Friday, June 15, 2007

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I want to believe the Zagats -- I really do

Nina and Tim Zagat have an op-ed in today's New York Tmes about why Chinese food in the United States is substandard. I should sympathize with their argument:

Twenty years ago, American perceptions of Asian food could be summed up in one word: “Chinese.” Since then, we have developed appetites for Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese fare. Yet while the quality of the restaurants that serve these cuisines, particularly Japanese, has soared in America, Chinese restaurants have stalled. For American diners, the Chinese restaurant experience is the same tired routine — unimaginative dishes served amid dated, pseudo-imperial décor — that we’ve known for years....

There is a historic explanation for the abysmal state of Chinese cuisine in the United States. Without access to key ingredients from their homeland, Chinese immigrants working on the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s improvised dishes like chow mein and chop suey that nobody back in their native land would have recognized. To please the naïve palates of 19th-century Americans, immigrant chefs used sweet, rich sauces to coat the food — a radical departure from the spicy, chili-based dishes served back home.

But today, getting ingredients is no longer an issue. Instead, the principal obstacle to improving Chinese fare here is the difficulty of getting visas for skilled workers since 9/11. Michael Tong, head of the Shun Lee restaurant group in New York, has said that opening a major Chinese restaurant in America is next to impossible because it can take years to get a team of chefs from China. Chinese restaurateur Alan Yau planned to open his first New York City restaurant last year but was derailed because he was unable to get visas for his chefs.

If Henry Kissinger could practice “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” perhaps Condoleezza Rice could try her hand at “dumpling diplomacy”? China and the United States should work together on a culinary visa program that makes it easier for Chinese chefs to come here.

Hmm.... reducing barriers to exchange, increasing globalization of cuisine... I should be on this proposal like white on rice.

Except that the Zagats' policy solution does not explain their policy conundrum. Immigration barriers should have a roughly equal effect on all Pacific Rim cuisines, not just China's. Why would it be the case that Chinese cuisine in the U.S. is particularly disadvantaged by vsa restrictions?

Three possibilities:

1) Because China has a larger internal market, there is more innovation and competition at home, leading to more frequent innovations. Without a reliable transmission mechanism (i.e., migrating chefs), Chinese cuisine in China will improve at a faster rate than in the U.S.A.

2) Law of averages. There are 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but only 9,000 Japanese restaurants. If quality is a function of quantity, then the average Chinese restaurant will simply be of poorer quality than other cuisines.

3) Innovation in a different direction. As this Washington Post story from last year suggests, American restaurants tend to innovate by using new cooking styles to present more traditional foods. Indeed, as the Zagats observe, this tendency is strongest in cuisines that have been here for a while -- like Chinese. This roils devotees of "pure" national cuisine, but deights everyone else.

I'm willing to endorse more culinary trade as a matter of principle, but I'd still like a good explanation for this conundrum.

Take it away, Tyler Cowen!

posted by Dan on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM


Path dependencies.

Dating back to the 19th century, Americans have developed an expectation of what Chinese food tastes like.

Newer arrivals (e.g., Thai, Vietnamese) are not bound by these priors and are thus freer in what they can succesfully market.

posted by: Jody on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

As someone who spends a fair portion of their time eating "authentic" Chinese cuisine, I'd suggest a few factors are at play.

1.) Jody is correct that Americans have a definite perspective on what Chinese food is - a perspective that is necessarily incomplete if not always inaccurate (fried rice is more common in Chinese homes than you might think). And contrary to the Zagats' article, most people seem quite pleased with the heavily breaded, fried, and overly sweet options available to them.

2.) The non-spicy Chinese cuisines have an earthy flavor that doesn't mesh well with many Americans' palettes. The foods are indeed flavorful, but not as sharp or piquant as many of the dishes we tend to favor.

3.) The broader range of traditional Chinese food is far more exotic than most Americans are likely prepared for. Considering the number of people that refuse to eat sushi, I can only imagine their reaction upon seeing chicken foot or bird's nest soup (made with bird saliva), duck tongue, or live drunken shrimp. In fact, the more elegant northern Chinese restaurants make a fetish out of animals that most Americans would blanch upon seeing prepared - snakes, for example.

4.) It also doesn't cater to our desire to see food removed as far as possible from its animal context - fish are served and devoured whole (including the eyes), chicken is bone-in and mixed meat, and so on. Foodies, of course, wouldn't mind - but restaurants can't survive appealing only to connoisseurs.

Many of these factors aren't really in play when dealing with other far eastern foods. Thai, Vietnamese, and other such foods served here are rich in flavors and sauces that are often more appealing to American tastes; they are served in dishes and on skewers that de-emphasize their origins, and often what is presented is tailored to American tastes as well. Finally, as Jody pointed out, they don't suffer from pre-existing expectations.

posted by: Geoff on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

I don't believe it is American expectations. In the late '70's or so, the hot and spicy Szechwan style cooking was introduced. Since then there has been Hunan and Mandarin.
The Internet has loads of recipes for someone wanting to implement change.

posted by: enb on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

I agree that US demand (plus path dependency, per Jody) probably explains the prevalence of crap Chinese food more than the Zagats would like to think. They live in a fairly rarefied New York foodie world that lives for the latest cuisine or trendy new exotic ingredient, but most Americans want their deep-fried sweet sour crap. And even if visas were granted more liberally to chefs (an initiative that I would support in a heartbeat), those chefs would probably not make it out into Middle America.

Restaurants are a risky business to begin with and a majority of them fail. Most Americans think of Chinese food as "takeout" and what they are willing to pay for it barely covers the cost of migrant labour in restaurants. Why should a restaurant-owner take a risk and bring in authentic and more sophisticated ingredients and dishes that will cost more and probably not be popular?

posted by: SP on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Maybe it is harder to get visas for "sensitive countries", even for chefs? I know China is on the sensitive list. Are other Asian countries?

posted by: Anon on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

For what it's worth, I've noticed that restaurants where I live that feature the cuisines of other Asian countries often have many Chinese workers. I don't understand the restaurant business well enough to say what that means.

However, one obvious fact about Asian cooking has business implications for Asian restaurants: traditionally, Chinese and other Asian cuisines are not served with wine. By "traditionally," I mean as they have developed over the centuries in their countries of origin, where wine was rare until very recently. At the top of the market, restaurants in this country use wine as well as food as a profit center. You could still do this with Chinese (or other Asian) cuisine -- many Chinese dishes go very nicely with a fine wine -- but anyone trying to would be developing his market pretty much from scratch. This one factor limiting Chinese restaurants to the lower end of the market.

posted by: Zathras on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Please tell how you collect bird saliva.

posted by: MH on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Re. Geoff's #3 - Heck, I've eaten chicken feet and duck tongue; neither was worth the effort.

Getting people to try something isn't the sole issue; they have to like it, too.

(The chicken feet were basically just chicken-flavoured fat and gristle; the duck tongues (entire jaws, actually) - while tasty - just didn't have enough meat to be worth eating.)

And #4; every Thai place around here (Oregon, so lots of them) serves whole fried fish, as do some of the "more authentic" Chinese places.

Maybe part of it is that so many "Chinese" restaurants are really "Chinese-American"; find a city with lots of Chinese people, and a restaurant where the menu is more in Chinese than English, and you've got a much better chance of finding things like that.

(Both the duck jaws and the whole fish are, by the way, at Legin, on the eastern side of Portland, OR. Heartily recommended for dim sum or dinner. Chicken feet available at nearly any dim sum joint on the I-5 corridor, and probably anywhere else there's dim sum.

Which brings me back again to the regional factor - China's a lot closer to the West Coast than the East, and new immigrants might well want to stay where there's an existing Chinese community.)

posted by: Sigivald on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

I'm from Northern California, where the Chinese food tends to be, if not entirely authentic, fresh, delicious, and varied. By comparison the Zagats' hometown New York City has nasty Chinese food, and since New Yorkers still eat the stuff, it seems there's little incentive for local restaurants to scale up.

posted by: Jackmormon on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

"Please tell how you collect bird saliva."

Birds use their salivas to make the bird nests. You boil the nest in water to make the bird nest soup, the prize ingredient being the bird saliva which provides the flavor.

posted by: Dave on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Innovation is easier in newer market segments. But you can make more money by reforming an old one, if you can.

posted by: Jon Kay on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

You don't have to import a Chinaman to cook chinese food. Just buy the recipes and hire some local guy who can follow them. To make it easy just buy the recipes that come with pictures.

posted by: ken on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

You don't have to import a Chinaman to cook chinese food. Just buy the recipes and hire some local guy who can follow them. To make it easy just buy the recipes that come with pictures.

posted by: ken on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

For what it's worth, I've noticed that restaurants where I live that feature the cuisines of other Asian countries often have many Chinese workers. I don't understand the restaurant business well enough to say what that means.

Indeed, there are many more Chinese in this countries than those of other Asian descent. Japanese in particular are scarce in population here compared to the number of restaurants; hence you see lots of Chinese and Koreans working in and even running and owning Japanese restaurants.

Note that even American sushi is not completely traditional Japanese sushi. Avocado, for example, is extremely rare in sushi in Japan, not to mention such things as smoked salmon with cream cheese rolls or some of the more exotic "everything" rolls. By contrast, sushi rolls that are common in Japan, like shiitake, pickled plum with shiso leaf, pickled radish, or Japanese yam are fairly rare in the US. And teppanyaki steak ("Japanese steakhouse" or "hibachi" cooking) was invented in Japan, but postwar and has always been much more a food for non-Japanese.

Even given all that, I do think that traditional Chinese food, which I enjoy, is odder to the American palate than traditional Japanese food. I have a bit of an advantage because of my Southern background; I'll glad eat all sorts of offal and giblets.

posted by: John Thacker on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Until recently atleast, at chinese restaurants
throughout NYC you could see a variancein the cuisine.Now its almost monolithic. You could one time count on a good chef at your local chinese restaurants.
The problem is that these restaurants offer the same cuisine, andmost especially the same suppliers,it was only a matter of time before someone consoldated the chinese provisions industry and i think that is an important reason for the sameness of the food.
As for the guy saying that it was a lack of new imigrant talent that was behind this problem,
all have to say is where in NYC do you live, Hart island?( for those who do't know thats NYC's potters field). I have never beenin a chinese restaurant in my life where the wait and cooking staff weren't BOTH recent immigrants

posted by: Tom Mcguire on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

I agree that the problem is not a lack of Chinese chefs. Here in LA, the large chinese neighborhoods are filled with authentic chinese restaurants that serve many regional varieties (and very cheap). But outside of these neighborhoods that cater to their local chinese communities, the chinese restaurants serve the more common "american-chinese" food, which often bears little resemblence to anything you might find in china or taiwan. I know the owner of one of these american-chinese restaurants in west LA and once asked her why she doesn't serve authentic food. She is from taiwan and is a very good cook of taiwan-style chinese food, yet doesn't serve it in her restaurant. Her answer was that americans don't want to eat it.

Why this would be the case, I'm not so sure. There are so many chinese dishes to choose from, and I think a lot are fairly palatable to western tastes (well at least my uninitiated friends pretend they like them). For lack of a better answer, maybe the path dependence argument works.

posted by: caesar on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

On a different point than has been addressed so far, one of the things that surprised me most on my recent trip to Beijing, which was my first to China, is that Chinese restaurants in China also have over-the-top decor. Indeed, if anything the typical Chinese restaurant in North America is a toned-down version of many restaurants in Beijing, which are covered with neon lights on the outside and full of garish colors on the inside.


posted by: Jeff Smith on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]


I was amused by that as well when I visited a few years ago. A friend from Beijing explained that the use of neon and over-the-top style was actually a way to signal quality; having such "amenities" indicated a certain upscale atmosphere, and so looking like a Las Vegas strip club was beneficial for business.

posted by: Geoff on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

Dan, have you tried Qingdao garden? On Mass ave, between Porter and Arlington. It's probably the best Chinese in the area.

Other relatively "authentic" places (at least according to my Chinese friend) are
Zoe's (Beacon street in Somerville, by the StarMarket),
Some unnamed place (at Magoun square, the intersection of Broadway and Medford St in somerville),
and Sichuan Gourmet (on Cochituate Road in Framingham, worth the drive).

Given that those four places are pretty darn good (especially Qingdao and Sichuan Gourmet), I'm not sure I believe that Chinese food in the area is substandard in general. But there are a TON of crappy places so you might be right.

posted by: mk on 06.15.07 at 09:06 AM [permalink]

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