Chinese-American Food in a Museum And on a Plate

Food is everywhere in Chinatown. Roasted ducks with glistening skins hang in restaurant windows to lure customers. Produce stands offer apples and oranges but also durian fruit and bok choi. Lobsters and crabs prowl in aquariums and gutted fish are arrayed for easy purchase in seafood shops as employees wash down the tile floors. Shoppers who need a break from the crowded streets can grab a pastry at a bakery or get some dumplings at a dim sum joint.

The Museum of Chinese in America explores this culture of food in its new exhibition "Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America," up through March 26 at MOCA, which is on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan. The show features 33 cooks. There are classically trained cooks like Anita Lo, who opened Annisa in Greenwich Village in 2000; hipster cooks such as Danny Bowien, who owns the Mission Chinese Food restaurants in San Francisco and New York; home cooks such as George Chew, an immigration judge in Manhattan also known for his spare ribs; and entrepreneurs such as Philip Chiang, co-founder of P.F. Chang's China Bistro, and his mother Cecilia Chiang, who founded and managed the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco, one of the country's first ambitious Chinese restaurants. They talk about their approaches to food and the role it plays in their lives in a 90-minute film that's shown continuously in the main room of the exhibition.

As visitors watch the movie, they can walk around a long table and read the biographies of the chefs, which include maps showing their journeys. Lo grew up in Birmingham, Mich., went to Columbia University in New York and cooked at restaurants there and in Paris. Born to an aristocratic family in Shanghai, Cecilia Chiang fled to Tokyo when the Communists took over China and came to San Francisco in 1960. Bowien was born in South Korea, grew up in Moore, Okla., moved to New York and then to San Francisco. Each chef cooks in a way that fuses her heritage and her personal journey.

The table is set with 33 places and adorned with sculptures that represent the extraordinary range of Chinese food, from the cuisine of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Islamic ethnic group concentrated in northwest China, to that of Shanghai. Sculptures by Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang, both of whom were born in China and live in New York, represent these influences. The U.S. gets red, white and blue takeout boxes that share a lazy susan with sculptures of Taiwan and Chinese-Latin American fusion.

MOCA asked each chef to contribute an an object to the show. There are restaurant plates and noodle knives, menus and chef's white coats, wooden molds for mooncakes made in Manhattan and a metal mold for mian wo, a deep-fried snack from Wuhan in the Hubei province in central China that's made from soy milk, rice milk, flour, sesame and scallion. Peter Chang brought the mold with him when he came to cook at the Chinese Embassy in Washington; he now owns seven restaurant in Virginia.

After seeing the exhibition visitors will want to eat after seeing it, and there are a range of possible destinations -- Annisa; Mission Chinese; Shun Lee Palace in Midtown, whose owner Michael Tong is featured in the show; or Red Egg, a dim sum restaurant across the street from MOCA. To experience how one young chef is interpreting Chinese-American food, head ten blocks east on Grand Street, hook a right on Orchard, and go to Fung Tu. Chef Jonathan Wu started cooking seriously as a student at the University of Chicago. He landed a job at Per Se, the Michelin three-star restaurant in the Time Warner Center, before spending time in Italy and then opening Fung Tu with Wilson Tang, who also runs Nom Wah Tea Parlor, his family's restaurant on Doyers Street in the heart of New York's Chinatown.

Tofu is a basic Chinese food made from soy milk to which Wu pays homage with a fava bean curd that he pairs with pickled mustard greens and bacon and finishes with chili oil. Instead of chilaquiles, a Mexican dish of fried tortillas, salsa and eggs, Wu offers "Chinaquiles" - steamed eggs with pork sauce and Yuca chips. Wu nods to the Jewish heritage of the Lower East Side with a fried rice prepared with smoked bluefish.

"Bluefish is often considered a trash fish because of it's high fat content, but it smokes and grills well," Wu says. "The dish is about taking something humble and turning it into something special."

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