Christian Long

Jennifer 8. Lee: Hunts for General Tso

In TED Talks on May 20, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Extra credit reflection by GABRIELLA B.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Jennifer 8. Lee:  Hunts for General Tso

What’s the most common take out food you eat? Come on, be honest, is it pizza or McDonald’s, burgers or is it Chinese? I don’t know about you but lately I’ve noticed, there are way more Chinese restaurants than there are McDonald’s. Everywhere you look whether it’s panda express, Pei Wei, super buffet, Splendid China they’re there. Serving all the familiar dishes we American’s love so much.

You know what I’m talking about, imagine it, the room is crowded and dimly light. Over the babble of voices you can hear water from that fountain by the front desk and the walls are covered with red and gold. The smell of fried food fills the air. You’re holding chopsticks in one hand but a fork is next to the plate. The check is sitting on the table and the all important fortune cookie is sitting in its crinkling plastic baggie waiting for you to finish off that last bite of broccoli and beef.

It’s easy and quick, the food is good and no matter where you are a Chinese place is nearby. But in Jennifer Lee’s energetic talk she shows us that your average Chinese has no idea what a fortune cookie is, much less why we used to think chop suey was a delicacy. This is mainly because the former is actually a Japanese food and the latter is roughly translated odds and ends…our equivalent of leftovers, go figure. The man who invented General Tso, a Taiwanese chef, was horrified when he saw the American version and your favorite dish, broccoli and beef isn’t actually Chinese at all, remember they don’t have American broccoli.

It just goes to show you how a hundred discrete parts (privately owned Chinese restaurants) can produce a fairly homogenous product that is completely unique to the region it springs up in. Think about it you have Mexican Chinese food, middle eastern Chinese food, Italian Chinese food, French Chinese food, Japanese Chinese food, Korean Chinese food and don’t forget good old American Chinese food. Each of them incorporates the country of origins food and essentially China-fies it.

Amazingly, people around the world eat this up. We love it. However much of the time we fail to realize that just like we recognize the names and stories of people like Howard Schultz, who came up with Starbucks and Ray Kroc with McDonald’s. We should remember the smaller characters like Lem Sen who introduced Chop Suey or Chef Peng who created General Tso’s. Just because we can’t remember their names and stories doesn’t negate their massive impact on the culture of our food.

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