Any Asian-American kid who's brought home-cooked food to school for lunch will tell you: It's not uncommon to hear that Asian food is dirty, smelly, and unclean. I wasn't the only one teased for being "gross" when I brought garlicky stir-fry leftovers to school. But the stereotype of Asian food — especially Chinese food — as dirty, strange, and unhealthy persists well beyond the school lunchroom. MSG has been unfairly stigmatized and solely associated with Chinese food since the 1960s, with diners' aversion to the compound driven more by xenophobia than health concerns. The stereotype that Asians will trick people into eating their pets is alive and well, too: Governor Mike Huckabee recently tweeted during a Democratic debate that "I trust @BernieSanders with my tax dollars like I trust a North Korean chef with my labrador!"
Stereotypes and misperceptions about food matter, because distaste for a people's food is a tangible way to express distaste for the people themselves. This Slate piece from 2014 on "gastronomic bigotry" is a good explainer on racism through food, which happens for non-Asian ethnicities too. Studies show that people are more likely to think they received food poisoning from non-European food, despite evidence otherwise — in reality, you're no more likely to get sick from eating Chinese or Mexican food than you are French or Italian. "Food is fundamental to who we are," one historian tells Slate. "Humans have always demonized the cuisine of ‘the other’ because it's the easiest way to say someone is less human."
Despite widespread debunking of the MSG myth — and a welcome move toward culinary inclusion — misinformed notions about Chinese cooking still show up regularly in otherwise well-meaning contexts. The latest example: The Infatuation, the independent restaurant review site, recently posted a review of Williamsburg Chinese restaurant Kings County Imperial, written by the site's co-founder Andrew Steinthal. On Twitter, I called it the "most racist review I've read of a restaurant, maybe ever." Early on, it assumes that all the worst stereotypes about Chinese food and Chinese people are true. Here's the beginning of the piece:
Eating Chinese food in this city is generally an exercise in extremism. You can get gross and roll around Chinatown or Flushing. You can go big and have yourself an out of body spice experience at Mission Chinese or Han Dynasty. Or you can overload on delivery, which prevents anything productive from happening the day after. It's rare you find a hip, cool, fun Chinese restaurant free of meat sweats and MSG. Kings County Imperial may not be traditional Chinese, but it officially serves our favorite Chinese in New York City.
By saying that going to Chinatown or Flushing involves "get[ting] gross," Steinthal implies that Chinese restaurants owned by Chinese people are gross, too. By saying it's rare to find "a hip, cool, fun Chinese restaurant free of meat sweats and MSG," he implies that most Chinese restaurants aren't hip, cool, or fun, and that most of them do cause you to feel sick. (It's also disappointing to see someone as influential as Steinthal still holding onto long-ago debunked myths about MSG.) All this wording fits in perfectly with historically racist attitudes against Asians expressed through food under the pretense of health and cleanliness — and we're only in the first paragraph.
The review keeps going, though, with Steinthal saying he's "glad" that this "pair of non-Chinese Chinese food enthusiasts" decided to open a restaurant. It's totally okay that chef Josh Grinker is white. It's his right to cook Chinese food, and on my own visit to the restaurant I learned that he does it well. That's not the issue here. The problem is that Steinthal sets up Grinker's non-Chinese-ness as a positive attribute, right after his put-downs of ethnically Chinese restaurateurs. The review goes on to say that Grinker's food "won’t put you in a coma — you could maybe even eat more than once in a single week," further reinforcing the idea that food from traditional Chinese restaurants makes diners feel ill. The dichotomy is unsettling. It's as if he's saying Chinese food is good — as long as it's not cooked by Chinese people.
Ultimately, Steinthal concludes that Kings County Imperial makes his "favorite Chinese in New York City." Look, the food's not bad at Kings County. I had a fine meal there. Eater critic Robert Sietsema even awarded it three stars, though he saw it as a new take on Chinese-American food and not as the be-all-end-all of all Chinese cuisine. (It's also worth noting that Sietsema spends much of his own review comparing aspects of the restaurant to his favorite places in Flushing and Chinatown, neighborhoods he eats in frequently and, as far as I know, rarely gets sick from.) But no matter how good the food it is, the way this review was written was not okay.
Update: The Infatuation has removed the review and issued a statement.