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.

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