A Conversation About Chinese Foodways

June 07, 2021

Chinese food ways have developed all over the world, so chances are, you’ve tried Chinese food at least once. But how different is the Chinese food available in India compared to Ecuador?

The development of Chinese foodways and their interactions with several different cultures is the focus of a podcast created by Kabir Jain ’21, Reina Shahi ’21, Makaela Burch ’22, and John Moreno Vazquez ’22. Their podcast covers Chinese food in Ecuador, India, Jamaica, Japan, and Nepal — all places the students are connected to.

Listen to Chinese Food Across the Globe.

The podcast was the students’ final project for Chinese 288, Chinese Food for Thought, taught during spring 2021 by Jin Feng, professor of Chinese. She says, “It testifies to our students’ diverse backgrounds and research and presentation skills.”

The podcast is compelling for people who like to eat and who are fascinated with how cultures interact through food. So give a listen to learn a little history about Chinese food ways and how Chinese cooking adapted to different ingredients. Or read the transcript below, which was auto-generated.

Transcript of Podcast

Kabir:    All right, guys, welcome to our podcast on Chinese Food for Thought class. Today, John, [Makaela 00:00:08], [Reina00:00:08], and I, [Kabir 00:00:11] will be talking about how Chinese food ways have appeared and have developed in places that we have personal connections to. We hope you learn a little more about how Chinese food ways have developed all over the world and how they interacted with a bunch of different cultures.

I want to start off by introducing everyone and which particular places they'll be talking about. So, Reinawill be talking about Nepal and Japan, John will be talking about Chinese food in Ecuador, Makaela will be talking about Chinese food in Jamaica, and I'll be talking about Chinese food in India. I think we should first just start off with a sharp historical overview, maybe, of how Chinese food arrived at these places that we're going to be talking about. Anybody, feel free to jump in guys.

Makaela:    I guess I can start.

Kabir:    Awesome.

Makaela:    Chinese food in Jamaica arrived around the middle of the 1800s, along with a lot of people from China; mainly, the Southern region near Canton, essentially after slavery was abolished in Jamaica and throughout most of the Caribbean. A lot of indentured servants from China came to work the sugar plantations for a source of income. Along with them, they brought, obviously, their food ways and their culture, which has mixed in with Jamaican culture and cuisine and become its own kind of thing.

John:    For Ecuador, similar thing. Since it's really new in Ecuador, and it more of migrated into Ecuador... It really started in Peru, the version of Chinese food that is in Ecuador. It was the same timeframe about [inaudible 00:01:58] where they had indentured servants that would have go to Peru for the labor shortage [inaudible 00:02:07] would be working there. [inaudible 00:02:09] This new land that they're in, they started to open up restaurants and those restaurants slowly migrated upwards towards Ecuador.

Reina:    Yeah, that's really cool, John. Well, Japan has a much longer and deeper history with China. But talking about Chinese food, I think, when it really started coming in was during the Edo period, which is the 1600s to like mid-1800s, when trade started increasing with China. That's when merchants started bringing their cooks to Japan to set restaurants for them when they travel so they can eat Chinese food in Japan. I think around 1871, there were two treaties that were signed by China and Japan, which are the Sino-Japanese Friendship and Trade Treaty, which brought a really big influx of Chinese immigrants. That's when Chinatowns started popping up. The restaurants were still catered toward Chinese people.

But when the Sino-Japanese war started happening, the Chinese immigrants started leaving or declining. That's when Japanese chefs had to take over these restaurants. That's when the Japanese-style Chinese food came to be, like ramen, gyoza, all of those things. So yeah, that's how it started in Japan.

Let me just move to Nepal really quickly because the history there is not too deep. To be honest, I couldn't really find anything too deep, but as far as... I think a really simple explanation would be that they're neighboring countries. When the two started interacting, when Chinese people started immigrating to Nepal, they just started... It's cheap there. It's really cheap in Nepal to do anything, so they just had restaurants. They built their own restaurant... Sorry, give me a second. They built their own restaurants. That's probably it. That's probably it, I think. There isn't too much going on between those two countries. The food that Chinese people make in those restaurants aren't really catered towards Nepali people, unlike the United States where Chinese food is changed to fit their palates. Sorry, that was long because I had two countries, but why don't we switch to another neighboring country of Nepal, India.

Kabir:    Awesome. No, thank you guys so much for that. So, I got to say, just like Japan, I think India has a very deep and rich history of interaction with China. I think a lot of that is... I want to talk about globalization. We're all in like our education systems are introduced to globalization, that's something that happened recently. No, that's not true. It's been happening for centuries. If you guys [inaudible 00:05:39] Silk Route, it was this really popular trade route that ran through China, ran through all of Asia. It passed through India. A lot of Chinese food coming to India happened through the Silk Route and through these merchants who would pass through India, and Indian merchants who would pass through China. So that's basically that's how a lot of Indian exposure to Chinese food happened.

But the most popular origin story that you would find if you were searching today would be about 250 years ago, we're talking 18th century. India was being colonized by the British. Kolkata was the capital. It's a city in Northeastern India. That's kind of the closest you can get to China viably. So we saw a lot of Chinese immigrants come from Southern regions of China to Kolkata in search of "a better life." I'm not sure how that worked out for them, but yeah, the capital of British India, Kolkata, it was a really hustle and bustle place. It was attracting a lot of business.

So these people that kind of settled there, there were sort of stereotypical roles that they settled into; people from the Hakka region were mainly cobblers and tanners, people from mainland Cantonese areas were carpenters, and people from the Hubeinese region was, weirdly enough, dentists. That's a very specific thing, but that's what I found across a lot of research. That was for most of the men. Now, where Chinese food in India, like modern, comes into play, is for a lot of these men, their wives also wanted to earn something. So what they did was they started setting up a lot of Chinese restaurants.

This is something, I think, interesting that we'll talk about a lot over this podcast as well, which is how flavors that come from another country to one country adapt really well, adapt really often to the flavor profile of that country. That's exactly what happens in India. I'm sure today, for Chinese person who's grown up only in China, came to India and tried Chinese food, they would never be able to guess it's Chinese food. But, hey, to us, that's what it is. Yeah.

Reina:    That's awesome. I think since you brought up flavors, why don't we move into that topic and talk about how flavors have been adapted in each country, maybe their foods that have been influenced by Chinese cuisine. Yeah, if anyone wants to start sharing.

John:    I guess I can start with that. It was actually really interesting seeing the background of how they tried to adapt in this new environment. I read that they imported a lot of the native seeds from China to Peru and Ecuador when they started making the restaurant. So a lot of the ingredients that they would use in making Chinese food actually became part of the local cuisine as well. Then it was kind of push and pull in adopting their food ways. Now, you can see that they have bok choy that's readily available for them to use. Although, in Ecuador, there aren't many of these Chinese restaurants. The type of food that they actually offer is quite low. The really common ones would be wonton soup. They like sweet and sour chicken and wontons. A big one is, of course, fried rice, which just has a bunch of things in it.

Kabir:    That's awesome. I think for India, also, it's weird because I think Chinese food, at least from what we've learned about in this course, really often, a lot of the meat is beef and pork, but when Chinese food came to India... You know, obviously India is a Hindu majority country. You don't really have a lot of beef because Hindus consider that sacred. Since there's a very large Muslim population as well, you don't see a lot of pork being made as well. So, in modern-day Chinese food in India, the main protein is chicken. The way Chinese food has evolved in India is that what Chinese food is to Indians is the sauces that stuff is cooked in. Everything is stir-fried and then thrown into one of a few different types of sauces. It's basically like Indian vegetables and Indian spices, but in the sauce that is considered to be Chinese in flavor.

Makaela:    Yeah. I think it's really interesting how you both talked about how these foods are adapted to fit the local [inaudible 00:10:51] available, because one thing about Jamaica and the Southern region of China, although the climate is kind of similar, the foods that are readily available aren't. So a lot of the Chinese people who came to Jamaica had to use what ingredients they could to make sure that they could still eat food that they grew up with or that they really enjoy.

One of the interesting dish that I found was there was a chicken dish that was popular within Southern China that use Chinese sour plums. However, going to Jamaica, there aren't really Chinese sour plums there. However, they did find out that you could substitute that with tamarind, which is... I can't really describe tamarind. I don't know how to describe it. It's like a bean-ish type thing. It comes in a pod and they're like... Yeah, but it was very interesting to see how even in specific dishes, there can be one main ingredient that can be substituted out to fit wherever you are.

What you guys were saying about the current state of Chinese food in your given countries... I remember reading an article and someone was saying how people who grew up eating Chinese-Jamaican food, Chinese people who enjoy Chinese-Jamaican food, might go to Beijing and think that Chinese food there is completely different than what they know from Jamaica, what they know from what they've grown up with.

Kabir:    Yeah. No, I feel like tamarind is like... We use it quite a bit in Indian cuisine too. I agree with you. It's a very hard to describe flavor. It's like sweet yet salty yet like something else. I would call it umami, but I don't know if that's the right flavor profile for it. Yeah, no, I get that.

Makaela:    Yeah. Tamarind, it's really good but it's hard to describe.

John:    That's so interesting how they substitute things, how it was like [inaudible 00:12:46] chicken and then not having the sweet and sour plums. I guess it's really weird that they imported the seeds into Peru and Ecuador and just started to like cultivate their own, I guess, the ingredients that they would use back home.

Makaela:    Yeah. I think that's really interesting that it was a matter of importing to seeds and growing the same food that you've had. That's really interesting.

John:    Even the products and stuff, like Peruvian food and Ecuadorian food, you can see that they use soy sauce now, which is they didn't use to use a lot of the ingredients as well.

Reina:    Yeah. That's really interesting because at least in the case of Japan, I think since they're really close to each other, they didn't really have issues when it came to ingredients. Both countries don't have any issues with any kind of meat or anything. I said any so many times.

I think the biggest issue for Japanese people was the spice because Japanese cuisine is usually just salt and sweet. They don't really put chili or anything like that into their food. So when Japanese chefs started making Chinese food, I think, it started... It shouldn't be called Chinese food. Even in Japanese, there are two terms for Chinese food and Chinese-Japanese food. Chinese food would be to [foreign language 00:14:16] and Chinese-Japanese food would be [foreign language 00:14:21]. It's really different. Japanese people love mapo tofu and a bunch of other Chinese foods, but mapo tofu is usually really spicy and tingly, but the Japanese one doesn't have that.

Yeah. So, some of the Japanese foods that have Chinese influence like ramen or gyoza... Ramen isn't Chinese at all, I think Chinese people would look at ramen and wouldn't really consider it their food, but again, Japanese people say ramen and they write it in [foreign language 00:15:01], which is the alphabet used for foreign loan words. My point kind of shifted here, but basically, Japanese people's issues with Chinese food was the spice. So even if you eat ramen, it's not spicy at all. It's just pure salt.

I guess another food that Japanese people take influence from China is gyoza, which I talked about earlier. I find it really interesting that dumplings... So many different countries have taken influence, have made their own kind of dumpling.

I think from here, I want to shift to Nepal, where momo is one of the most famous Nepali cuisines, but it takes influence from Tibet. The word "momo" actually comes from a Chinese word called "bobo", I think, which means bun. I just find it really interesting how both Japan and Nepal have taken influence from dumplings and have made their own thing. Nepali people put their own spices, Japanese people removed the spices. It's really interesting building like it's like a Lego where you just build your own dumpling kind of sort. Yeah.

Kabir:    I found that actually really interesting when you were talking about the spice and that not being a very major taste profile in Japan, because spice was part of the main reason that Chinese food succeeded in India. Generally, the flavor profile is that spicy food is nice. People like spicy food. Especially food from the Sichuan region in China, came to India a lot.

But the funny thing was it has, today, been bastardized to something that is called schezwan in India. They don't even use like Sichuan peppercorns because that's like a numbing spice. There's none of that numbing sort of taste. Oh, my mouth is watering when I'm talking about... There's none of that numbing spice in the spicy Chinese food in India, but they kind of just substituted spice. Any sort of spicy sauce, anything that has been stir-fried in the spicy sauce is just automatically called schezwan in Chinese-Indian food. So, yeah, I found that an interesting contrast between what you were saying about Japan and how I've perceived Chinese food in India.

Reina:    Yeah, even in Nepal, I think, it was the same thing. I think Nepali people and Indian people have similar palates when it comes to spice. If you go to the restaurants owned by Chinese people in Nepal, the flavor isn't really adapted to Nepali people's palates, I think, because they can handle the spice and they're really open to trying new foods, unlike maybe in the United States. It's really interesting how some places just don't have, at least from my experience in Nepal, they don't really try to adapt to the Nepali people's palates.

John:    I was really interested in when you're talking about the naming distinctions in Japanese, because in Spanish they call Chinese restaurants [foreign language 00:18:55], which is basically just the Spanish pronunciation of the Chinese [inaudible 00:19:03]. Well, I mean, it was Cantonese. So I just found it really interesting, like what do they call Chinese restaurants or Chinese food in those countries?

Kabir:    In India, it's called either a Desi-Chinese. Desi is basically a word that is like ubiquitously used to describe anything of South Asian descent. So it's called Desi-Chinese or Chindian, which is just like a portmanteau of Chinese and India. Yeah.

Makaela:    I don't really know. I think in Jamaica it's just called Chinese food,-I'm not really sure, or Chinese Jamaican food. To my knowledge, I don't think there's any portmanteau or cool way to say it.

Kabir:    Do you guys have favorite dishes in Chinese food in the places that we're all respectively talking about? Do you guys have any favorite dishes or stuff that you really crave?

John:    I mean, they love to make the fried rice. That's like, I guess, the biggest Chinese food I like in Ecuador. My only thing would be... So I would think, as you guys were talking about spice earlier, because South Americans, we like spicy things. We add aji to almost all of our foods. But the Chinese food isn't that spicy. It's very mild, I guess, in my opinion. So I was like, they had a lot of opportunity to throw in some spice.

Kabir:    For me, I would say it's like there's this really unique [inaudible 00:20:43]... I honestly have not seen anything similar to anywhere in the world, which is like honey chili potatoes, which is basically, think about french fries tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce. It's considered Chindian, Desi-Chinese.

The one thing that I do want to point out about Chinese food in India, that I forgot to point out earlier, is that you don't really... Sure, you can have authentic Chinese food when you go to a really expensive restaurant or something, but Chinese food in India, Chindian, or Desi-Chinese, is mainly a working man's food. It is cheap. It is sold mainly as street food. You would expect students to just go and have it as a snack after school, or the working common man to have it for lunch and during lunch break or after work or something. It's supposed to be really cheap yet really fulfilling food. It really satisfies a craving in you because it's like sweet and spicy and salty. Those are flavors that really cater to cravings.

Makaela:    Yeah. I think it's interesting seeing how Chinese food currently interacts with the locations it's in. In Jamaica, a lot of people... Well, there's a sizeable population of people who identify as both Chinese and Jamaican or Chinese, and [inaudible 00:22:12] African descent or indigenous descent. I was reading articles about people who are Chinese-Jamaican and their dinner tables, when they were growing up, and a lot of people were saying how it's rather than a huge fusion dish, it's like you have certain Chinese dishes and then certain Jamaican dishes on the table. You might have jerk chicken right next to a traditional Chinese dish that has come through people going there in the past. So I think it's really interesting seeing how not only is there like a fusion where there are things that mix, but also there's some things that just work well together, rather than becoming one thing. They're separate, but they work well.

Reina:    Yeah. Kabir, when you were talking about Desi-Chinese food being a working man's food, that just reminded me of how in Japan, actual Chinese food, like the Chinese Chinese food, you can find them in really high class restaurant. It's considered a luxury to go with your family to go eat in a Chinese restaurant in that... What's that table called again? The lazy Susan or something.

Kabir:    The lazy Susan, the rotating table.

Reina:    Yeah, having those tables apparently kind of already signifies luxury. Japanese people go to those restaurants as a luxurious experience. On the other hand, Chinese-Japanese food or [foreign language 00:23:48] is cheaper and you can find them in family restaurants. It's really interesting to see that contrast between those two foods. Yeah.

Kabir:    Yeah. I feel like that exists in almost everywhere that a food from a certain country has come to another country, food from a certain culture has come to another culture. In any of those cultures, you can have the food of the other culture, in the authentic way. We talked a lot about authenticity. It's hard to define, but you know what I'm trying to get at? You know, something that's original to the culture that it's coming from. Sure, you can get that too, but personally, I found it way more interesting to think about how those foods have become "unauthentic, inauthentic," whatever, like how they have adapted to those cultures. It is very interesting to see the contrast between those two.

John:    Currently, it's more of a new phenomenon having a lot of the Chinese restaurants open up in Ecuador, because I remember when I went in 2017, a long time ago, I didn't even know that Ecuador had Chinese restaurants. There was none there because we lived in a more smaller town, but then when I went recently, we were just driving and someone was like, "Oh, do you want to eat [inaudible 00:25:21]?" I was like, "What is that? What is the [inaudible 00:25:24]?" They were explaining to me and I was like, "Oh, this is a Chinese restaurant." I was like, "I didn't know that they had Chinese restaurants here." Then [inaudible 00:25:36] upon it, it was because when relations between Ecuador and China became to become... It bettered in the 2010s. So then they allowed more immigration to Ecuador and, likewise, Ecuadorians to China. I don't think you need a visa for 30 days. So then more of these restaurants are opening up. I'm excited to go back and see if there is even more, or if they offer more foods or how it diversifies.

Makaela:    I think that's really interesting how there's an influence of Chinese Food coming from Peru that's been there since the 1800s. Then now you have more relations between China and Ecuador, so there's the influence Chinese food coming from that way. I think that's really interesting how it's coming from two different sides, but all converging into this one country.

John:    It's going to be even different now because immigration is more open, because the Chinese food that came from Peru is more from the Guangdong region. It's more of like just one section of China. That's where a lot of the immigrants came from. So now that the immigration laws are more lax, it can come from all sorts of places, all provinces. So it will be even more mix of Chinese food.

Kabir:    I find it interesting to hear all three of yours perspectives on Chinese food in these places, because I feel like Ecuador and Jamaica have a relatively shorter history with Chinese food than India and Japan and Nepal, simply because of geographical proximity. But it's interesting to see how when you are talking about in Ecuador, and when you're talking about in Jamaica, Makaela, I find that your descriptions are way more... I don't want to use this word, but authentic of original Chinese food than what I consider Chinese food in India, because in India, it's had so much longer to adapt to local taste buds.

Reina:    Yeah. I just love hearing about Chinese food in Jamaica and Ecuador because at least... I grew up around Chinese food, basically. It wasn't really surprising to me to see Chinese food around the places that I lived. Even now, in the United States, we have... Even in the middle of Iowa, we have a Chinese restaurant. Just hearing your fascination, John, when someone asked you to go eat in a Chinese restaurant, it opens my perspective more. It just opens my perspective more.

John:    It was definitely an odd experience because it was the last thing on my mind. Eating Chinese food was the last option I even would have thought of, even being a Chinese major. So hearing that that was an option, I was like, "What?" I'm learning something new about my own mother country.

Kabir:    Yeah. I think that's a lot of what we wanted to say. I think we covered a lot of history and modern Chinese food in the countries and places that we're all talking about. I've personally found it very interesting, in particular, when Makaela was talking about tamarind being substituted for Chinese sour plums. That kind of got me thinking, in other places, what kind of ingredients for not just Chinese food, but any other food coming to any other country, what kind of ingredients can be substituted while you still maintain that label of Chinese food or whichever culture the food is from. So I found that very interesting and I found it very interesting to see how in Ecuador, Chinese foods are a recent phenomenon, right, john?

John:    Yeah.

Kabir:    Japan and India obviously have a very... Nepal, too, thanks to the Silk Route and all the influence from its own country and its neighbors. All of these countries have a long history with China and we've had a lot of time to develop these flavors, adapt them to local taste buds. Yeah. I hope that people who are listening to the podcast get something to think about Chinese food maybe in their own country. If you're in America, I think there's a lot to think about Chinese-American food, especially that's something that is talked about quite a lot often and how it's very inauthentic. I feel a little conflicted using the term inauthentic because... Well, that's a whole different podcast, so I won't dive into that too much right now.

John:    That's the next episode.

Kabir:    Yes. But I think we've talked about quite a lot today and I hope that our listeners have a lot to think about after this.

Reina:    Okay. I just want to say it's so great that we got to talk about so many different countries and the impact of Chinese food in our respective countries. I just never would have known if we didn't have this podcast about Chinese food's influence on India, Jamaica, and Ecuador. So I think this was a very valuable exchange of knowledge and experience and information.

John:    I agree. It was honestly really amazing to hear the rich history that Chinese food had in Nepal, Japan, and India, kind of seeing that as the future of what might it be in Ecuador, how it might evolve in Ecuador, and how it might evolve the tastes of Ecuadorians. Even seeing the difference between the Chinese food in Jamaica and Ecuador, how, although it started in similar times, Jamaica had that substitution, and Ecuador more just decided, "Oh no, we're going to bring our own ingredients."

Makaela:    Yeah. I definitely think I learned a lot in this time, because I think it's easy to kind of see things in the context of what you've seen growing up and kind of leave it at that, but learning about the experiences of other people and kind of being able to see stuff outside of your own box, I think that's really cool. Learning more about the Chinese and Ecuadorian relations that you were talking about, John, how there are currently more people from China immigrating to Ecuador. Also, with what you were talking about, Kabir and Reina, the longstanding history that China has with Japan, India, and Nepal. I think it's really interesting seeing how all of these things work together to create this kind of different food ways that we can just sit here and observe.

Kabir:    Awesome. Thank you guys for coming and talking with all of us about this. To everybody who's listening, thank you for tuning in. That's us signing off. Thank you very much.

Makaela:    Thank you.

Reina:    Yay!

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