Over the past two centuries, the Chinese community and its cuisine have endured several forms of discrimination. The Chinese exclusion laws of the late 1880s left Chinese food in America exclusively Cantonese for over a century. Housing discrimination restricted Chinese Americans to a limited number of neighborhoods, affecting the geographic distribution of authentic Chinese restaurants to this date. And twentieth-century protests by labor unions threatened the very existence of Chinese food in the U.S.
Now, a new threat to Chinese restaurants and cuisine is unfolding. San Francisco, San Jose, Berkeley, and three dozen smaller California cities have banned natural gas hookups in most newly constructed buildings. While these building codes may seem a reasonable approach to limit carbon emissions and curb climate change, they also endanger a revered element of Chinese cuisine.
Wok hei, sometimes referred to as the breath of the wok, is a hallmark of Chinese cuisine. Wok hei requires high heat, the kind that can only gas stoves provide. Indeed, some Chinese families (mine included) buy special 18,000 BTU gas ranges to accomplish wok hei at home. The open flame works with the rounded bottom of the wok to produce perfect Chinese dishes (for a scientific explanation of how this works, look here). In some newer California housing communities, an attractive amenity is the wok kitchen, a separate, confined cooking area specially designed for wok cooking.
While the environmental regulations do not take away existing gas connections (yet), Chinese restaurants that rely on open-flame cooking will soon not be able to set up shop in new real estate developments. Naysayers may argue an electric range or induction top can create the same effect. What next? A flat-bottomed wok? (Gasp).
At best, this oversight demonstrates a lack of cultural sensitivity. Unfortunately, Asian cuisines have been the frequent target of misguided public health over the decades. In the 1980s, local health departments often cited restaurants that displayed Peking duck and other Chinese roasted meats, claiming they violated state laws requiring refrigeration. Subsequent research led to legislative exemptions for Chinese meats, but not before hundreds of violators were fined and forced to trash their wares.
More recently, Asian rice noodles that are delivered warm have also come under unwarranted scrutiny. These noodles stay fresh for several hours, and refrigerating them effectively destroys them. Despite thousands of years of incident-free handling of unrefrigerated rice noodles around the world, local health departments have mandated refrigeration. Similar dustups involving mooncakes, stinky tofu, and other ethnic foods have added to this inglorious timeline of discriminatory actions in the name of safety.
Sure, not every attack on Chinese foodstuffs is without merit. Bans on shark fins and endangered species are completely reasonable. The former ban on Sichuan peppercorns in order to protect citrus crops was necessary. But these exceptions hardly excuse the cultural elitism undergirding many of the rules targeting Chinese cuisine.
Food is so important in Chinese culture that when we meet, we often don’t ask “how are you?” but rather “have you eaten yet?” The bans on gas hookups, which facilitate such a core principle of Chinese cuisine in which food is life, are wholly indefensible.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.