A Side of Shumai
By Rebecca Zhong | Illustration by Yi Jong
My dad once told me that food poisoning can also be caused by a sad cook. My fondest memories of him have always found a way to call the kitchen their home. On July days, he would warm his hands with a cup of jasmine tea, slowly steaming at his face. In front of him would sit a stack of dumpling skins and a silver bowl of filling that he would prepare for dinner that evening. Dad has always found very little need to say anything. Instead, he meticulously twirls each word around in his mouth first. Each sentence crafted is always purposeful and direct. For him, his currency has always been his cooking. His way of showing both gratitude and care for his loved ones. When I was younger, I used to sneakily watch him from the entrance of the kitchen.
Between frequent breaks reserved for refilling his tea, he would chop vegetables and rinse the rice until the water ran clear. Watching him like this seemed almost private. Like peering through the windows of your neighbour’s home at night when all the lights are on. Watching him alone in the kitchen made me curious.
Growing up, Dad used to prepare my lunches for school. An eclectic mix of noodles, dumplings and baos would replace the peanut butter sandwiches my friends had. One day he packed me six shumai. These are an open dumpling, often served in round bamboo steamers and this time they were tightly packaged up into a tupperware container. These were my favourite snacks and at my request, my dad always made sure to order two servings at weekend Yum Cha. However, as I opened up my tupperware that lunchtime I was met with laughter.
“Rebecca’s eating testicles!”
The juicy, plump shumai suddenly tasted grey. I quickly stuffed the remains back into my bag. Later that evening as my dad cleared out my bag, he found the remains of my lunch. Sitting in the tupperware were five and a half dumplings. The heat trapped inside had fogged up the clear lid and the condensation had gathered into tears.
In 2019, Gordon Ramsay opened up a new eatery, Lucky Cat, in the heart of London. The restaurant labelled itself as an “authentic Asian house and vibrant night lounge, inspired by the drinking dens of 1930 Tokyo and the far East.” This restaurant, headed by chef Ben Orpwood, has found itself at the epicentre of scrutiny for both lazy stereotyping and cultural appropriation. Despite advertising an ‘authentic’ Asian eating experience, the restaurant has no Asian staffers and is guilty of hybridising various Asian cuisines together, namely Chinese and Japanese. As if we can amalgamate the cuisine of billions of people into a 30-dish menu and class it as both authentic and fully encompassing of the vibrancy and history of a continent.
It would be outlandish to have an authentic French restaurant without having either French and/or French trained chefs. Furthermore, it would be blasphemous to include risotto in the same menu. Don’t get me wrong, I love Asian fusion as much as the next person. However, it’s insensitive to assume that these restaurants are the best representation of authenticity.
Gordon Ramsay has come to the defense of head chef Ben Orpwood, suggesting that having travelled South Asia for months, he has the knowledge and ability to accurately recreate Asian cuisine. This is basically the chef equivalent of a white girl who did a semester abroad in Paris and now wears a beret.
Many people, and especially those who belong to an ethnic minority, will often find that food is a reflection of identity. As a second-generation Chinese Kiwi, I have felt disenfranchised from my physicality for the majority of my life. The attire and language I speak are both Western. However, it was in the mouthfuls of my parents' and grandparents' cooking where I felt most realised and understood. And to suggest that a white chef who does not share the same lived experiences as me is able to emulate the same level of cultural understanding is crazy. The question is not whether a white person can cook Chinese food, as people can cook whatever they want. It is about who has autonomy over the way cuisines are presented and whether this presentation is carried out with integrity and respect.
Sentiments about Asian food being unclean and dirty are widespread, Lucky Lee’s, an American Chinese restaurant in New York City founded by an American Jewish couple has marketed their restaurant as a ‘clean’ take on Chinese cuisine that won’t leave you with the same ‘icky bloated’ feeling that is often associated with Chinese food. Similarly, when TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmern opened up his Chinese restaurant, Lucky Cricket, he pointed to himself as the single handed saviour from preventing people dining at “horseshit restaurants masquerading as Chinese food.” This idea that Chinese food can only be good when removed from Chinese people stems from racism and deeper disdain toward Asian communities as a whole. Notions of Chinese food being dirty further perpetuates the very idea that Chinese people are dirty altogether.
Before moving overseas, I shared a farewell yum cha lunch with a group of my closest friends. Around the table I was the only Chinese person. The jasmine-stained teapot with its leaky spout carelessly drenched our yellow tablecloth and the rickety food cart pushed by Aiyi (Auntie) would occasionally hit the back of my friends' seats. After Aiyi listed what was on the menu, she lifted up the bamboo steamers and my friends were stunned by the selection. We all agreed the shumai was best. Acceptance of Asian cuisine has grown significantly since I was young and knowing that Chinese kids are less likely to receive the same level of judgement for ‘testicles’ in their lunch makes me so happy. However, in accepting Asian cuisines we need to be more accepting of Asian cultures.
I do believe that chefs from different ethnic backgrounds have the right to make food from marginalised groups, if done respectfully and with wide acceptance of their narratives and backgrounds. However, ‘elevating’ these dishes outside of the respective cuisine’s culture and context is largely problematic. Autonomy and representation belong to the people themselves. In moving forward and accepting different cuisines, we have to ensure that we do not leave the people from those cultures behind.