by Kate Heyhoe
"One day I hope to write a book about all the wonderful Chinatowns in the world," Martin Yan told me in an interview around 1994. Now, less than a decade later, he's done just that in his latest book and TV series, Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking, illuminating these exotic cultural centers in eleven cities stretching from London to San Francisco to Yokohama, with stops at Chinatowns in Australia, Canada, New York, and Singapore.
"How and why did the Chinese end up in these far-flung places?" writes Yan. As with turn-of-the-century Europeans, many traveled to seek their fortunes. "But the Chinese had a few more reasons. And a lot more people—there were simply too many folks farming too few rice paddies. In addition, if locusts didn't wipe out the crops, there were ravaging warlords and foreign powers to do so."
Steady work, be it on the high seas as merchant marines, on London docks as stevedores, in California mining camps and railways, or in the sugar plantations of Hawaii, promised these emigrants a life without want—if they were willing to work harder than they could imagine. The enormous adversities facing them were staggering, but perhaps these challenges also contributed to the intensity with which Chinatowns evolved. These emigrants formed extraordinarily tight communities, reinforcing both their heritage and forming networks of stability: economically, politically and culturally. Food in China has profound symbolic importance, and as one would expect, became a potent unifier within these concentrated Chinese communities.
Almost every large city has its own Chinatown, developed originally by Chinese emigrants but today more likely to be a haven for refugees of many Asian nations. Still, the Chinese influences dominate in elaborate dragon gates, dim sum restaurants, lacquered red motifs, and the aromas of char shu and mahogany-colored ducks wafting down narrow streets from the meat markets and delis. For a "foreigner" in Chinatown—that is, anyone who has not lived within the Chinese culture—deciphering menus and ordering food in a restaurant can be daunting. Many servers speak little or no English, or the dishes themselves may defy easy transliteration. Furthermore, the do's and don'ts of Chinese dining customs are enough to ignite fireworks in Miss Manners' brain.
In the excerpt below, Martin Yan offers his personal tips for crossing the cultural bridge when dining in Chinatown. Remember them next time you visit your local Chinatown, especially when celebrating the Lunar New Year.
"Hunger is the best chef," goes the Chinese proverb. But if you want to have a real Chinese dining experience, rather than just a meal, here are some tips for ordering in a Chinese restaurant.
Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking
200 Traditional Recipes from 11 Chinatowns Around the World
by Martin Yan
William Morrow / an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
$34.95 / hardcover
Illustrated with 200 color photos
Excerpt reprinted by permission.
Customs, Recipes, & Cookbooks for Lunar New Year
Asian New Year: Honoring the Kitchen God
Entertaining Asian Style, by Martin Yan
Martin Yan Recipes and Fun New Year Facts (1999)
Mung Bean Sprout Salad & Year of the Tiger Tale (1998)
Chinese New Year Dinner with Susanna Foo (1997)
Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)
Asian Noodles (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)
Yin Yang Almond Cookies
The Chinese Kitchen (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)
Authentic Vietnamese Cooking (Cookbook Profile with Recipes)
Kate's Global Kitchen for February, 2003:
1/03/03 Around the World: Recipes 2002
1/10/03 The Essential Chicken Stock
1/17/03 Chicken in a Global Bowl: Broths & Soups
1/24/03 Food of Love: Schiavelli's Sicilian Connection
1/31/03 Chinatown Dining & New Year Feasts
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page modified January 2007
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