THIS ARTICLE IS ADAPTED FROM THE OCTOBER 14, 2023, EDITION OF GASTRO OBSCURA’S FAVORITE THINGS NEWSLETTER. YOU CAN SIGN UP HERE.
A Brazilian feijoada brimming with Chinese sausages and lap yuk (cured pork belly). A lasagna layered with the tongue-tingling, Sichuan pepper–loaded sauce for dan dan mian. Congee made with the remains of an American Thanksgiving.
The dishes in Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen (which comes out October 31), the work of LA-born, Hong Kong-raised, Detroit-based chef Jon Kung, often read like a full-flavored fever dream.
But even if some of the combinations might initially seem unorthodox, there’s a logic and intentionality to all of them. A platter of Cantonese chow mein topped with jerk chicken references the history of thousands of southern Chinese immigrants brought to Jamaica, Trinidad, and Guyana as indentured laborers in the 1800s. A claypot inspired by jollof rice is the result of cooking for Nigerian chef Tunde Wey at his pop-up in Detroit.
Kung is far from the first chef to tackle the complexities of intermingling culinary traditions. Rather than obsessing over supposed authenticity, third-culture cooking celebrates the way dishes organically evolve in diaspora communities.
From Priya Krishna’s Indian-ish to Eric Kim’s Korean American to Calvin Eng’s upcoming Salt, Sugar + MSG, which explores Cantonese-American food, cookbooks have been parsing what it means to grow up with one foot in two distinct gastronomic worlds.
Gastro Obscura spoke with Kung about internet culture wars, Oscar Mayer wieners, and the joys of outrageously oversized meatballs.
Q&A With Jon Kung
What sets third-culture cooking apart from the so-called “fusion cuisine” of the aughts?
That was very superficial in the use of elements outside of the expertise of the chef. It was apparent in these fusion-y type dishes in which you had a French-trained or Western chef playing with the idea of an “exotic ingredient.”
The reason why it might seem cringey now is because there was no desire to look into the cultures any further than the ingredients, which makes it seem like they didn’t really care about the people behind them. It seems fetishy. It seems a little imperialistic, perhaps, maybe without the intent, but it certainly has that effect.
How did recipes like mapo tofu jjigae and Hong Kong–style borscht end up living next to each other?
Hong Kong–style borscht is actually a classic and traditional recipe. It just happens to be third-culture in nature, and it’s also something that I grew up with my entire life. My time in Hong Kong gave me the opportunity to already become immersed in a city that was cross-cultural by its very nature.
The mapo tofu kimchi jjigae came from this online flame war. It had to do with a Chinese governmental application for historical recognition for a Chinese vegetable pickling process. It looks absolutely nothing whatsoever like kimchi.
So they weren’t even staking a claim to the process of making kimchi as Chinese, but it got into some nationalist tabloids both on the Chinese and Korean sides. So for some reason, it got on the internet that China was claiming kimchi. It just got so heated.
Even though the emotions were very real, I thought it was very silly. And so I was like, you know what? I’m going to make a dish that is squarely based in both cultures, both nationalities.
It was with the purpose of creating something that was both Korean and Chinese that could be enjoyed by both Korean people and Chinese people. I don’t want to call it a little kumbaya thing, but that kind of gave me a reason to create it.
What’s one recipe in the book that has particular resonance for you?
The spaghetti with lion’s head meatballs is great because it personifies the duality that I’m talking about. It just illustrates the thesis so well in the sense that these two elements go together, but they’re totally separate at the same time. That’s what it feels like to be third culture.
I also like the fact that crumbled tofu makes the meatballs especially tender. Not a lot of people know that you can do that, I think. That was a trick that I learned from the chef at the Shanghai Club in Hong Kong.
It came from growing up with Italian-American food, as well as [Chinese dishes like] lion’s head meatballs. Really, the motivation for it came out of my desire to make a plate of spaghetti with cartoonishly large meatballs, almost like you’d see on TV or read in the children’s book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
I gotta say, one cross-cultural recipe that really caught my eye here was the “glam trash cake rangoons.” What’s the story there?
“Glam trash cake rangoons” literally came out of me filming a sizzle reel. A network rented out this gorgeous apartment kitchen to film in. And the producer just laid in front of me a bunch of things that they picked up from a gas station and wonton wrappers and was like, “What can you make out of this?”
It was the most uncomfortable experience. But people really liked that random creation of gas station ingredients, so I put it in the book. That was like a little tongue-in-cheek joke in the form of a recipe. They could have given me bacon and, of course, I could have edited the recipe to be a little bit more appetizing than, like, Oscar Mayer hot dogs. But that would have been an edited version of reality.
People are allowed to make substitutions. Lord knows we can’t stop anyone from doing it—if you look at The New York Times comments section, you know they’re going to do it anyway.
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