Word of Mouth

No. 31

Banner illustration by Rui Zhong

Dear readers,

Food has helped many of our members get through the chaos of 2020. We have cooked, drawn and wrote about dishes that evoke a sense of home, comfort and solace. In celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival, we’ve asked our writers to bring you a flavorful discussion of food writing and to share the dishes that are special to them.

Wishing you a peaceful fall with delicious foods and your loved ones (no fight over mooncake flavors, please).

Shen Lu


AROUND THE TABLE 谈吃说喝


Food Is Community

Tony Lin, a contributor to Eater based in New York

I am obsessed with food stories because they’re not just about foods themselves. Dishes in diners don’t just show up out of nowhere. Backstage, there are cooks, customers, waiters, and restaurant owners. The food on the plates comes from a network of butchers, vegetable vendors and local businesses. Every food story is a story about community.

This is especially true during the pandemic: Rising anti-Asian xenophobia has taken a severe toll on Chinese and Asian restaurants across America; food delivery services targeting Asian immigrants were better prepared for COVID-19 than the mainstream competitors because they learned lessons from Asia; more restaurants are using WeChat to gather loyal customers and give away promotions. It is impossible to write about food without writing about the struggles, despair, as well as the resilience and optimism of the immigrant communities.

That is why, despite the grim stories, writing and reading about food is still a cathartic and comforting experience. After all, when the world seems apocalyptic, it’s reassuring to know that we are held together by a community of individuals, struggling through and enjoying life together, through delicious food.

(Cheungfun, or Cantonese rice noodle rolls, is Tony’s go-to cure for homesickness.)


Debunking Chinese Food Tropes

Clarissa Wei, a freelance journalist and video producer based in Taiwan

I’ve been a food writer for about a decade now, focusing on the cuisine of the greater China area. While Chinese food is universally beloved, I’ve noticed that the conversation around it is stale and repetitive. Read an essay about Chinese food, and you’ll hear a cookie-cutter speech about authenticity or family nostalgia, or an evocation about an ancient emperor who had a decree and named something. I wish we could move on from these tropes and dive into the why and the how.

My personal fascination with Chinese food comes from how the culture utilizes ingredients in a creative and versatile way. I find the technology behind Chinese food, although old, innovative and cutting-edge. Duck eggs are cured with soda ash and lime to turn into century eggs, or with just salt and alkaline powder to turn into salted duck eggs. The simple soybean can be transformed into so many things: bean curd, tofu skin, fermented bean paste, soy sauce, hairy tofu.

I spent the summer of the pandemic in Sweden with very limited access to Chinese ingredients. It required me to be adept with what I had and to make Chinese pantry staples travel a long way. Within these constraints, I learned more about their functions: Shaoxing wine at the end of a heavy stir-fry really rounds things together; spicy bean paste should always be thrown in at the beginning of a stir-fry; fermented black beans can easily spice up most proteins without a copious amount of complicated sauces.

I hope the conversation around Chinese food evolves from one about family traditions and Confucian values into its stunning versatility, and how the culture can take just one ingredient and transform it into a million different permutations.

(Clarrisa Wei has been making oyster vermicelli a lot while in post-travel quarantine because her family keeps on giving her bucketfuls of fresh oysters. It’s a specialty of southern Taiwan where Clarissa’s family is from.)


Beyond Sichuanese and Cantonese

Lu Zhao, a food columnist for SupChina

As much as I love sharing Chinese food culture with my friends, I often find it difficult to explain its diversity. Chinese food is much more than just Sichuanese or Cantonese — there are eight different cuisines across the country and each is a reflection of a local culture. Many recipes have stories and histories behind them.

Hunan cuisine is also known for spiciness, but unlike the burning numbness of Sichuanese, it uses fresh chilis and vinegar to generate a hot and sour flavor. The homey spicy and sour shredded potato is a perfect example. Yellow-braised chicken with rice is a dish native to Shandong province and now popular all across China. Shandong cuisine, or Lu cuisine, once an integral part of the imperial cuisine, emphasizes the importance of seasoning and seafood ingredients. Huaiyang cuisine, soft and light, takes a different approach, emphasizing the importance of preserving the original flavor of ingredients.

Some Chinese ingredients may seem intimidating and inaccessible to people outside of China, and the cultural meanings behind dishes may not be familiar to them. But good taste is universal. I started writing the food column for SupChina to introduce various Chinese cooking styles while making them more accessible for those who are curious to try. Different cultures often share the same culinary techniques. People from all cultures forge bonds through eating. It is my hope to bridge cultures, especially in these divisive times, through tasty food.

(Yellow-braised chicken was the most-popular take-out dish among university students when Lu Zhao attended college in Wuhan. She often engaged in spicy yellow-braised chicken challenges with her roommates.)


MAKE A SPLASH 卧虎藏龙

Best work from our members.

🇺🇸 Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You
SupChina Columnist Yangyang Cheng reflects on her introduction to American politics and shares her hopes and concerns for the upcoming U.S. presidential election in her latest essay.
READ

✈️ Escaping Racism
In a video produced by NBC’s Shako Liu, Black Americans tell their stories about fleeing their country to find freedom.
WATCH

📰 Sichuan Diary
After a reporting trip to Sichuan, The Financial Times’ deputy Beijing Bureau Chief Yuan Yang 杨缘 reflects on what it's like to be a foreign journalist covering rural China, where journalists are much needed, amid mass expulsions and tightening censorship of sources.
READ

💰 The Pro-Beijing Business
In a story published in Coda, Shen Lu reveals the Western online personalities who are amassing millions of followers by feeding pro-Beijing narratives on Chinese social media.
READ

📱 China’s Digital Couch
What happens when Dr. Freud logs onto the Chinese internet? Yi-Ling Liu writes for Rest of World about the wave of therapy apps shaping China and the rising desire to understand the inner self.
READ

💃 Wuhan Moves on
Yan Cong
shot photos and videos for Bloomberg’s latest feature story from Wuhan after its recovery from the coronavirus outbreak.
WATCH

👀 Alibaba’s Counterfeit Problem
Jing Daily’s Yaling Jiang discovers that Taobao’s algorithm favors counterfeit goods, hitting both luxury brands and smaller designer brands on the platform.
READ

👩🏻 Who Is the Real Mulan?
Over the past 1,500 years, Mulan has been made and remade countless times to fit various narratives. Jessie Lau argues in a Diplomat essay that despite Mulan’s many forms, she has retained one crucial quality: her emancipatory appeal.
READ

🗳️ Chinese America Split
Tracy Wen Liu
unpacks how Trump’s politics divides Chinese American families ahead of the 2020 election in a story for The New York Times Chinese.
READ

👋 Submit your published work in three ways: 1. DM us on Twitter; 2. Post it on the Slack channel #shamelessplugs; 3. Email hello@chinesestorytellers.com.


RAISE A GLASS 拍个马屁

We recognize our members’ professional achievements (and flatter them).

🏆 Yi-Ling Liu was named a 2021 New America National Fellow. Through the fellowship, she will be working on a book about individuals in China navigating the boundaries of the Chinese internet.

🎥 Yi Chen is releasing her first feature-length documentary First Vote, about four Chinese American voters (two Trump supporters and two democrats). The documentary will be broadcast on PBS in October.

🎉 Yuyang Liu and Ronghui Chen have been named finalists for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in humanistic photography.

🎙️ Lulu Ning Hui joined a podcast program at the China Africa Project, discussing her story from Chinese fishing trawlers in the South Atlantic off the coast of Argentina.

🥂 Tell us what makes you proud via email, Slack or Twitter.


Writers: Tony Lin, Clarissa Wei, Lu Zhao; Editor: Shen Lu; Copy Editor: Yi-Ling Liu.

Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.