The connection between 9/11 and bad Chinese food

Will loosening visa restrictions improve your local Kung Pao chicken? Maybe, grasshoppers, we should look inside ourselves for true tasty enlightenment.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 15, 2007 5:51PM (EDT)

Chinese restaurants in the United States are not keeping up with the innovation, quality and variety of Chinese restaurants in China, declare Tim and Nina Zagat in an Op-Ed in Friday's New York Times. Even worse, while Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants all started off strong and have only improved, the state of Chinese cuisine in America is deplorable. This has been true since the first chop suey abomination cooked up by imported railroad workers in the late 19th century, and little has changed ever since.

The Zagats, founders of the Zagat restaurant guide, blame American Chinese restaurants' failure to match the explosion of haute-Chinese cuisine in China on the difficulty top Chinese chefs have in obtaining visas since 9/11.

...the principal obstacle to improving Chinese fare here is the difficulty of getting visas for skilled workers since 9/11. Michael Tong, head of the Shun Lee restaurant group in New York, has said that opening a major Chinese restaurant in America is next to impossible because it can take years to get a team of chefs from China. Chinese restaurateur Alan Yau planned to open his first New York City restaurant last year but was derailed because he was unable to get visas for his chefs.

Fancy that -- restrictions on global labor mobility are denying Americans the opportunity to escape from a century-long Chinese culinary nightmare! Finally, an immigration case study in which the issue of whether employers are just trying to get cheaper labor isn't relevant -- could one ask for a clearer case in which the necessary skills just aren't available in the local population?

Not so fast, says political scientist Daniel Drezner, in his own blog.

Immigration barriers should have a roughly equal effect on all Pacific Rim cuisines, not just China's. Why would it be the case that Chinese cuisine in the U.S. is particularly disadvantaged by visa restrictions?

Questions like that are like crack cocaine for economists. They will no doubt be debating the ins and outs of this puzzle in the blogosphere for weeks to come. Already, one of Drezner's readers has suggested that "path dependence" is the culprit. Chinese cuisine, dominated mostly by bland Cantonese fare preferred by early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and hampered by a lack of access to key ingredients, got locked in early -- Americans wouldn't know what to do with the real thing. Drezner himself suggests that China's much larger internal market leads to "more innovation and competition at home, leading to more frequent innovations. Without a reliable transmission mechanism (i.e., migrating chefs), Chinese cuisine in China will improve at a faster rate than in the U.S.A."

Much as I enjoy a good globalization, immigration, economic theory and Chinese food free-for-all, I have to blow the whistle on this one, because it's just too personal. When I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area 20 years ago, I was stunned by how bad the Chinese food was. Like everyone else in Berkeley, I had to eat Thai or sushi or Korean barbecue if I wanted real Far East flavor.

But my response to this was not to demand that immigration barriers be lowered so better chefs could set up shop (granted, this was long before 9/11, but bear with me). If the global, or local, economy isn't delivering what you want, then clearly the challenge is to fill that need yourself. The ability to cook quality Chinese food is not bestowed only upon the Han race, or those who were born in China. It is a learnable skill.

In the case of Sichuan food, I recommend starting with "Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook," advancing to Robert Delfs' "Good Food of Szechwan," and then going to graduate school with Fuchsia Dunlop's "Land of Plenty." When I first cracked the covers of Mrs. Chiang, I couldn't have told you the difference between a shallot and a scallion if you'd held a cleaver to my throat. Now I dream in shades of garlic and ginger. The day that the ban on Sichuan peppercorns was lifted by the FDA was one of the happiest days of my life.

I suppose, in keeping with the general policy of How the World Works that the best answer to the challenges of globalization is to be proactive, and not isolationist, I should propose a new culinary industrial policy for the United States. There is a clear market need -- the provision of good Chinese food -- that can be satisfied by education and training and subsidized access to high-BTU gas stovetop burners. A crispy duck in every wok!

But this time out, I prefer to celebrate the power of the individual will instead. There is a Mrs. Chiang inside all of us, yearning to be free. Let her out!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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