By Zoe Yang
The porchetta sparkled. Its skin, lovingly crosshatched, was like some exotic mineral deposit of burnished brown jewels. Raisins, minced pork, pine nuts, and herbs spilled out of its sides – a cornucopia manifest. It smelled like winter in Piedmonte.
Joanna, my boss, regarded my quivering, seductively-steaming twenty-pound mass of pork belly and wrinkled her nose. “It smells like Chinese medicine.”
It was winter of 2011, halfway through my year in Nanjing, China, where I had come to learn classical Chinese cooking. But after six months, what I had really learned was that authenticity was an infuriatingly elusive – and elastic – concept in China, especially around the holidays.
The smell – fennel – wasn’t the only problem, Joanna informed me, in the adeptly polite but blunt way that Chinese break bad news. Christmas for most Chinese people was an excuse to eat out, an elaborate date night for couples. I’d figured porchetta would be the perfect locally available, cost-friendly alternative to a Christmas ham, but apparently, pork was “everyday meat” – Chinese people want to eat beef or seafood on Christmas. Moreover, Chinese cuisine is always consumed family-style, so people had come to expect “Western food” in individual servings. Holiday market share was highly competitive, and my porchetta, portioned out, would have looked like a messy pile of mush compared to an elegant filet.
Christmas was the last thing I thought I would be getting schooled on in China. As a young financial analyst in New York, I’d checked the usual foodie destination-dining boxes and came to conclusions often seen on Yelp: that Chinese (and by extension, all ethnic) food in America was a pale, gutted version of its true self. At the height of the recession, dropping out of (or getting laid off from) straight jobs to go to cooking school seemed like the trendy thing to do, but while my peers enrolled at the FCI, CIA, or, if they were adventurous, the Cordon Bleu in Paris, I wanted to be the extra special snowflake who trailblazed China.
I arrived with the lofty goal of mining authentic Chinese cuisine like some anti-colonial Marco Polo, determined to show America what ethnic foods could look like when freed from tired phrases like “hole in the wall,” “secret menu,” and “only white person in the place.” The problem was, my instructors seemed thoroughly unconcerned with authenticity. While I had envisioned old-school hit-over-the-head-with-a-wooden-spoon-style indoctrination, every lesson seemed to be a lesson on flexibility: the Sichuanese don’t use sugar in kung pao, but elsewhere it’s OK; textbook tofu noodles are simmered with duck gizzards and dried shrimp, but every restaurant has its own spin. I was getting a crash course in adaptation, not authenticity. My understanding of these principles would soon be put to the test.
In Nanjing, a second tier city with relatively soft foreign presence, I found expat networks highly pliable. Through connections that would seem incredibly tenuous back home, I found myself consulting for a newly opened, Chinese-owned, Western style lounge, the evocatively named Castle. My mandate was to introduce recipes for classic cocktails and bar snacks, train the bar and kitchen staff on their execution, and generally impress expat and local clientele with food and drinks that were authentic but new to Nanjing. This was a dream job for which I had zero qualifications other than ample experience eating and drinking things in my former New York life.
Thanksgiving was our soft opening and my audition.
I kept it simple. Joanna located an exorbitantly expensive frozen turkey, and I tracked down fixings for stuffing. I knew there would be workarounds – dried rosemary would have to stand in for fresh sage, ground pork for sausage meat. Some things just weren’t available in the one Western supermarket, Metro, which was too French to be reverent over Thanksgiving. I skipped the other sides – green beans too plain, sweet corn and mashed potatoes too KFC. I also steered clear of dairy, not wanting to send our lactase-deficient Chinese guests home with rumbling intestines.
There were a few hair-raising moments – our one oven was an industrial pastry outfit with a tendency of short-circuiting – but Thanksgiving turned out to be a resounding success. Stuffing’s superiority is apparently universal. I was hired.
Over the next month, I immersed myself in the bar’s rhythms, making drinks and befriending regulars. I painstakingly developed a new bar menu, using our expat regulars as guinea pigs. I copied the recipes into Chinese and posted them around the bar for my bartenders. To me, doing things right meant buying crates of fresh orange, pineapple, and lime juice on Taobao (Chinese Ebay) and having them shipped all the way from Shanghai
But over time, I found myself adding asterisks to my menu.To me, a margarita made from tequila, gin (!), and syrupy generic lime and lemon concentrate (sour mix) was a Franken-cocktail to be banished to the pits of hell. But Chinese customers kept telling me I was making drinks wrong because they were so used to sour mix. I also kept getting cocktails sent back because Chinese customers felt the “correct” proportions were too alcoholic. My bartenders knew how to make every beautiful variation of martini, to use giant spherical ice for single malt Scotches, to crush mint without bruising it, to flame orange peels for negronis, but all anyone wanted to drink were long island iced teas – made with, you guessed it, more sour mix.
I had thought availability was my only enemy, one I was prepared to conquer with willpower, a loose budget, and a Taobao account, but I was learning that creating authentic experiences isn’t just a question of what you can do given certain limitations, but how those limitations have already informed customers’ expectations. Inauthentic versions of western drinks and dishes had become, to my Chinese customers, authentically Chinese.
I conceded to lower alcohol proportions, to strange Chinese favorites like the Snowball, made with egg liqueur and Sprite, even to the dreaded sour mix, and in doing so, I found myself empathizing with the long line of Chinese American restaurant owners who made their livings on chop suey and chicken wings.
I may have learned to stop worrying and love the asterisk, but anticipating local market tastes still proved tricky. When our Christmas test run came around, I felt like a genius for coming up with porchetta as the perfect centerpiece. But in my tunnel vision, I had only considered how the food would translate, not how differently the holiday was celebrated here. Authenticity had taken me for another turn: my Chinese bosses didn’t hire me to recreate exact flavors and techniques; they just wanted me to give customers what customers wanted: a passable cultural excursion, tableside.
Forced to think, for the first time, about what makes Christmas, Christmas, I realized that the things I considered essential really were just culturally specific flourishes. My notion of the holidays relies as much on time as it does place: in my native New England, where winter holidays don’t get any more Hallmark, Thanksgiving is slowly anticipated by leaves turning color and the nice long lead-up from Halloween, when we first eviscerate Jack and contemplate his flesh.
Similarly, Christmas in the US is a full month of Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey’s Christmas album in every public space. We share these fantastical – absurd – rituals, which can sometimes feel like a perennial self-hazing (Black Friday, anyone?), just to feel like we’re all in it together. And even if I am annoyed by the soundtrack of the holiday, I know I am part of a collectively annoyed we.
Such mass hysteria resists export, and natives aren’t usually confronted with the absurdity of their holiday behavior until outsiders come along to exploit the holes. My first Christmas in the US, Dad and I played chicken for weeks. He would tell me about Santa Claus, and I, a skeptical and devious child, would start sentences with “when Santa gives me a sled and a puppy” to call his bluff. In the end, he won, using the very physical impossibilities I had put on a show of overlooking. I left out milk and cookies. “Santa” left a note saying a sled wouldn’t fit down the chimney and puppies would suffocate in his bag.
All of this is to say that holidays are myths spun from cultural identity, so Chinese Christmas is a wholly different holiday than American Christmas. Stripped of context, holiday rituals are weird and meaningless. How do you explain gingerbread or fruit cake to people who grew up with no ovens? How do you explain a fireplace-transported Santa Claus to high rise dwellers? What country’s folklore do you have to delve into, and how deeply, to do justice to the concept of an elf? (In China, Santa’s helpers are foxy young women known as his “sisters.”) And even if you could explain such things to people, can you make them feel it?
The collective consciousness of a holiday is like a very old soup base or sourdough starter: locally unique, enriched over time.Those who disparage Chinese celebrations of American holidays as inauthentic spending orgies fail to see that consumption is the only universal element of any holiday. Besides, the Chinese have their own rich cultural miasma to work with – why go caroling in the cold when one can simply check into a KTV parlor?
In China, I was a hai gui, a sea turtle returned home to don the mantle of culinary translator. But to succeed I had to understand that my job wasn’t translation – it was adaptation. Once I realized that there really is good no answer to what Christmas should be, it’s easy to surrender misguided notions of authenticity.
Last year, at home in Boston, I cooked lobsters for Christmas.