This summer, some moviegoers may have experienced a moment of confusion when, just prior to their screening of Pixar’s “Incredibles 2,” they were first treated to “Bao,” a short animated film about a dumpling that came to life. Serving as a sort of Pixar-produced appetizer, “Bao” — which was directed by the 28-year-old Chinese Canadian Domee Shi — tells the story of a Chinese mother struggling with empty nest syndrome, who is surprised when one of the dumplings she makes comes to life.
As a Chinese student studying in America, my first reaction to “Bao” was to call my mom back in Shanghai and tell her how much I miss her. My second was excitement: What I saw on the screen struck a chord with me. Not just for how the short film explored themes like independence, separation, and estrangement, but also for the way it portrayed Chinese food — such an important part of my culture — to audiences more used to the sight of Americanized take-out oyster pails than authentic Chinese cuisine.
My first encounter with American-style Chinese food came back in 2015 — when I participated in an exchange program at a boarding school in Connecticut. To be frank, it was a disappointing experience. My school was in an isolated area, and the food at the only Chinese restaurant in town was far too greasy and Americanized for my tastes. But even over the past few years, I have noticed things start to change, as a new generation of Chinese and China-connected creators and entrepreneurs are redefining the way the world engages with and understands Chinese cuisine.
Food has long played a key role within Chinese immigrant communities — both as a link home and as a bridge connecting them to other groups. The first Chinese restaurants were opened in the United States around the time of the California Gold Rush (1848-1855). After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, however, the flow of Chinese immigrants slowed to a trickle, and restaurant operators instead focused on courting American customers with invented dishes such as chop suey.
It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century — when a new wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States — that American diners were able to experience authentic regional dishes such as Sichuan hot pot and Cantonese dim sum. Still, when many non-Chinese think of Chinese food, they continue to picture jam-packed Chinese takeout stands, where less than 10 dollars can buy a generous serving of General Tso’s chicken or Moo Shu pork paired with a fortune cookie for dessert — all dishes largely unheard of in China.
It is this misconception that the founders of Junzi — a Chinese restaurant based in Connecticut — set out to change. Founded by three China-born entrepreneurs who met while studying at Yale, the Junzi team emphasizes cultural transmission and community outreach. Rather than serve American-style dishes, Yong Zhao, Junzi's CEO, says he wants to “Chinese-ify American culture” through food. Junzi offers an authentic, inventive look at modern Chinese cuisine to Chinese and non-Chinese diners alike, through Chef's Table tasting events and other outreach activities.
I first became a fan of Junzi when I studied on the Yale campus in the summer of 2016. I enjoyed my trips there not only for the taste of home they afforded me, but for the atmosphere as well. The restaurant's chef, Lucas Sin, graduated from Yale in 2015 with a degree in cognitive science. But he also took classes in English and studied narratives while a student. Like “Bao” creator Shi, he views food as a medium for storytelling — a way to present Chinese culture to a broader audience.
The Junzi team aren’t the only recent Chinese arrivals trying to make Chinese food more accessible to modern consumers. In the mid-2000s, when Alex Zhou was a student at Kansas State University, he had to drive more than an hour to get chili sauce any time he felt hungry and homesick. Rather than solve this problem by following the well-worn path of opening up a restaurant, however, Zhou instead decided to embrace e-commerce and online sales. In 2013 he founded Yamibuy, which got its start delivering foods from China and other Asian countries to Zhou’s homesick compatriots. The idea has also proven popular with non-Chinese and non-Asians, who use Yamibuy to find products used by the stars of their favorite Asian dramas, which — thanks to the internet — can now be viewed worldwide. Today, Yamibuy is worth $100 million and has more than 650,000 registered customers, and Zhou is planning to expand to other English-speaking countries.
As Zhou learned, digital technology is proving to be a boon for those looking to make Chinese food global. Social media allows Chinese food and drink fads to cross the Pacific almost instantly, where once it might have taken years, if it happened at all. I remember being shocked at how, just six months after cheese teas — tea with a milky, cream cheese “cap” on top — went viral in China, I could easily order an identical drink in Boston’s Chinatown, and even pay for it with a Chinese app. This shift has benefitted modern China-based brands looking to gain a foothold overseas — including the tea chains Gong Cha and Chatime. Now Chinese brands can expand overseas without ever having to leave home.
Not all of these entrepreneurs are Chinese, either. Over the past few decades, China has welcomed increasing numbers of students and professionals, some of whom become so enamored with Chinese cuisine that they want to bring it back with them when they return home.
When Brian Goldberg, a New York native, studied in Beijing in 1998, he fell in love with jianbing, a popular breakfast staple that bears a vague resemblance to a crepe. In order to share his favorite snack with people back in the United States, in 2017 he opened Mr Bing in Manhattan. Run out of colorful American-style kiosks and food trucks, the cooks spread a thin film of dough across a griddle, add ingredients and condiments, flip, roll, cut, and serve — just like they do in Beijing.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to the United States, either. In the United Kingdom, Fuchsia Dunlop — a London-based author and foodie — hopes to convince her readers to look beyond China’s more well-known culinary traditions like Cantonese or Sichuanese food. Her 2017 book “Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China,” delves into the lesser-known world of Jiangnan cuisine. One of China’s four main culinary traditions, it originated in the vast, prosperous, and fertile Lower Yangtze region. Although the category also includes Shanghai cuisine, this style still remains sorely underrepresented on the global stage.
As a Chinese student living in America, I am thrilled to see non-Chinese diners embracing more authentic Chinese dishes. Food is a key part of any culture — how and what a person eats says a lot about them. When Chinese food first appeared in the U.S. centuries ago, it was forced to adapt to survive — losing much of its unique and traditional flavor in the process. But things are finally starting to change. Whereas earlier generations sought solely to make a living, today's entrepreneurs are more likely to view themselves as building bridges between cultures. I look forward to the day when Chinese and non-Chinese foodies alike will be able savor the heartwarming tastes of China, no matter where they are.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A man looks in the window of a restaurant in Chinatown, Washington, DC, Jan. 21, 2014. Brendan Smialowski/VCG)