t think it’s “appropriation” if non-Chinese people cook Chinese food, as long as they respect it and the culture it comes from. “Every time you [or anyone] stand at the stove, you’re standing on the shoulders of giants”—the cooks who came before you.
Then Huang paid homage to the cook that came before him, his mom. He remembered how she taught him to make a simple shrimp and bean stir-fry when he was young:
“She taught me how important and how hard it was to make a dish right…. She would devein the shrimp, dry them individually… roll each one in cornstarch… stir-fry them, remove the shrimp, stir-fry the scallions, remove the scallions, stir-fry the beans, then bring them all back together with just the right amount of salt and white pepper…. When I saw how much work went into doing something right, I gained a lot of respect for it, and then I was proud of my culture. I was proud of who I was, and I was proud of my family, because this isn’t easy. This is something to be proud of.”
That’s how I want Fong Chong to feel about her food and her culture. (Even though just last week her math teacher—in a majority-immigrant high school—quoting a Korean student actually uttered the words “dirty Chinese eat dogs.”)
The very first stir-fry I ever made for my new daughter, almost six years ago, was this simple pork and bell pepper dish with scallions. She loved it so much, it was also the first dish she was ever willing to help me with and learn to cook. I don’t know why I chose this dish as my first attempt at making her real Chinese food. It’s not even spicy! Probably because it’s homey, and comforting and simple. It’s classic home-cooking flavored by little more than fermented wheat paste (tian mian jiang). Though of course I did spice it up just a bit by adding a little fermented chili bean paste (Pixian douban jiang).
But even though it’s simple, it’s important to make it right.
- 1 pound lean pork (such as boneless loin chops)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 green bell peppers
- 6-7 scallions
- 2 tablespoons sweet wheat paste (tian mian jiang)
- 1 tablespoon Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- Freeze pork chops until somewhat stiff, which makes it much easier to slice them into thin strips, about ⅛-inch thick. Mix with 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and salt and leave to marinate. Cut bell peppers and scallions into thin strips similar in size to the pork, about 3 inches long. If the scallions are fat, also cut them in half vertically.
- Heat a wok over high flame until wisps of heat start to rise and add 2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil. When the oil is hot, add bell pepper and scallion strips and stir-fry until they are starting to soften. Remove them and hold in reserve.
- Return the wok to high heat and add 2 tablespoons oil. When oil is hot, spread pork around the wok in one layer and let it sear on one side. Flip the pork over and let it sear on the other side. Stir-fry the pork strips until they are lightly browned.
- Push the pork to the sides of the wok. There should be a few tablespoons of juice from the pork. Add the sweet wheat paste and chili bean paste to the liquid in the center of the wok and let it cook briefly. Add ½ cup water, 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine and the soy sauce and mix well with the meat. Add back the vegetables and stir-fry everything together until it is hot and the flavors have melded.