Two museums in New York City are exploring the impact of Chinese food on America’s collective culinary culture, as well as its influence on the generations of Chinese Americans who have introduced, developed and served it up since the mid-19th century.
In Manhattan’s Chinatown, the Museum of Chinese in America's exhibition “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” delves into the stories of 33 chefs and 18 regional Chinese cuisines to weave a tapestry of the Chinese-American experience. The exhibit also aims to offer a snapshot of the complexities of life in the United States for people of Chinese origin.
“Food is a great entryway into understanding another culture,” Audra Ang, author and co-curator of “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy," told NBC News. “People love to eat, people have to eat to live…what better way to understand [the culture] through Chinese food?”
Across the river in Brooklyn, the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) has taken on a specific permutation of Chinese food. The museum’s current exhibition, “CHOW,” teaches visitors about the origins of Chinese-American food, and how this distinct cuisine has evolved over the years.
“Every group that’s come from China has left their fingerprint on the cuisine…it’s kind of this collective creation,” Peter Kim, executive director of MOFAD, told NBC News.
While the exhibition places high value on self-referential fun — the entryway is a giant curtain made of Chinese takeout containers — the darker context behind the introduction of Chinese-American food is not glossed over.
“At the time when Chinese-American restaurants got their start, anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. was at a fever pitch,” Kim said. “The Chinese Americans who were left behind didn’t have very many opportunities, so they turned to opening businesses, among which were restaurants.”
While Chinese Americans faced tremendous challenges, and still do today, Kim also points out the indelible impact of Chinese Americans on American culture more broadly.
“Even when they’re being treated very poorly, they form an incredibly important part of who we are as a country," he said.