MIGRATION, RACISM, AND CHOP SUEY. Plus, other classics from a Chinese-Mexican Café or "Café Chino".
Chop suey, fried rice, egg rolls, cafe lechero and "bisquets".
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The following text is a translation and adaptation of an article that was originally published by Letras Libres magazine on January 31st, 2019.
*Para ir a la versión en español da click aquí.
Food unites us and separates us. Take as an example the menu of any Chinese café in Mexico City. Chilaquiles and chop suey coexist happily there. Anyone who has been to one (which I personally love) knows that there is nothing unusual in finding those two dishes in the same menu, but it is so to find them in the same column. "Chinese dishes" and "Mexican dishes" are never on the same side. They are together but not mixed. This implicit separation between foods is a bit like the history of the Mexican Chinese.
The first Chinese immigrants arrived in Mexico mostly from the United States. They were fleeing poverty and racism, which had just been institutionalized with the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882. That was good news for Porfirio Díaz, who had great economic expansion plans for Mexico. The “importation” of coolies killed two birds with one stone for his government: on the one hand, it assured the country a good amount of cheap, heavy-duty laborers with no social guarantees; and on the other, it threw an indirect threat to the indigenous communities who refused to align themselves with his regime.
The first immigrant families settled in areas of indigenous resistance. That is where the seed of racial tension germinated. After the revolutionary period, that tension was the trigger for clashes between Chinese civilians and insurgent soldiers, which led to the Torreón massacre, an event rarely mentioned in Mexican history but that scholar Jason Oliver Chang (Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico) defines as “the most abominable act of anti-Chinese violence in the hemisphere”. Three hundred and three Chinese —women and children included— were brutally murdered by the Maderista troops. In theory, the military objective was to take control of the last Porfirian stronghold of the north. In practice, it was a genocidal act.
Paraphrasing Chang, the origin of this hatred was linked to the construction of the Mexican identity. That is, following the colonial logic, being white was desirable for being the superior race, being mestizo then, was a middle ground. Being Mexican was that middle ground. An indigenous person could aspire to be Mexican. A Chinese, on the other hand, could not. Under that scale of value, all other races were left out, but it was the Chinese community, due to its size and economic importance, the one that became the best example of what being Mexican was not. Definition by alterity served to strengthen the Mexican identity, the mestizo one. As Federico Navarrete (México Racista) points out "Mexicans of African or Asian origin are usually considered simply as foreigners." Hence, the historical separation between "the Chinese" and "the Mexican" is so difficult to recognize, yet so present in our society.
The situation did not improve after the massacre. Discrimination became legal as the new segregationist policies reduced employment alternatives for the Chinese, who managed to turn around the circumstances, resolving to dedicate themselves to jobs that were scorned by “Mexicans” because they were considered feminine. Laundries became popular amongst the community as well as and the peddling of vegetables, but in the history of the Chinese as migrants —in Mexico and in the world— the most powerful weapon of Chinese cultural survival was and remains to be cooking.
In Mexico City, for example (thanks to a search on google maps), there are more Chinese restaurants than Oaxacan, Pueblan, and Yucatecan combined; In Tapachula, Chiapas there are more Chinese restaurants than of regional cuisine; In Tijuana, Chinese food is a different universe in its own, a new language (sort of like cocina Chifa in Perú); and in Mexicali, Chinese food is “the” typical cuisine. The same happens in many other countries, the most obvious case is the United States, where according to journalist Jennifer 8 Lee (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles) "there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and KFC combined."
Chinese cuisine is a migrant cuisine. In that sense, it is a pioneer. It traveled to other countries because of the late nineteenth-century diaspora. To the American continent, it initially arrived through California. The city of San Francisco became iconic in the arising of the “Chinatown cuisine” model. Those who occupied the first neighborhood kitchens were not precisely career cooks in most cases, but ordinary people trying to recreate their homemade stews with what they could find around. They substituted ingredients, adjusted seasonings, studied the local taste, and adapted to it —even when doing so would mean losing “authenticity” (that whimsical and somewhat excluding concept). The result was a perfect formula, an equal agreement between ingredients and condiments: tasty, accessible, repeatable, a franchise without owners, a democratic meal: from the people to the people. That style of barrio Chino cuisine is a symbol of resistance. We should put a monument to it. But sadly, it is the one we recognize the least. In Mexico, we have mixed feelings about Chinese food, we love it almost as much as we criticize it. Here are some of our most common prejudices…
The first one, refers to hygiene and is clearly expressed in racist local sayings such as chino cochino (which translates to ‘filthy Chinese’) and chino chino japonés come caca y no me ves (something like ‘Chinese Chinese Japanese eat poop and do not give me any’) or through a frequent association between Chinese food and rats (who are we Chilangos to say anything about eating amongst rats anyway, if much of our gastronomic activity happens on the streets?). These ideas were nothing more than the historical result of the power of the anti-Chinese era propaganda and our discriminatory mentality (just google: anti-Chinese propaganda and you will see what I mean).
Second prejudice: "the Chinese eat rats." Following that same perception of filthiness, in 1883, a text that explored this idea (based on dubious information) was published in the New York Times. The rumor then spread to other cities around the world and subsists to this day. Rumors aside, tough, the weird thing about this story is not the idea of “eating rats” in itself, but the fact that an insect-reptile-larvae-plant disease-and all kinds of animal entrail-eating culture like the Mexican, could consider it odd and surprising when we should feel no less than total fraternity towards a culture who understands that the wisest, richest, most powerful, and awesome cuisine in the world is born out of necessity. In that reversed perception of value lies our maximum contradiction: self-discrimination. First, we undermine our culture and then we draw an imaginary line to separate ourselves from another one —ironically, as rich as ours— so we can feel less "weird".
Finally, the third prejudice has to do with the issue of "authenticity." Let's go back to the Chinese café menu from the beginning of this text and select from it a plate of chop suey, which constitutes an ideal example of what food writer Alan Davidson (The Oxford Companion to Food) refers to as "culinary mythology." Chop suey is both the most Chinese and least Chinese dish that you can find in a Chinese restaurant outside of China (excuse my redundancy). Apparently, the word means 'leftovers'. According to Davidson, "the general perception of this dish in the Western world is that it is a kind of parody of Chinese food, which was invented in San Francisco at the end of the 19th century." Although with variations in characters and situations, various accounts of the origin of this dish coincide in the fact that its invention was the result of the improvisation of a Chinese chef pressured by a hungry public. However, in Li Shu-fan's autobiographical novel The Surgeon from Hong Kong, there is a different and more congruent account. This one places the origin of the chop suey in the county of Taishan, in the province of Canton, where there is a dish called tsap seui —which means ‘miscellaneous leftovers’ in Cantonese— that actually consists of a mixture of leftovers from various sautéed vegetables, whose only invariable ingredient is germinated soya beans (it can include chicken or pork).
Now, if you allow, I will translate this same idea into a personal story. At my paternal grandmother's house every Sunday, without exception, a salad with the name of “pico de gallo” was served. That salad had nothing to do with the salsa-like spicy vegetable accompaniment —composed of chopped tomato, onion, and green chili, with salt and a touch of acid (lemon or vinegar)— identified with that name and served in many restaurants in Mexico City (mostly to top molletes). My grandmother's pico de gallo was made with jicama, cucumber, mango, orange, orange juice, lemon juice, green chili, and worm salt. My grandmother was from Jalisco, and she said the recipe was from there. And yes, when you google “pico de gallo Jalisco” various salads similar to my grandmother’s appear, although with variations in fruits. The only relevant distinction from hers is the addition of worm salt; that extra touch (a very wise one, by the way) was the result of her years living in Oaxaca as a newlywed. For me, that recipe is as Mexican as any other because it is part of the history of my family. And, if I had a Mexican restaurant in China, I would not hesitate to put it on the menu. Although, it is likely that if a person from Mexico City visited my restaurant, they would say: “this is not pico de gallo”, while a visitor from Jalisco, on the other hand, could argue that “the recipe is not accurate”. So, in the hypothetical situation that my grandmother's pico de gallo would become famous in China, it would certainly turn into one of those myths, just like chop suey.
So, what exactly do we mean when we talk about authenticity? Why do we have the perception that there are “real Chinese foods” and “fake Chinese foods”?
In the chapter titled ‘Fried Rice’, from the Ugly Delicious series (found on Netflix), Korean-American chef David Chang talks about the existence of “secret menus” in some Chinese restaurants. It appears that in some cities of the world there are Chinese restaurants that offer an undercover selection of dishes, reserved for a more knowledgeable clientele. A kind of food that is closer to the one that is cooked in specific regions of China. That same idea is talked about in an interview with Luis Chiu, owner of the Asian Bay restaurant in Mexico City (Diarios de Cocina. Juan Pablo Montes, Food and Travel México, February 2016): “I opened my restaurant with two menus: a commercial one, and one that is more traditional. The latter was kept hidden”. That menu was offered only to his clients from the Chinese embassy or traveling businessmen from China.
Apparently, the reason why the most traditional dishes generally do not appear on the menus of these places is not only due to the difficulty of describing and translating them, also, because —according to the interviewees of Chang's program— there is a belief that people have a natural tendency to reject the flavors that are truer to certain places of origin, that there is a kind of innate food racism. Which is also true, but only partially. Chiu himself adds that "when the restaurant began to gain recognition and diners became regular, they started to become curious about what they saw on other people’s plates and started to ask for the lesser-known dishes." There is a certain rejection on behalf of diners in some cases, but there is also a little mistrust from restauranteurs. Sometimes eaters are unfairly underestimated as well.
So, Chinese restaurants with secret menus are as good, original, and authentic as those that do not have them, but it is nice that they exist for us to explore them because they serve as bridges between cultures. In this particular case, between the Chinese and the Mexican —and every other cuisine that is connected to them.
At the beginning of the text I said: food unites us and separates us; but in reality, food only unites us, what separates us are our prejudices. If we think about it, every menu is a secret language. What we can see on the surface is only a brief summary of a culture in terms of food. Between what appears before our eyes and reality, there are thousands of simultaneous versions of the same dish. A plate is never just a plate, but all of the things that happened to it before it was presented before us, and all the things that will continue to happen in our body and in our mind after we eat it. We could say that the world is a gigantic belly that is constantly transforming everything it ingests into something new. Eating is evolving. Cooking is too.
Chop suey is essentially like a said in the text, a leftover food. The only constant ingredient you will most likely find in every chop suey is the soya bean sprouts. So just open your refrigerator and take out every vegetable leftovers that you have on hand and are in the mood for. You can also add a number of aminal proteins: chicken, shrimp, fish, pork, beef, etcétera.
2 c of soya bean sprouts
1 c of thinly sliced carrots, celery, coleslaw, bell peppers, or almost any other leftover vegetables you have.
1/2 an onion sliced
1 tbsp of soya sauce
1 tbsp of sweet Chinese vinegar
1 tbsp of oyster sauce (I didn’t have any but used hoisin sauce)
1 tbsp of cornstarch
1/4 c of water or broth
Salt to taste
Sautee the vegetables with some vegetable oil.
Mix all of the seasonings with the cornstarch and the water and add to the vegetables.
Cook for a few minutes and serve.
Fried rice is also a leftover-minded invention, another wonder of the hungry mind. So, you can also feel free to get inspired by what you can find in your fridge. Although my favorite kind of rice to use for it is the more common Japanese kind because of its sticky texture, I many times use whatever I have on hand. This time It was basmati, I also used leftover ground pork, sausages, and the following vegetables and condiments…
4 cups of leftover rice (any kind you have).
1 to 2 cloves of garlic
1 thumb size piece of ginger, chopped
1 c of diced sausage
2 c of grounded pork
1 c of chopped carrots, celery
1 tbsp of mirin
1 tbsp of soy sauce
Chopped scallions and cilantro to top.
2 beaten eggs
In a wok or an extended pan, sauté the garlic and ginger in some oil and then add the rest of the vegetables. Cook the for a couple of minutes and set aside.
Add more oil and fry the meat and the sausages. Season and set aside.
Add more oil again if necessary and cook the rice.
Push to the side and add the beaten eggs, let them cook a little, and then mix with the rice.
Add the rest of the ingredients and season.
To serve, top with cilantro and scallions.
Egg rolls are one of my favorite foods ever, I used to love them as a kid, and later, as a teenager, the frozen-boxed kind were my after-party go-to food for a while. This is the first time I make them from scratch and it was simpler than I thought. But, of course, you can save yourselves some time and buy the wappers at any Asian goods store (sometimes you can even find them at regular supermarkets). I used a pasta maker to roll them, but you can use a rolling pin.
2 c of shredded cabbage
1 c of thinly sliced carrots
1 of thinly sliced celery
2 c of grounded leftover pork (I fried it and seasoned it with salt, white pepper, 1 tbsp of Chinese vinegar, 1 tbsp of sugar, 1 tbsp of soya sauce.)
For the wrappers:
2 c of flour
1/2 a cup of lukewarm water
1 tsp of salt
*To accompany the egg rolls you can use spicy mustard and your favorite sweet-n-sour sauce.
On a stand mixer with the hook attachment or with your hands, mix the flour, the eggs, the water, and the salt, and knead until smooth. Cover and set aside to rest while you prepare the filling.
Blanch the coleslaw and the shredded carrots in boiling water with salt and then transfer them to a bowl with ice-cold water. Drain and set aside.
Divide the dough into six pieces and roll them with a rolling pin (as thin as lasaña sheets) or pasta maker (to size 5). Cut them in the shape of squares and then fill them from corner to corner (like in the picture), fold the upper and lower corners to the center, wet the side corners with a little water, and then roll them.
On a deep pan, a fryer, or a wok, heat the oil to medium-high temperature and fry the rolls until golden.
Serve with spicy mustard and sweet-n-sour sauce.
“BISQUETS” AND CAFÉ LECHERO
Café lechero is traditionally served at Chinese cafés (and other old-style coffee houses) in Mexico with Pan Dulce. It served in a tall glass and is made with extracted coffee and hot milk that is skillfully poured at your table. You can reproduce it by using cold brew. Probably the most iconic piece of bread served at cafés chinos are biscuits or “bisquets”, I published my favorite recipe in this post.