new york: mission chinese (slideshow), the “authentic” experience and a footnote on “oriental”
- Beijing Vinegar Peanuts – smoked garlic, anise, rock sugar
- Chili Pickled Long Beans in Red Oil – fermented radish, bonito, sesame seeds
- Married Couple’s Beef – sliced beef tongue, heart, tripe, numbing chili, peanuts, cilantro
- Mouthwatering Chicken – dried spice chicken hears, vegetable noodles, Sichuan peppercorn
- Tofu poached in Soymilk – broad bean paste, soy beans, sesame leaves
- Chilled Buckwheat Dan Dan Noodles – peanuts, preserved mustard stems, pea leaves, yuba, chili oil
- Stir Fried Pork Jowl and Radishes – fermented black bean, sesame leaves, mint
- Thrice Cooked Bacon - Shanghainese rice cakes, tofu skin, bitter melon, chili oil
- Kung Pao Pastami - peanuts, celery, potato, explosive chili
- Chongqing Chicken Wings – explosive chili, crispy beef tripe
**There is very little I can add to what has already been said about the food at Mission Chinese.
***warning, the text below has very little to do with the food above; there may be some use of foul language
Before going to Mission Chinese, I was man-crushing hard on Danny Bowien, the Korean born, Oklahoma-raised chef of Mission Chinese Food (MCF) - and after, I still am. It’s not just his long blonde hair or short shorts, but more so his cooking vibe - just cooking “delicious” Chinese food. With food like “thice cooked bacon” and “kung pao pastrami” the food at MCF is grounded in classic Chinese cuisine with accents of both Western flavor and technique.
Interestingly, at the MCF presentation (Bowien and Anthony Myint) at the MAD 2012 Symposium, they spoke about not making “authentic” Chinese food, but providing an “authentic” experience. Authenticity, one of the food enthusiast’s favorite topics (whether you believe it exists or not) seems to matter. Perhaps, Jonathan Gold while on the Food is the New Rock podcast said it best when he said, ”I don’t believe in authenticity, so it doesn’t matter. That being said I care about authenticity an astonishing amount.”
I personally do believe in authenticity. But what it means, I’m not so certain. Food certainly must grow – must evolve; food traditions do not exist in a vacuum. So strict definitions of authentic really don’t mean very much. It is a word which I think a lot of people use (including myself) in various contexts to convey very different meanings. In a lot of ways, it may be easier to label something inauthentic than to agree something is in fact authentic.
MCF actually describes their food as “Americanized Oriental food”¹. Bowien (and Myint) were trying to convey a certain nostalgia for a kind of Chinese/Asian food which he experience in Oklahoma. And while I have no such nostalgia, I understand what they mean by authentic experience. Zach Brooks (of Midtown Lunch & Food is the New Rock) said in that same episode with Jonathan Gold, that his idea of authenticity is a chef “making something they want to make for themselves” and that it has to do with their motivation –cooking something they want to eat rather than pandering to a customer. This idea was quickly dismissed by Gold as he cited the kiwi vinaigrette as an example of a chef idea gone awry; but I wonder if Brooks was onto something.
Is there something about the seriousness with which a chef takes the food? Can that dedication and belief in what he’s producing be tasted in the end result? Are authenticity and “the love” –which so many TV talking heads like to put in their food– one in the same?
I can say that the food at MCF is legit. It may be just some version of “tasty Chinese food”, but you can taste the seriousness with which it was made. For all those chefs pushing themselves outside of their comfort zone, learning and moving the craft forward – keep doing it, because it does show in the food.
Mission Chinese Food: NY
154 Orchard St
New York, NY 10002
¹As a semi-reformed angry Asian man, I feel like it’s worth discussing the use of “oriental”. Truthfully, I have a hard time stirring any real outrage because for the most part I think it works with the food (at the end of the day, it’s all about the food – and the food is fucking delicious). Moreover, oriental is not as fundamentally offensive as some other words that have been in use of late (i.e. this is not ESPN “mistaken” or rather misguided use of the phrase “chink in the armor” in a story about Jeremy Lin). The issue with the word ’oriental’ and ’Orientalism’ started more as an academic critique to be used in the discourse of social/political science or literature. It is about a set of false assumptions and Euro-centric view in a post-colonial world (I will refrain from inserting an Edward Said quote). Perhaps more importantly, it is also associated with a time in history when Asians were treated as subordinate and all the stereotypes which go with it.
MCF chose this word with purpose and much self-awareness; in their cookbook Mission Street Food, Karen Leibowitz dedicates a section to the notion of Orientalism. To be clear this is not being used ironically or reclaiming the word for empowerment (like some African-Americans may purport with the use of the N-word or feminists with the C-word). Bowien and Myint have said this is about nostalgia. Strangely, all of the Americanize Chinese food I’ve eaten has been shit. Why would I want to romanticize that? Some things just shouldn’t be romanticized. War, poverty, discrimination, and
bad Chinese food bad food– no nostalgia.
There actually is an accepted use of the word; objects (not people, it’s use is banned in some State documents ) can be called oriental (i.e. oriental rugs, etc). Does this fall under the accepted use? May be. Do I worry about its use reenforcing some provincial notion that using the term is acceptable for other situations? May be. But without getting too much into the subtleties of racial politics and language (see SNL cold open), this just isn’t that bad; it’s not good either. But I can live with it (just don’t expect me to kowtow to the white man).