New York City's Museum of Chinese in America returns to the always-appetizing topic of Chinese food with "Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy," a highly engaging multimedia installation that digs deep into the cuisine's cultural impact in the U.S.
In 2004, New York City's Museum of Chinese in America had one of its most successful exhibitions ever with "Have You Eaten Yet?" – an in-depth look at the storied history of the Chinese restaurant in America. Twelve years later (fittingly, the full cycle of the Chinese horoscope), MOCA returns to the always-appetizing topic of Chinese food with "Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy," an engaging multimedia installation that digs even deeper into the cuisine's cultural impact in both the personal and professional spaces.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is unquestionably an elaborately laid-out, 26-foot-long banquet table that calls to mind Judy Chicago's landmark feminist work "The Dinner Party" (on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum). Laid out with individual settings for over 30 chefs and home cooks, the MOCA piece is more than a stateside who's who of the Chinese culinary scene today, although it's that too: Shun Lee's Michael Tong, Mission Chinese Food's Danny Bowien, and The Mandarin Restaurant's Cecilia Chiang all have places at the table, as do Martin Yan (Yan Can Cook), Ming Tsai (Simply Ming) and Ken Hom (Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure).
Should you come across a dinner guest whose name you don't recognize—Doniyar Sobitov of Brighton Beach's Kashkar Café, perhaps?—simply open the menu at his or her place setting to get a bit more background and some information on a signature entrée or ingredient. At the center of the table, six lazy Susans extend this interactivity even further as visitors are invited to gently spin the devices to learn more details on the wide variety of cuisine types that fall under the heading of "Chinese": Some of them are obvious (Cantonese, Sichuan, Hunan), while some may be less familiar to American audiences (Yunnan, Anhui, Hainan). And lest you underestimate the importance of Chinese-American as its own distinct style of cooking, this too is accorded equal stature, as is Chino-Latino and East Meets West.
As you might expect, each place setting comes with a pair of chopsticks, a fork, and a Chinese soup spoon alongside the aforementioned menu—but what elevates the piece from clever concept to an actual artwork are the colorfully whimsical, abstracted ceramic side dishes sculpted by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang for both the chefs and the cuisines. For Top Chef Masters' Anita Lo, Zhang has crafted what looks to be a starkly modern deconstruction of a Chinese food carton; for Taiwanese cuisine, Lau reinvents a bento box as a cubist skyscraper and then fills it with street food treats.
To call the exhibition a feast for the eyes might sound overly metaphorical, but with continuous video playing on all four walls it's hard to describe the experience as anything else. That video prompts a whole additional level of conversation among viewers, including as it does interviews with all the chefs included in the piece, who detail their successes and their setbacks. Running 1.5 hours and broken into four chapters (Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy), the film probably lasts longer than most viewers' visits will, but it's engaging from start to finish. Some of the stories feel very insider-y—like the origination of P.F. Chang's name (not what you'd expect!) or how a New York Times four-star review of Shun Lee gets credited with really putting Sichuan Chinese food on America's culinary map. Co-curator Kian Lam Kho, who conducted some of the interviews himself, remembers being particularly moved by Cecilia Chiang's recollection of her family's arduous wartime journey from Beijing to Chungqing, in flight from the Japanese.
Should you hit a point of sensory overload (and yes, it will come), a much more contemplative experience awaits you in MOCA's Cheng Gallery across the hall. Here the curators have assembled simple artifacts, most of them kitchen tools and utensils—like some chicken hooks from Yunnan BBQ's Doron Wong, a noodle strainer from Pine & Crane's Vivian Ku, and a set of handmade moon cake molds from a supplier in Hong Kong courtesy of Fung Tu co-founder Wilson Tang. Each item is then paired with a personal anecdote that explains its significance. Some stories are amusing: Home Plate Café's customized chopsticks misspelled the restaurant's name for 20 years before owner Ho-chin Yang spotted the error. Others are quite lovely: Bowien relates the very personal history of his prized Ferran Adria draining spoon.
The Museum of Chinese in America's exhibition "Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America" is open now and continues through March 26, 2017. Visit mocanyc.org for hours, directions or further information. Should you want to "take out" a part of the exhibition, MoCA has published a simple companion cookbook (of the same name) which features recipes from the full roster, including Jeff Gao's Yunnan Braised Beef Noodles and Leonard Liao's Lomo Saltado. File that part under Sweet.