Cheuk Kwan. Have You Eaten Yet?: Stories from Chinese Restaurants Around the World. Pegasus Books. New York and London. 2023. ISBN: 978-1-63936-334-6. pp. 260.
Richard Zimmer (Sonoma State University)
The title of this wonderful book says it all: “…this is why I came…it’s disrespectful in Chinese culture to refuse food from a host, no matter the time of day, no matter how full you are (2023:65.)” Kwan takes the reader on a journey through the Chinese restaurant diaspora. This book is some of the written parts of his journey for a documentary on the subject. It is a tale of where and why the Chinese have gone and continue to go. It is a tale of Chinese people who have mixed with new surroundings, grown old in others, and the cuisines they have developed. It is rich in historical and anthropological information. Rich, too, because, like the author himself, many of the people whose food he has consumed are juggling complex identities in a changing world.
Kwan’s triptych is one of finding out who he is and how “Chinese” he is. Born in Hong Kong, growing up in Singapore, Hong King, and Japan, working worldwide, an immigrant to Canada, fluent in many languages and dialects, he is still “Chinese”: “Somehow I have retained my Chinese cultural traits along the way “(2023:4.) His story mirrors other Chinese, some 40 million he notes, in their Diaspora. Chinese have emigrated everywhere. Most of the time, they came as workers and later opened restaurants, groceries, and laundries. They travel, emigrate, have relatives in many places, and often marry different locals. Within the British Commonwealth, they may migrate back and forth to several countries. The same is true within the former French Empire. If they are in the restaurant business, they will serve Chinese, local, and fusion foods.
The Hakka are the most widespread of the groups in the diaspora. Originally from Central China, they spread eastward to the coast and then to many places overseas (67.) And they kept their customs. In Mauritius, for example, one restaurateur, Collette, cooks every day.
Her husband “…seems to be a gentleman of leisure. Even though the restaurant is named after him, he isn’t involved. He doesn’t cook and Colette says that he only does dishes at home. This is what I have heard about Hakka families, whether in China or overseas: they are matriarchal-women tend the fields, run the households and make all the decisions “(71.) Kwan does suggest her husband does work in the garden and may provide foodstuffs for the restaurant (76.) And, unlike many other Chinese women in the past, Hakka women did not bind their feet because they were working in the fields while their men went off fighting (2023:77) or they were working on boats (nd. approximately 2012. Reference 1.)
Like many other Chinese restaurateurs overseas, Collette adds to her menus foods catering to local tastes, like curries for the Indian workers on the island. And she expands her menus by learning new recipes from elsewhere in China, specifically going to Hong Kong to learn Cantonese cooking (75.) Kwan uses this opportunity to talk about Hakka cooking and cites Linda Anusasanananan’s The Hakka Cookbook (Reference 2.) If you do not have that cookbook, this is Kwan’s recipe (restated) for pork belly, his favorite comfort food: Simmer and fry till the rind softens and loosens the fat. Braise it in a sauce made with preserved mustard greens, dark soy, sugar, and five-spice powder (70.)
Kwan portrays the history and food of different Chinese in fifteen chapters. Each chapter is a lesson in itself. For example, there had been one Chinese restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey in the first half of the Twentieth Century. The man who started it had been an indigenous Chinese Muslim, a Hui, not Han, but not a Uighur or any of the other Muslim peoples in China. Kwan says that he, Kwan, so knowledgeable about China, did not know that there were Muslim Chinese (116.) The restaurant had been started by Wang Shenshang. He had been a functionary in Nationalist China and eventually fled to Istanbul, where he had once studied and later taught. Wang’s descendants in Istanbul and Ankara ran restaurants, met people who were not Chinese and thought deeply about China and its politics. Some of them thought about emigrating to Canada. Kwan sees one constant theme: “…the overwhelming desire to prove to your parents that you can exceed their expectations “(125.) He adds more about his own search: “Rosey’s [one of the Wang family] internationalism and fluid identities resonate with me. Hers is a story of Chinese diaspora, the second generation. It is my story as well” (126.)
Kwan “treks” to Scandinavia, to Tromso, Norway, to find the furthermost northern Chinese restaurant. There are but a few Chinese in the town. The cooking staff is Chinese, but not the servers. The restaurant serves Chinese locals, non-Chinese locals, and visitors, including Chinese and Japanese. The clientele has become more sophisticated in their culinary expectations, enjoying, among other specialties, Peking Duck. As for the pork belly, owner Michael Wong (notice, he identifies with a non-Chinese first name rather than the customary last name first,) adds tianmianjiang “…a slightly sweet wheat-bean paste often used in northeastern Chinese, as well as Korean Chinese, cooking” (131.)
Cuba is another place Kwan visits. There are few remnants of the Chinese community. Before the Cuban Revolution, Kwan notes, in the 1930s Havana had the largest and most prosperous Chinese community in Latin America (143.) As elsewhere among the diaspora Chinese, many Chinese children went to Chinese schools. They often also kept their regional identities, dialects, and affiliations, in addition to learning local languages. They often learned other languages as well, depending on the trade they served in their restaurants. There are those who stayed, continuing to provide Chinese menus. And they adapted: “Takeout pizzas are bestsellers in Chinese restaurants…” (156.) Most Chinese left after the Cuban Revolution. Kwan does not follow the migrations of where Cuban Chinese went, but some came to the Eastern seaboard of the United States, mostly settling in New York, Philadelphia, and South Florida. Those restaurants served Cuban Chinese food like sopachina and black ink squid over rice. A few of these restaurants are left (see this restaurant in New York, for example, Reference 3.) The children of that exodus may be blending into the larger society, no longer wanting to continue the restaurant business.
For some diaspora Chinese, some dishes stay the same, some adapt to local customs and tastes. Lee Ho Shau escaped China during the Cultural Revolution. He eventually made his way to Sao Paolo. Lee serves a clientele from everywhere—Brazil, China, Taiwan, Japanese, among other places. The traditional dishes include roast duck in a lettuce wrap, with scallions and hoisin sauce “… a healthier version of the Peking duck…” (161.) And the sea cucumber: “…a perfect marriage of texture and taste” (161.) But he includes on the menu diced chicken with cashew nuts “’ to fool the Brazilians’” (161.) Kwan notes that cashews are not native to China: “Portuguese colonists in Brazil began exporting cashew nuts as early as the 1550s—but that doesn’t make the dish less authentically Chinese…’So cashew chicken is a truly Sino-Brazilian dish…’ [according to Lee.]” (162.)
Jack Sun went beyond the cities in Brazil—to Manaus, in the deepest Amazon. In the only Chinese restaurant there at the time, he made the” usual” pan-fried dumplings, fried rice, and fried noodles. But he also offered oxtail stew, yee fried noodles with Chinese mushrooms and garlic eggplant with pork. And also his specialty—mapo tofu, a Sichuan specialty dish, for which he had to improvise, using a widely-used Brazilian pepper –malagueta-to replace the hard-to-get Chinese hot pepper. That pepper, Kwan says, numbs the mouth, as distinct from chili-type hot pepper (174-175.)
Kwan travels to Mumbai, India. There are more than five hundred Chinese restaurants in the city (186.) There is a smorgasbord of workers, even a Chinese/Polish person. The Poles arrived there after the Soviet invasion of Poland after World War II. As for the Chinese diaspora in India, Kwan details how people in the country were affected by Indian and Chinese politics over the years. People came and went, depending in part on whether India and China were friendly.
This ebb and flow affected Chinese food in India. Customarily much of Indian Chinese food is either “red [hot chili] or black [black salt and/or cardamom-Kwan does not explain].” (196.) But in Delhi’s Imperial Garden, it is neither, one Chinese chef says. It is more on the “’ authentic’” [Chinese] side (196.)
While In India, Kwan, however, is “Chinese” and more: in the Himalayas, in Darjeeling, he “reviews” his intersecting identities. He takes tea at the Hotel Valentino, eating a British-style chicken sandwich that has hand-shredded chicken meat, noting that it tastes better—and that “…all kinds of regional Chinese cuisines feature hand-shredded chicken dishes “(198.)
Kwan then tackles another Indian city. The large Hakka diaspora in Kolkata comprises families closely related. In the Kolkata restaurant Delhi branch in the same named Imperial Garden restaurant, Chinese dishes are formatted to Indian tastes—chili chicken, paneer in garlic sauce, and “…everything is coated with a thick brown gravy” (202.) And we learn that General Tso’s chicken, a Hakka dish served here and elsewhere, is of New York origin—in the 1970s (203.) Quoting from a conversation with Jennifer 8 Lee, who wrote The Fortune Cookie, “’ You can tell it’s American from the deep-frying, the sweetness, and the broccoli…Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable, and General Tso certainly never saw a stalk of broccoli in his life” (203.) Yet, despite having been in India for hundreds of years, given China-India relations, the Chinese legal status is fragile, with citizenship still a prized and difficult goal to attain. Consequently, many Chinese, especially Hakka, have migrated elsewhere, particularly to Toronto. There, they run many “Chinese” restaurants, which, to Kwan, serve really Indo-Hakka food, complete with the hot chilis of their previous land (209-211.)
Kwan travels through Argentina and Peru. Peru brought in Chinese to act as “coolies” in 1849 after slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century (230.). Over the years more Chinese came in and greatly influenced Peruvian food tastes. According to Kwan, “…the distinction between Peruvian and Chinese food is often blurred” (230.) He offers many examples, including lomo saltado. Beef filet cubes marinated in soy sauce and stir-fried with ginger, red onions, green onions, tomatoes, red pepper, garlic, cilantro, fermented black beans, and aji amarillo—yellow chili pepper “…so common in Peruvian cooking “ (230.) Even the chicharrónes taste better to Peruvians if they are cooked Chinese style—with soy sauce added at the end (232.)
Then there is Kwan’s final course, about his wanderings and searches in this book: “But perhaps being more than a global citizen, I feel connected across the Chinese diaspora. As in, we are one world “(247.) To retell Kwan’s telling, Ken Hom, who put Chinese cooking on the BBC in 1983, says to Kwan: “’ When you come visit me in Bangkok, I’ll take you out for glorious street food. There’s nothing like it in this world. Then you should come by my place in southwestern France, and I’ll make you my specialty, Peking duck.’ Peking duck in the French countryside? I really look forward to that” ( 248.)
This book is an incredible original source resource for anthropologists, sociologists, and historians, who are concerned with food in general, and how food from one culture gets changed in another culture. It is also a resource for first-person accounts of how the Chinese went from one place to another, how politics affected a person’s journey, and how that person may see their evolving identity. It is useful for lower-division students to approach food, history, and identity issues because it is beautifully written and contains engaging photographs as well. One constructive criticism I would make is that a more detailed bibliography should have been included.
Kwang Ok Kim, ed. Re-Orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Berghahn Books. New York.
Young Kyun Yang. We—Being Discourse and Chinese Food in Korean Society. In Kwang Ok Kim, ed. Re-Orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Beghahn Books. New York. pp. 203-220.
Yuson Jung. Experiencing the “West” Through the “East” in the Margins of Europe: Chinese Food Consumption Practices in Post Socialist Bulgaria. In Kwang Ok Kim, ed. Re-Orienting Cuisine: East Asian Foodways in the Twenty-First Century. Berghahn Books. New York. pp.150-169.
n.d., Approximately 2012
(Accessed March 12, 2023.)
(Accessed March 12, 2023.)
(Accessed March 12, 2023.)