Food Fight! China’s Culinary Culture Crisis

By Janine Chow:

“Chinese cuisine is something that doesn’t exist in China.”

Today, in its first fireside chat of the New Year, Yale-China hosted Professor Sidney Cheung, Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His topic: “The Globalization of Chinese Cuisine.”

Nancy Yao Maasbach, Executive Director of Yale-China, introduces Professor Sidney Cheung before his lecture at 55 Hillhouse Avenue Avenue. (Chow/TYG)

But Chinese cuisine, as Professor Cheung has it, does not exist. His speech today dealt with lack of integrity Chinese food seems to have when held up against other cultural cuisines, like those of France or Italy. “We don’t want Chinese foie gras and we don’t want Guangzhou tomatoes,” he said, “Not for China… maybe soy sauce.”

Chinese cuisine, Professor Cheung told the audience, lacks an essential attribute or “strong character” that makes Chinese food Chinese. Instead, regional cooking dominates the scene: pork buns are “Cantonese cuisine”, while the tasty rice cakes at the reception were served “Shanghai-style”.

Professor Cheung later confessed that he meant to show “the dark side” of China’s food. He concluded softly:  “Chinese cuisine doesn’t have an identity.”

Then the fireside chat turned fiery. A microphone was passed around the audience for questions. One young woman, visiting Yale from a Chinese university, stood to deliver an impassioned defense of Chinese cuisine. Professor Cheung’s point about identity had clearly jarred her. In an effusive outpouring of Chinese idioms (“if it smells good, if it tastes good, it’s Chinese!”) and a proud depiction of Chinese cooking as “a kind of art,” she vehemently asserted the existence of a Chinese culinary identity.

Chinese history professor Richard C. Kagan, who had been at Yale in the early 1960s, explained the dynamic of that scene after the talk had concluded. “She was from China, and he was from Hong Kong,” he told me. The confrontation was a manifestation of the identity crisis faced by the people of Hong Kong, who China mainlanders insist are “Chinese” – though their city-state, one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions, uses a different legal system than that of the mainland.

“She was giving him a lecture,” Kagan added. “She was being condescending.”

Professor Cheung probably had not considered the politics of culinary identity a decade earlier, when he first embarked upon his study of Chinese cuisine. When asked what had moved him to research it, he responded: “I like eating.”

Janine Chow is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at