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NYC Restaurant Comes Under Criticism After Marking Itself as 'Clean Chinese Food'


A new Chinese restaurant that opened in New York City is catching a lot of heat for marketing itself as so-called clean Chinese food. The place is called Lucky Lee's, and the chef and owner is Arielle Haspel, a nutritionist. She said she wanted to celebrate the Chinese food she and her Jewish family grew up with, but without the gluten, refined sugar or additives she found in a lot of the Chinese food she's eaten. For example, she posted this about the dish lo mein on Instagram - you said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day, well, wait until you slurp up our high lo mein.

With us now to talk about all of this is restaurant critic Soleil Ho of the San Francisco Chronicle. Welcome.


CHANG: So just to be clear, this outrage, it isn't just about the fact that some white people are selling Chinese food, right? It's way more complicated than that.

HO: Absolutely. It's not about white people cooking Chinese food. I think people who talk and think a lot about cultural appropriation are really careful with our words because the conversation tends to get boiled down to that, but that's not the problem.

CHANG: So what kind of stereotypes about Chinese food is Lucky Lee's accused of trafficking in?

HO: When you use the language of clean when you talk about food, I think it's logical to think about what isn't clean, right? Like, what are you opposing? What are you going against? And so the flip side of clean is dirty.

CHANG: Right.

HO: It's untrustworthy. It's greasy. But that's a stereotype of Chinese restaurants and Asian food that reflects a lot of stereotypes about the people as well, that they're untrustworthy, that they're dirty, that you don't know if they're going to sneak dog meat into your meal, right? That sort of thing.

CHANG: Exactly. And also, a lot of those stereotypes about Chinese food that we're talking about are about Americanized Chinese food. You know, like, that it's greasy or overly sweet. We're talking about dishes like lo mein, kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork. That's not real Chinese food.

HO: Yeah. I mean, it's food that was adapted by the people who started these restaurants, these working class Chinese immigrants, to fit the market they were in, right? When you think about Joyce Chen, for instance, who was this historic really important figure in Chinese-American cuisine, she brought Northern Chinese food to Boston, to New England. And she was often called the Julia Child of Chinese food. She called dumplings Peking ravioli to fit the market...

CHANG: Yeah.

HO: ...Because so many of her customers were Italians. And so, you know, that is part of the cycle of acclimation, of assimilation and really, at the bottom line, trying to sell your food so your kids can go to college.

CHANG: Right, immigrants trying to survive, so they cater to American palates.

HO: Yes.

CHANG: Now, when someone who is white makes food from a non-white culture, what is the difference between culinary appropriation and simply culinary appreciation? Where's the line?

HO: To me - and this sounds so simple, but it's not - it's respect. So do you respect the people who came before you who blazed the trail, who made it so everyone knows what a pot sticker is? You know what I mean? Or are you disrespecting those people and saying what they've made is garbage, that their struggles and their lives don't mean anything to you?

And so that's a really dramatic juxtaposition, but I do think that that is the difference. Because the actual act of cooking the food that doesn't belong to you, that, in a vacuum, is fine. But when you think about these bigger systemic issues that keep people out of the same opportunities that you have, you know, that's where you have to start thinking, OK, what can I do that's proactive that actually shares the wealth that's been so sequestered along racial lines for so long?

CHANG: Soleil Ho is the restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Thank you very much for joining us.

HO: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.