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Essay: In search of the soul of Chinese food in the Upper Valley

  • Kristin Ng, a student at the Tuck School of Business, orders lunch from Chang Lin, left, at Oriental Wok Express in West Lebanon, N.H., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. Ng said she grew up in New Jersey eating food cooked by her Chinese grandmother. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jessica Li, of West Lebanon, opened Oriental Wok Express with her husband Chang Lin 13 years ago. Li runs the restaurant as her brother, Can Li, left, cooks and Steven Shi, right, prepares ingredients in West Lebanon, N.H., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chang Lin serves a potato dish to Chenxi Li, originally of Beijing, China, as Levan Mzhavia, originally of Georgia, looks on at Oriental Wok Express in West Lebanon, N.H., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. The Tuck School of Business students came to the restaurant after having tried some of their takeout food the night before. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Tuck School of Business students, from left, Levan Mzhavia, Chenxi Li, Kristin Ng and Matt Ginsberg, have lunch together at Oriental Wok Express in West Lebanon, N.H., Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019. The restaurant is located inside the Mobil gas station in on Bridge Street in West Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Tuesday, September 17, 2019

I was born and raised in China, and so when I came to live in the Upper Valley last year, I was eager to try the American version of my native cuisine. What I found in the area’s Chinese restaurants both appalled me, and invigorated me.

Let me start by saying that “Chinese food” in New England is quite different from what you’ll get in my home country. China, it goes without saying, is a big country, with a culinary tradition that’s as deep as it is broad. The American version simplifies it and heightens a few qualities. And some of it is just plain odd. The chefs here — whether they operate out of take-out storefronts or conventional restaurants — are fond of deep-fried wontons and of stir-frying sweet vegetables in way too much oil.

This recalls what you’ll get if you go to an “American” restaurant in China: greasy stew, weird cheeses, cloying cookies, as if cooks had decided to wipe away all the flavor and leave nothing but sugar, salt and fat. Shadows of oily meat and sickly sweetness ran through both of these ersatz versions of great, complex cuisines made somehow lesser in translation.

But then I decided to look deeper, and went on a quest to find the soul of Chinese food in the Upper Valley. Our area represents a small drop in a big ocean. According to “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant,” an exhibition at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, N.Y. (on view through Dec. 8), there are nearly 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. — three times the number of McDonalds. You can find them everywhere with similar names: Peking Star, Oriental Garden, Star of the Orient, Dragon Garden; a real game of mix-and-match. They offer similar menus, and similar fortune cookies — a Japanese invention that I’ve never seen in China. Most of them are run by staffers from the province of Fujian, which is as dependable a source for the global Chinese Food Industrial Complex as the Napa Valley is to wine or MIT is for scientists. All of these restaurants are working from a similar template, and we see it in clear focus in the Upper Valley.

Because I have a weakness for Sichuan flavors, I stopped in at the amusingly named Peking Tokyo in Lebanon. Their fish fillet with spicy chili sauce shows up under the menu column of “authentic Sichuan style” without, I regret to say, any of the Chinese version’s characteristic flavors and heat of peppercorns that both numb the tongue and make you want to eat more. In Sichuan, this dish is called boiled fish. The marinated fillet is boiled quickly in spicy oil broth. But here, the fillet was coated in flour and deep fried, which blasted most of the flavor out of the fish, leaving a taste of oily crust.

Matters were a little better with their boiled fish, which came in a sauce thickened with starch to increase the flavor and to help the sauce adhere to the fish. This method is common in Chinese cooking, notably in such dishes as mapo tofu. But it’s not something you see in all Chinese food.

I went to talk in my native Mandarin with the chef, who didn’t want me to use his name. He explained: “I think thickening is often more in line with the taste of Americans. In the stir fry dishes, thickening keeps a strong sweetness in the sauce, and in the soup, thickening brings it closer to what Americans expect in a soup.” As for the fish, he coats the fillet in flour, fries it, then adds soy sauce and sweet chili, which thoroughly Americanizes the flavor.

Aside from the food, I was struck by his personal story of building a new life in New Hampshire.

“This is the only cooking method I’ve known since I began to cook,” he said when I asked him why the method of cooking in our native China had been so changed. “Before I came to America, I didn’t know how to cook. I never went into the kitchen at home. But after I came here, I had to work in a Chinese restaurant to survive because I can’t speak English. Starting from odd jobs, I learned cooking at another restaurant, and then became a chef.” He curled his lips as he told me this, and I began to understand why American Chinese restaurants have similar flavors, repeated sauces and nearly identical ingredients. There is one proven way to do things in a U.S. Chinese restaurant, and experimentation is a bad strategy. What seems delicious in Sichuan province might pain the American palate. Why take that chance?

Though he is small and lean, at that moment, I saw his courage, and the mutual dream of all other migrants like him.

My next stop was the Oriental Wok Express, inside a Mobil gas station in West Lebanon. And there I received a surprise: a tall white woman with curly brown hair ordering her lunch in basic level Chinese.

“What kind of food is there today?” she asked, pointing at the whiteboard. She settled on a menu item labeled “water spinach,” and the owner pointed at a basket of green vegetables in the kitchen and answered her in Chinese: “This one, just on sale, very delicious.”

I introduced myself to the American woman, a local school teacher. She told me she has not been to China, but learned a little of the language and culture after working in Chinese restaurants. She goes to Oriental Wok Express at least once a week for the “real” cuisine because, in her view, “this is the food that Chinese employees really eat, not the food that is just fried, even the vegetables.”

At Oriental Wok Express, there is a window that offers a view directly into the kitchen — a feature you will never see in a buffet restaurant. The kitchen is a bit crowded, but the tools are arranged carefully, to avoid injuries or food contamination. And there is, of course, the essential wok, which can be used to prepare both Americanized and original Chinese dishes. The former is mainly made up of various meats, and a relatively small amount of side vegetables like broccoli, carrots and onions. The typical method in American Chinese restaurants is to cook down a stock, add various seasonings to make sauce and then stir the ingredients together. But the “old world” version reduces the investment of oil and salt, pays more attention to the diversity of vegetables and features a richer layering of flavors and condiments.

I talked to the operator/manager, Jessica Li, whose story was a bit similar to the Peking Tokyo chef’s. She came to the U.S. alone from Fujian at the age of 19 with no money, no command of English and no knowledge of her new country. Her only option was to go to Chinatown in New York City, where she has family, and go to work in a Chinese restaurant.

“The day I landed was July 1st, 20 years ago. You know July 4th is the National Day of the United States. The firecrackers were everywhere. I hid in my bed and cried.” In order to survive, she worked in several cities as a waitress. Then a blind date led to a marriage. Li’s husband, Changqun Lin found work making sushi at a New Hampshire Price Chopper. They saved up money, solicited help from relatives and friends and opened up this restaurant 13 years ago — their own piece of the American dream. Jessica no longer is afraid of firecrackers.

At first, I thought it was amusing that Jessica’s Chinese husband had been a sushi chef, but it turns out there is a lot of fluidity and boundary-sharing among Asian cuisines in New England. Many Japanese and Korean restaurants are actually run by the industrious Chinese from Fujian province. Koto Japanese Restaurant in West Lebanon, for example, also is owned by Fujianese who came over when Jessica did two decades ago.

“That generation was very poor,” Li told me. “Young people had to go abroad to work, and only the elders were left in our hometowns. Most of them came to the U.S. and (some went to) England or Australia.” No matter what form of restaurant, their only goal was to make money and survive.

For several years, Li did not offer specialty authentic Chinese dishes. This was all about strategy. She had been told repeatedly that Americans liked such ersatz concoctions as General Tso’s chicken and teriyaki beef. But the number of Chinese customers who had settled in the vicinity increased — many of them were students and faculty at Dartmouth — and Jessica cautiously began to serve a handful of dishes unfamiliar to the American palate. These dishes are often determined by season and inventory (water spinach is abundant now). Frequent customers are allowed to order custom dishes, like ribs or tofu cooked in traditional ways, and with lots of side dishes befitting a family-style meal and not the more solitary, foam-carton takeout Americans are used to.

Jessica Li’s brother works in the kitchen and they converse in Chinese. She hasn’t perfected her English yet, relying on the accumulated experience of several employees, and her communication with guests is limited mainly to basic food words. “This is enough,” she said. “I don’t understand any sentence when buying a car or a house. But it doesn’t matter because I can give it to a young person who can understand.”

All the owners of American Chinese restaurants I visited had figured out the same bestseller — General Tso’s chicken, a dish of sugary, deep-fried chunks of poultry served over rice that is almost totally unknown in China. There are several accounts of its origin, and it’s likely it was invented in New York City by a Taiwanese chef in the 1970s. It also has no connection, other than the name, to the 19th century military leader Tso Tsung-tang.

“You know this is one of the most famous Chinese foods in America, but have you seen it in China?” asked Qiu Huang, who worked at the now-shuttered Orient restaurant in Hanover.

This dish shares a dubious lineage with another popular Americanized dish of a different generation. You can travel all over China and never find a trace of “chop suey,” which most likely was a product of the 1849 Gold Rush in California that attracted many Chinese miners who could not digest the bread and bacon they found on these shores. They improvised a quick form of vegetables and noodles, which became a lasting sign of their presence.

Not everyone welcomed Chinese food, or the people who brought it with them. In an 1879 speech, Sen. James G. Blaine, of Maine, declared, “You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread, and would prefer beef, alongside a man who can live on rice.” Chop suey went underground, and remerged from the 1920s through the 1950s as an exotic, urban-dining fad according to Jennifer 8. Lee’s book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. You can still find it in places, but General Tso has since won the battle for American supremacy.

Despite its many flaws, General Tso’s chicken is the dish most representative of Chinese dreams in America: the patience, flexibility and willingness to adapt shown by immigrants. And those dreams often begin at the lunch table in out-of-the-way places. Like Jessica, many Chinese find their version of America in the unique middle ground of restaurants, a place between China and America, belonging to both.

Fang Du is a student in Dartmouth College’s Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program. She wrote this as an assignment for a class in literary journalism. She lives in Hanover.