“Ugly Delicious” explores the twisted perceptions of Eastern cuisines in the West

Why do most of us associate French food with sophisticated candle-lit date nights and Chinese, Indian or Mexican food with greasy takeaways?

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David Chang stands in a kitchen wearing his chef uniform
David Chang explores why we think of cuisines in the way we do

Most food documentaries tend to be easy, unchallenging watches. We’re treated to aesthetic shots of dishes for us to enjoy vicariously, and nuggets of trivia which help us sound more like the foodies we aspire to be. David Chang’s Ugly Delicious however, makes for quite a different experience. A running theme through the eight episodes is Chang’s experience of growing up in Virginia and not properly celebrating the Korean food he ate at home because of the pressure to assimilate into ‘American’ culture. This experience fuels his desire to explore the cultural issues around certain cuisines and their perception in the US, though much of this is also relevant in the West more generally.

Chang questions why certain cuisines have the reputation they do. For example, why do most of us associate French food with sophisticated candle-lit date nights and Chinese, Indian or Mexican food with greasy takeaways? Chang suggests that the reasons for this are largely historical and cultural rather than anything to do with the food itself. When the early immigrants from China, India or Mexico began to settle in the US, they were poorer than — and thus segregated from — the white population. This meant that their food was perceived as unhygienic, cheaper and generally less desirable. A horrifying illustration of this is the portrayal of Chinese food as dirty and rat-infested in sinophobic propaganda in the US which culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This lingering xenophobia may be a plausible explanation for why certain cuisines have developed the connotations they have. However, this is clearly changing, certainly in big metropolitan centres like London with the rise in restaurants like Hakkasan or Yauatcha. People seem to be waking up to the fact that ‘Chinese’ can mean fancy restaurants as well as hangover cures.   

Chang also points out that much of what we think of as Chinese cuisine in the West bears, at best, only a slight resemblance to what you would find in a restaurant in China. A prime example being the infamous General Tso’s chicken. These westernised versions of traditional food made sense because early immigrants setting up restaurants had to be sensitive to a highly sheltered palate and to be authentic simply wasn’t commercially viable. This, of course can be seen with Indian dishes like Chicken Balti as well. However, this also seems to be changing as people begin to seek more authentic versions of cuisines that have historically been adapted. This is not to say that inauthentic adaptations are necessarily bad and of course, these can often develop as a sub-cuisine in their own right. However, a clientele with a more adventurous palate is likely to mean that restaurants feel able to offer dishes that are truer to home without fearing the loss of customers.

Chang highlights that whatever this ‘Chinese cuisine’ in the West is, it certainly does not reflect the remarkable differences in regional cuisines in China. Fiery Sichuan food is wildly different to the more subtle Cantonese dishes, for example.  This homogenisation of regional varieties is again not an issue specific to how the West views Chinese food, as clearly Indian food also falls prey to this. The Indian ‘curry’ in the UK is generally a mutation of north-western Indian food and incredibly complex Southern cuisines barely have a presence. Indeed, it works the other way too. In India and even Hong Kong, for example, it is common to come across restaurants serving ‘Western’ cuisine, ranging from pizzas to fish and chips. Fortunately this too, seems to be changing. As our generation becomes increasingly curious about the regional varieties in cuisines, hopefully this demand will be reflected in more regional restaurants.

Chang’s documentary offers a different way of exploring these important issues and questioning the foundations of why we think of some cuisines the way we do. It is definitely worth a watch over the vac and feeds both soul and mind.

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