Museum celebrates Chinese food — in ceramic
Sour, sweet, bitter and spicy as a Chinese idiom refer not only to the delicate balance of flavors that define Chinese cooking but also to the vicissitudes of life.
For Chinese in America, the four tastes still permeate their cuisines, which have been carried on their immigration journeys and in their life experiences.
“Food is at the heart of Chinese culture, and in America, the very definition of Chinese food is constantly contested in home and restaurant kitchens across the country,” said Herb Tam, curator and director of exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York.
Tam spoke at the press preview of MOCA’s fall 2016 exhibition: Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America.
He called the exhibition “really an elaborate dinner table conversation with some of our most exciting chefs…”
And while you won’t get to eat any delectable dishes, you’ll be treated to a creative ceramic interpretation of the meals, provided by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang.
“Because we couldn’t have food (for showing), I thought the closest thing that could become food for the exhibition was ceramics. … And for the artist, they were able to interpret the regional cuisines, specific chef styles of cooking and the landscape of certain regions,” Tam said.
Each chef and 18 different regional cooking styles are represented through the ceramic sculptures on a massive dining table.
The exhibition shows how Chinese food is interpreted through the stories of more than 30 Chinese and Asian-American chefs, some of whom are Michelin-rated and some who are known for their home cooking.
Pioneering chefs such as Cecilia Chiang, Ken Hom, Anita Lo, Ming Tsai and Martin Yan are featured along with new restaurateurs like Peter Chang, Vivian Ku and Danny Bowien; and longtime home-style cooks like Biying Ni, Yvette Lee and Ho-chin Yang.
Another creative touch of the exhibit is that the menu at each place setting features a participating chef’s bio.
Over the past year, MOCA’s team of curators went to the chefs’ restaurants and homes to gather their stories, watch how they cooked, and of course, to taste their meals.
In the past year, Tam said he wondered what would happen if the chefs were all sitting together at a dinner table and having a conversation.
So in a 90-minute video installation on four walls of the museum’s main gallery, the various chefs talk about where they grew up, what kind of food memories they have; what their first taste of American food was like; the challenges they faced and the meaning of authenticity.
“What we want to highlight is, A, food is very personal, and B, food is an occasion for people to have conversations,” Tam said.
“Chinese food is a cornerstone of American culture, and it has brought so many different generations and ethnicities together,” said MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach.
“Since the beginning of Chinese immigration to the US, Chinese eateries have served as the foundation of a new life in a new place. By opening the door to their kitchens, Chinese people became integral parts of their communities,” she said. “This groundbreaking exhibit presents all the complexity of Chinese cuisines and Chinese life in America.”
The exhibition will be open from Oct 6 through March 26, 2017.
Media members browse the fall 2016 exhibition Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America at the press preview at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York on Wednesday.