For more than 100 years, American Chinese food has meant
beef and broccoli, General Tso’s chicken, lo mein…
But today, American Chinese food
is starting to look like this:
Boiling hot spots on every table,
Wagyu beef and duck tongues ready
to be dunked in spicy broth…
High-end Chinese restaurants like this
have been popping up in New York
over the past few years.
And the rest of America, and the world, isn’t far behind.
The era of General Tso’s chicken is coming to an end.
Chinese food all over the world is changing
because China is changing.
And it’s going to transform the way we think about all food.
I’m Josh Frank. This is Quartz.
Spicy Village is an unassuming noodle
shop in New York’s Chinatown.
It’s also a viral success, with lines
out the door almost every night.
And it’s cheap.
Spicy Village’s owner is emblematic of a wave of immigration
from south China to the US in the 80s and 90s.
For this generation, starting a restaurant
was just a way to get by.
Spicy Village may not look like much, but
its popularity as a foodie destination
demonstrates something that’s been happening
to all Chinese food in the US.
Chinese food has been rising in what food
scholars call “the hierarchy of taste.”
– I think in the next 20 years, if the Chinese economy
keeps growing at the rate at which it is growing,
we are beginning to see a lot more expensive,
exclusive Chinese restaurants,
that we are already seeing in places like the Village.
Krishnendu Ray is a professor of food studies.
And he describes it this way:
Basically, the more prosperous an immigrant community is,
the more respected their food and culture becomes.
So, sushi became popular alongside
Japan’s economic boom in the 80s.
Even Italian food was considered food for poor people,
until migration slowed down in the 1970s,
and the Italian American community
became more prosperous.
And we’re seeing that play out again;
this time, with Chinese immigrants.
– I would say the next 20 years is a slow
drying off of immigration of poor Chinese,
and a faster circulation of professional,
upper-middle class Chinese.
And the taste of the Chinese professional
classes are going to circulate much more extensively.
– What are we seeing now in New York, for
example, in the Chinese restaurant scene?
– What we are seeing is kind of twofold:
One is an upscaling of it,
and the second is a re-authenticating of it.
You have less of the General Tso’s chicken.
In some ways, a de-Americanization of
the palate, and an upscaling of that.
Spicy Village is an example of that authenticating.
It’s a place where Americans are willing to try flavors that
haven’t always been in the American Chinese food palate.
But it’s not exactly upscale.
Now, compare Spicy Village to this place:
Hunan Slurp, a rice noodle restaurant,
opened this year in the East Village, one
of New York’s trendiest neighborhoods.
It looks like it could be a design store
or a minimalist Japanese restaurant.
In other words, it doesn’t
look like a restaurant in Chinatown.
It looks like a restaurant in China.
Chao Wang is a 29-year-old artist, and first-time restaurateur,
who came to the US five years ago for graduate school.
For him, having a restaurant is more
about self-expression than survival.
Hunan Slurp is an example of how the most recent
waves of Chinese immigrants to the US
are opening a different kind of restaurant.
– Chinese restaurants are moving
from places that are on the fringes,
both metaphorically and geographically,
to the epicenter of American culture.
Jiayang Fan writes about China.
And she’s written about how American Chinese food is changing.
She says that as Chinese immigrants become
more comfortable asserting their identity,
American Chinese food is moving farther
away from the old takeout standards.
– The fact that Chinese restaurants don’t
cook down, don’t pander to Americans,
suggests to me a real growing openness
of American culture and American society.
All these restaurants are in New York City.
But what’s happening in them is key to understanding
how Chinese food could change American tastes.
Sort of like how Americans think of Italian food.
Most of us can probably explain the difference
between Italian pastas, like spaghetti and penne.
That’s going to happen with Chinese food, too.
Eventually, Chinese food is going to bring entirely new
ideas about taste and texture to American palates.
Like the texture of tendon in this
Taiwanese beef noodle soup.
There’s actually a word for that: QQ.
– QQ is exactly how it sounds, like
you’re eating something that’s…
It’s got give, it’s got a little bit of squish.
Imagine like a Tempur-Pedic pillow,
but with a bounce back.
There’s more textures than just tender or falling apart.
That’s not what all meat should be all the time.
As China’s cultural influence continues
to grow across the world,
it’s not just going to change the way
we think about Chinese food.
It’s going to change what we like to eat.
– In a sense, finally, we will learn how to eat
Chinese food like the Chinese upper middle classes.
– I mean, essentially, we’re seeing the world’s oldest
culture of foodies being translated to America.
– Absolutely. That’s a beautiful way of putting it.
I mean, we think foodies were invented in Brooklyn, right?
Foodies were in Kaifeng 500 years ago.
And they’re right about these kind of abstract
obscure notions of texture and taste.
And so we are going to rediscover that.
And New York City foodies are going to learn
that Chinese foodies are way ahead of us.