For dinner tonight, I made the following:
A kind of brown-rice pilaf that involved sauteeing onion, garlic and lacinato kale (chopped), removing from the pan and then sauteeing a mix of shitake, oyster and cremini mushrooms with a squeeze of lemon juice and some thyme; when those are soft and yummy add cubes of tofu (always press your tofu dry between two plates, with a weight on top, pouring off the water; it creates an airiness inside that allows them to far better absorb the flavors you attach) that have been marinated in a mix of soy sauce, fish sauce, mirin, lemon, garlic and olive oil for a half hour or so. When these have cooked for five minutes or so, add the kale/onion mix, two handfuls of pignoli nuts, and about the same amount of cooked brown rice as the size of the kale-mushroom-tofu mix in the pan — and stir all the ingredients together. I served it with butternut roasted with a sprinkle of cinammon and Sahadi’s Yemeni spice mix.
It was delicious, but it had no name — or nationality. It was something that evolved from considering the available ingredients in my fridge, and the influences of the myriad cuisines that one samples all the time in New York.
What got me thinking about this was this week’s Newsweek piece on Chinese food, based on Jennifer 8. Lee’s book that shows that what passes for “Chinese” in the U.S. wouldn’t really be recognizable in China. There are some interesting notes in there about the impact of immigration policy on the pattern of Chinese restaurant formation, and also some pretty silly observations — “In the 1950s,” she says, “if you ate Chinese food, China itself seemed a lot less threatening.” Uh…. Never mind. (Just picture Nixon and Kissinger in the White House pigging out on General Tso before launching the opening to China…)
But the basic point she’s making is hardly unique to Chinese food; it applies to most “Diaspora” cuisines. There’s no such thing as “Italian” in Italy, only regional cuisines to which the traditional American-Italian menu would look a little bizarre. I know the same is true for the Russian restaurants of New York, my friend Yuri cracks up laughing when he finds Ukrainian borscht, Polish stuffed cabbage and Uzbek-Jewish plov on the same menu. Don’t get me started on Jewish food, there really is no such thing — we simply took what we liked from the cultures in which we lived, according to our means (which is why the well-to-do Sephardim dine at the sumptuous spice table of the Levant, while us Ostjuden found comfort in such bland and stodgy favorites as gefilte fish, and traditional Baltic fare such as stuffed cabbage etc.)
And then there’s “Indian,” which in the West typically means a polyglot of Bengali and Punjabi delicacies, often bowdlerized and adapted to the West — and some exclusively Western imposters such as mulligatawny soup (invented in the kitchens of the P&O shipping line) and chicken tikka masala which was invented in Birmingham and exported to India for the first time in 1994.
Cuisines have always evolved through patterns of trade and migration, and while Ms. Lee is certainly correct that there’s nothing really “Chinese” about Chinese in the U.S., what she may want to consider is how exclusively Chinese is Chinese (if there is such a thing) in China.
Now go try my recipe, or better still, adapt it and let me know what you discover.