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Lucky Lee's and the long history of 'excessive' Chinese food

Lucky Lee's "healthified" food and the discourse around it are only the latest in a long history of racialized discussion of Chinese-American food in the U.S.

Lucky Lee’s in New York City has been open for less than a week, but the restaurant — which serves what it calls “healthified” Chinese American food — has become the target of ridicule, with some calling the way the restaurant markets itself racist.

Food publication Eater reported this week that the restaurant used what it called “clean” recipes lacking gluten, refined sugar and other ingredients, and owner Arielle Haspel, who is not Chinese, told the publication that the restaurant avoided MSG because some “people claim to have certain reactions” to it, though she acknowledged that there is little scientific evidence to support the claims.

Critics on social media took issue with the way the restaurant marketed itself, saying it made it seem like all Chinese food was unhealthy and played on racist beliefs about the cuisine. Some also noted that the “Lee” in Lucky Lee’s referred to Haspel’s husband, who is not Chinese, and took issue at a restaurant attempting to capitalize on Chinese food while being owned by non-Chinese people.

Reached by email, Haspel declined to comment. In a social media post, the restaurant attempted to clarify its position.

“Some of your reactions made it clear to us that there are cultural sensitivities related to our Lucky Lee’s concept. We promise you to always listen and reflect accordingly,” the restaurant wrote in part on Instagram. “Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse and comes in many different flavors (usually delicious in our opinion) and health benefits."

The restaurant also noted that Haspel and her husband, who are both Jewish American, grew up eating Chinese food regularly.

“Similar to many other Jewish New Yorkers' diets, bagels, pastrami sandwiches and yes, American Chinese food, were big and very happy parts of their childhoods,” the post read. “We love American Chinese food and at Lucky Lee's it is our intention to celebrate it everyday and serve great food.”

Chinese food has historically dealt with suspicion attributed in part to perceived “excessive” cooking practices.

In a 2009 paper published in the research journal Social History of Medicine, historian Ian Mosby examined the “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” which was first formally described in the late 1960s and came about after eating at Chinese restaurants.

The effects attributed to the syndrome could range from mild headaches, numbness and general weakness among other symptoms and were popularly attributed to MSG.

But, Mosby found, much of the popular and scientific discourse around the syndrome and its cause was affected by popular racist beliefs about Chinese cooking as “exotic,” “bizarre” and “excessive.”

“Because Chinese food reflected certain longstanding fears and curiosities about an exoticised ‘orient’ in the American popular consciousness, the assumption that the use of MSG in Chinese food was somehow less safe than when used in other food products went largely unchallenged in most of the scientific and medical literature examining the condition,” Mosby wrote.

Writing in Eater, Los Angeles-based food journalist Esther Tseng connected Lucky Lee’s to other recent cases of non-Chinese chefs opening Chinese restaurants, including Andrew Zimmern, who apologized last year for the way he promoted his new restaurant, Lucky Cricket.

Those restaurateurs made similar mistakes, Tseng noted, including not understanding the historical context around Chinese food, making excuses, and failing to apologize sincerely.

Speaking to NBC News last year, Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University, aligned with Tseng’s arguments, noting that popular attitudes in the United States toward minority cuisines tended to shift from "disdain and disgust" to a search for authenticity.

“My argument isn’t that one can only cook the kind of food that aligns with his or her bloodlines or upbringing,” Tseng wrote earlier this week. “The point is — and always was — to respect the origins of the food, as well as the journey it took to get there and to do due diligence to educate oneself, listen, and learn about it."

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