“It’s so cheap and fake”
“It’s not authentic”
“It’s a disgrace to real Chinese food”
Thus sound the cries of righteous indignation from the Chinese community whenever the subject of take-out comes up. It’s as if the very existence of a unique cuisine that emphasizes quick service and in-your-face flavors is an affront to the Chinese cooking from which it originated. It is true that the takeout variety modifies many elements vital to traditional Chinese cooking. It is true that many takeouts overload on the oil and sodium to an unhealthy degree. However, Chinese takeout offers diners a cheap and low-risk opportunity to experience an unfamiliar culture for themselves, complete with weirdly-folded paper decorations and hilarious translations, and acquires value far beyond fried pork belly and crunchy pastries. Chinese takeout may not find true value in the quality of its food, but in its ability to bridge gaps between cultures through a common interest: eating.
An overly literal translation of a spicy dish from Szechuan province
For some of us, the best way to learn about a foreign culture is to buy a plane ticket and book a tour group. However, most people would have to settle for an internet search or an encyclopedia. But what happens when reading about it just isn’t enough? What if we hunger for more than the words printed on a page or the images frozen on our screens? That where takeout comes in – the squiggly noodles, tangy pork slices and the stories connected to them open up a portal to a rich and ancient civilization. Food is an integral part of any culture, and it is especially big in Chinese tradition. For example, dumplings are served during the Chinese New Year to ensure prosperity and good luck. Mooncakes eaten during the Mid-Autumn festival symbolize reunion, as all family members and friends live under the same moon, even if they are across the world from each other. Chinese food brings Chinese culture to your taste buds, bursting with vibrant flavors and vivid colors.
Now, I know some of you are thinking: takeout isn’t even in actual Chinese culture, is it? It’s true that you won’t find Panda Express or Golden Dragon Chinese Food in Beijing, but you will find it in New York City or San Francisco. Thing is, there’s a whole new culture that has developed in the Chinese population in the United States and takeout has been a huge part of it. It is rooted in the old memories brought over from China, but infused with energy and optimism of the hordes of Chinese who immigrated to America to in search of new opportunities. It is cosmopolitan, adaptable, and always avid for a profit. Takeout is the perfect example example – it is cheap and easy to make with ingredients common in the United States; its flavors are amplified to attract curious Americans accustomed to larg amounts of sodium; and last of all, it is quick and convenient for people eager to eat lunch and get on with their jobs. Though it is an integral part of Chinese-American culture, takeout has had an even greater role in modulating the American culture in which it developed.
There have been multiple generations of Chinese-Americans who grew up eating sweet and sour pork and chow fun. More significantly, shared experiences with Chinese takeout has allowed us to connect with the generations of Americans who also grew up eating the same meals packaged in the iconic white disposable boxes. I remember moving to a new school district in 2009. Being one of the few Chinese kids, some of my new classmates asked me to take them to the local Chinese takeout, as they were German Jews and were afraid they would accidentally order a dish with pork in it. Long story short, we found out the cook attended the same church as I did and my newfound friends and I consumed plate after plate of chicken dumplings, chicken friend rice, and spicy fried chicken, all on the house. Eight years later, I still find myself giving out recommendations to friends at BC who want to order out from New Hong Kong, or Jojo Taipei. The fact that many Chinese take-out dishes were created in the United States for American palates does not make them inferior to culinary creations from China. They were simply made for a different audience and for a different purpose.
Skip NHK and order from Jojo Taipei
Love it or hate it, Chinese takeout is here to stay. Though its niche of “exotic Asian food” has mostly been replaced by Japanese raw bars and Korean fusion gastropubs, Chinese food has staked out its own territory in American society. Comfortable, accessible, and cheap, Chinese takeout is reliable and affordable for the tired construction worker and the penniless college student. I will always love it, no matter how inauthentic or blasphemous it is to traditional Chinese cooking. In return, I hope Irish people don’t get mad at me when I use ground beef instead of lamb in my shepherd’s pie.