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"Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy" at Museum of Chinese in America

Storytelling by way of cooking Chinese food

by CH Contributor
on 25 October 2016

The Museum of Chinese in America's latest food-centric exhibition isn't as Instagrammable as, say, the rainbow sprinkle pool at the Museum of Ice Cream's NYC pop-up. Instead, it asks visitors to sit, stick around, and converse—just like one would do around the table, at a family meal. Located just north of the hustle and bustle of Canal St, MOCA hosts "Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy," a two-room exhibition that compiles stories from more than 30 Chinese and Asian American chefs—told through writing, video interviews, interpretative ceramic sculptures, collected personal objects and more. Recognizable names like the experimental Danny Bowien (of Mission Chinese) and 96-year-old Cecilia Chiang (who opened The Mandarin in SF back in 1961, and whose son would go on to co-found PF Chang's) pepper the list, which also highlights home cooks who, for decades, have been serving up the comforting echoes of the country they've left. Each one of these first- and second-generation immigrants has their own American story, told through the perspective of food, to share.

MOCA's last food-themed exhibition, 12 years ago, "Have You Eaten Yet?" examined the history and significance of the Chinese restaurant in America—a pretty straightforward take. Their new exhibition, however, unfurls at an interesting time when Americans are more curious than ever and opening themselves up to learn about regional Chinese cuisines—you'll hear "xiao long bao" or "dan dan mian" uttered just as often as General Tso's these days in New York. As authenticity and cultural appropriation in food become more hotly debated subjects, "Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy" becomes a meditative haven to absorb the deeply personal Chinese American experience—especially for those who don't have a po po or nai nai at home to talk food, and life, with.

The exhibition, now open, runs through March 2017. MOCA has planned some related events, like a memoir-writing workshop with author Ava Chin.

Images courtesy of MOCA

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