Restaurateur and celebrity chef Eddie Huang is calling out the racism surrounding the stigmas tied to Chinese takeout restaurants.
Huang, who, along with television personality Jeannie Mai, is demanding Merriam-Webster remove the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” as part of a campaign for Ajinomoto MSG. The outdated phrase refers to symptoms such as headaches and dizziness that the dictionary claims “affect susceptible persons eating food and especially Chinese food heavily seasoned with monosodium glutamate.”
While these physical effects of MSG have long been debunked, the definition, along with the negative stereotypes attached to Chinese takeout, continue to persist. Part of the problem, Huang says, is that many Americans do not accept Chinese food unless it’s marketed in a western-friendly way.
“I think that the change in people’s perceptions and their ‘open-mindedness’ towards Chinese food is only happening when it’s packaged and presented to Americans in a way they like,” Huang told NBC News.
Many credit a letter to the editor published in the 1968 New England Journal of Medicine, also entitled “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” with introducing the term and tying the acid to the supposed symptoms it’s associated with today.
MSG, which is a naturally occurring amino acid that’s present in our bodies, has long been on the Food and Drug Administration’s list of foods that are “generally recognized as safe,” and significant research, including a study published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal showed that “rigorous and realistic scientific evidence linking the syndrome to MSG could not be found.” What’s more, foods that aren’t typically found in Chinese cooking like parmesan cheese and even vegetables like tomatoes contain MSG. Chick-fil-A and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen both use the ingredient in their chicken sandwiches, which have amassed somewhat of a cult following.
However, Chinese restaurants specifically continue to be pinned with stereotypes of having unsafe or questionable, symptom-causing food. Some even utilized the trope to tout an alternative “clean” Chinese food as superior. Now-defunct restaurant Lucky Lee’s, which was owned by white wellness influencer Arielle Haspel, shared a social media post playing off of the stereotypes just ahead of its opening in April.
“We heard you’re obsessed with lo mein but rarely eat it. You said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day? Well, wait until you slurp up our HIGH lo mein. Not too oily. Or salty,” one of the restaurant’s earliest social media posts, which has since been deleted, read.
Emily Brewster, senior editor at Merriam-Webster, said that there’s been no record of anyone previously contacting the dictionary about the term, however they will “be reviewing this particular entry and will revise it according to the evidence of the term in use.”
“The ongoing evolution of language means that we are in a constant state of revision. Keeping up with it is a challenge, so we are always grateful to readers for pointing us to vocabulary that is in need of review,” she said. “As usages change, our entries change to reflect those shifts. Our aim is always to provide accurate information about what words mean, which includes providing information about whether a use is offensive or dated.”
Huang has been vocal about how Chinese fast food has been perceived as inferior to other cuisines in the United States. He explained that attitudes toward takeout joints haven’t shifted much in part because the immigrant families behind them don’t necessarily have the means to fight back.
Citing New York City’s Mission Chinese Food, an upscale Chinese restaurant often described as “stylish” or “trendy,” Huang detailed the difference between how mainstream millennial taste buds may interpret the buzzy establishment versus the typical mom-and-pop, immigrant-owned, takeout store.
“Because it’s cool and it’s a fashion crowd, then nobody’s going in there being like, ‘I don’t want MSG because it’s a faux pas. But they have no qualms going to the local Chinese takeout, to people who don’t speak English, that don’t have a publicist, and have no clout in their neighborhood and being like, ‘no MSG, that place sucks,’” he said. “It’s more of a class thing than anything.”
Research shows that attitudes toward immigrants can quite literally influence the value people are willing to place on their cuisine. Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University, told Voice of America that there’s an “inverse relationship between migration of poor people from any region in the world and our respect for their culture and cuisine.”
“If you take price as a surrogate for prestige … there are some cuisines we are willing to pay for and some we are not willing to pay for, and that is related partly, I think, to how we evaluate those national cultures and their people,” he told the outlet.
Huang observed that while the approval of high-profile white celebrities is no measure of how good a restaurant’s food truly is, oftentimes it’s the only way nonethnic diners are persuaded to try Chinese or other immigrant establishments. The restaurateur said that diners may “want your food and your flavor,” but they’re not searching for an experience that feels outside of what they’re already familiar with.
“It matters to nonethnic diners,” he said. “If they see Anna Wintour there, they see Pete Wells, they're gonna go because it's been co-signed. It's like it's okay to go. And that's always bothered me because I'm a person who will go discover food on my own.”
Altering age-old perceptions is no easy feat, but Huang feels it’s possible and it starts with the newer generations of Chinese Americans who have a good grasp on their own identities.
“In my opinion, I don't think change culturally or with identity happens from the top down on a government level. I think it really happens on a street level. I think it has to happen with the individual,” he said. “I really do think it's a lot of first or second or third generation Chinese people who realize the answer isn't to assimilate, or to bow to Western standards or ideas of who we are."