The Wankerland Diaries or: In Defense of Chinese Cuisine

Defending Chinese cuisine from David Sedaris.

Editor’s Note: This article is the first of three responses to David Sedaris’ piece on Chinese food in The Guardian. The other two are a satire and a defense.

At first, I was tempted to rise above this all-too-obvious jibe at one of the world’s great cuisines, borne of one of the world’s once-great cultures. More than anything, I was bemused that anyone would be interested in David Sedaris’ views on food. It’s kind of like asking for Hemingway’s views on leather galoshes. Interesting? Maybe. Irrelevant? Most definitely.

Sedaris wants people to condemn him for his bigoted, ill-conceived views because it will sell far more books than well-researched, reasoned analysis.

Sedaris clearly subscribes to the Funny Games school of travel writing. He wants people to cough and splutter, to cry “racism,” and to condemn him to burn in eternal hellfire for his bigoted, ill-conceived views. He wants all of this, because it will sell far more books than well-researched, reasoned analysis. I’m not rising to it. In fact, I’d go so far as to agree, in principle, with his views on spitting, animal feces, and the Chinese penchant for allowing their children to defecate in plain sight. Not that these idiosyncrasies, aside from public defecation, weren’t commonplace in most American cities until recently (only intervention from Harvey Milk saw an end to the heaps of dog mess plaguing San Franciscan parks in the 1970s).

I regularly bore witness to excessive expectoration from British footballers, friends and family until, overnight, the practice vanished in the early 90s when we discovered organic vegetables and Levi’s jeans. Sedaris is fully aware of this. He went to China, as his first paragraph makes abundantly clear, determined to hate it. Which begs the question, if that was the case, why did he choose to focus on the least-hate-able element of Chinese civilization?

I will defend Chinese gastronomy to the last because it stands as China’s only living contribution to global culture.

I will not stand for this increasingly frequent dismissal of Chinese culinary art by Westerners who can barely use chopsticks. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to criticize—I don’t like shark’s fin, bird’s nest, or seahorse for example. Nothing to do with ethics, I dislike them because they’re tasteless and only used in cooking because they’re expensive. The popular affection for ingredients based purely on their place on the endangered list is my major bugbear with Chinese food. As is the selective exclusion of certain animals (if you like shark’s fin so much, why not tuck into giant panda or golden langur monkey?) However, I will defend Chinese gastronomy to the last. Why? Because I believe it is China’s only art form to have been in an almost constant state of innovation, development, and refinement, and now stands as China’s only living contribution to global culture.

For an American to be so dismissive makes the criticism all the more difficult to swallow. Sure, American cities may be melting pots of deliciousness, but that’s in no small part due to the contributions of other world cultures. Yes, that includes us much-maligned Brits, though I won’t get started on the joys of British cooking for a second time.

Sedaris’ endless comparisons with Japan are especially grating. I tire of this endless China vs. Japan debate—as if it weren’t enough to put up with the endless political back-and-forth living here, now Westerners are treading that ancient path of comparing two countries which, while admittedly crossing over in many areas, are so divergent in others that they might as well be on different continents. To compare attitudes toward hygiene and social conduct in China unfavorably with Japan is tantamount to comparing attitudes toward universal healthcare and education in the U.S. unfavorably with Cuba. The two nations have very different personalities. You don’t like it, go somewhere else. And, when it comes to food, comparisons between Asian nations are doubly redundant. Japan invented artificial cream, red bean-flavored Kit Kats and raw whale meat. Oh, and they also invented the love suicide. A country is only as refined as your perception allows.

Mainland Asia is unhygienic, but who the hell goes on vacation for the public bathrooms?

So Sedaris visited Chengdu and Beijing. He submitted an article ostensibly about food but wrote, almost entirely, about piss and shit, unable to drag his mind away from the scatalogical and onto the culinary for more than a few lines. Mainland Asia is unhygienic. Thailand, India, Cambodia—filthy, filthy places. With incredible food, but appalling public bathrooms. But who the hell goes on vacation for the public bathrooms? I wonder if he cut the lines commenting on how the dishes he tried actually tasted. Care to offer any insight into the preparation beyond assertions that animals are simply hacked to death and then boiled up any which way? While his fellow traveler’s remark that “this country might have its ups and downs but it is virtually impossible to get a bad meal here” is hokum of the highest order, I would venture that you’re more likely to eat the most extraordinary meal of your life in China than anywhere else, though you may have to kiss many frogs (hacked up or otherwise) before you find the prince.

The jianbing in action.

I’ve been disappointed by Chinese restaurants many, many times. But I have also been delighted. Anyone can find something they like in China’s endless pantheon of delights. A dear friend of mine, the fussiest eater I’ve ever known, on a recent visit discovered a passionate love for breakfast jianbing. Another two friends, a recently-engaged and resolutely middle-England couple, were less than enthralled by the cuisine forced upon them on their package tour until my better half took them to a Shandong restaurant close to where we live. Now, back in England, they do nothing but rave about hongshaorou (red-cooked pork).

You can dine in China three times a day and never have the same dish twice. If you don’t like it, you move on until you find the perfect match for your taste and temperament. Try doing that at Wendy’s.

Speaking as a passionate chef who spends all his free time in the kitchen, I’ll gladly doff my white hat and admit that China is still home to the world’s most diverse cuisine by far, a fact made all the more astounding by the relative paucity of base ingredients. Most dishes can be conjured up with the meat, fish, fungus, pulse or vegetable of your choice, to which is added one or more of the following: Sichuan pepper, soy sauce, vinegar, cooking wine, salt, sugar, star anise, cinnamon, bay leaf, and, if you’re feeling really flashy, oyster sauce. No Moroccan rose harissa, no buttermilk, no organic kaffir lime. You don’t need to visit Whole Foods and browse for three hours whenever you want to pick up a saucepan. Your spice rack is compact, your kitchen small, your utensils basic, and most all ingredients are available lusciously fresh and seasonal from your nearest wet market. Your repertoire next to limitless.

The phrase goes that French cuisine shows the genius of the chef and Italian cuisine shows the genius of God. But if God were a chef, he’d cook Chinese.