It’s interesting how sometimes years of experiences and ideas are brought together in a moment, and a larger picture suddenly comes into focus. That is what happened to me recently at a lecture and cooking demonstration by Grace Young that focused on her remarkable book Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories.
Some of the threads that this presentation tied up stretch back decades. My mom had grown up going to Chicago’s Chinatown with her father, and so it seemed only natural that she would introduce my brother and me to Chinese food early in life. Later, when I visited San Francisco, the existence of a Chinatown just seemed natural. Even Chinatowns in Vancouver and Toronto seemed natural to me, because they weren’t that much different from the Chinatown with which I’d grown up.
Then about 15 years ago, I visited a friend in Austria. She wanted to go to a “China restaurant.” For some reason, it struck me as odd that people in a Chinese restaurant would be speaking German, but then I realized that for the Chinese, it was probably no odder than speaking English. The food was good, the flavors recognizable, but it was different. Then a few years later, I was visiting friends in Ecuador. Again, I came across Chinese food, again, recognizable but different. Then recently, shopping at an Indian grocery store in Chicago, I found prepared meals identified as “Indian-style Chinese.”
On top of that, I have been working this last few months on a U.S. history book. Only a few days before the Grace Young lecture, I’d finished a chapter on the surge of Chinese immigration into the U.S. (first for the Gold Rush, then for building the Transcontinental Railroad) and the eventual Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) that slowed the flood of immigration. It seemed like a splendid piece of synchronicity that Ms. Young began her lecture with the observation that the Chinese Exclusion Act might have slowed Chinese immigration into the United States, but it didn’t stop the Chinese from leaving China. They simply began to go everywhere else, including South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, and India. (I’ve also seen a Chinatown in Bangkok, Thailand, but that didn’t seem so unusual, as they’re close neighbors.) Also, many of those who were turned away from the American West headed for the American South, and the Mississippi Chinese fed the sharecroppers after the Civil War.
This migratory flood, which began in the early 1800s, is what Ms. Young referred to as the Chinese Diaspora. The Chinese went everywhere, and they did what they could with what they found. Ms. Young went on to explain how substitutions were made. One example was how the Trinidad Chinese used rum in place of Chinese rice wine in all their recipes, which she demonstrated by preparing a fabulous shrimp with rum stir fry from her book. Yum.
Stir fry was a way to stave off homesickness. In the U.S., chop suey literally saved the local Chinese, both because it was as close as they could come to something familiar and because Americans liked it, which led to a lot of chop suey shops opening and a degree of financial stability for Chinese communities.
Ms. Young mentioned that in New York City, you can find Cuban Chinese, Peruvian Chinese, and Indian Chinese restaurants—among the 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. today.
Her book offers more stories, many of them truly remarkable, regarding the Chinese diaspora, but more than that, it is the book of a master cook explaining how you can get the most out of your wok, as well as how you can explore a world of flavors within the idiom of Chinese food. It is a fascinating bit of history paired with an astonishingly good cookbook.
Definitely worth considering if you like Chinese food, but especially if you also like history.