Yash Aprameya/MiC.

As a product of the time I spent counting my calories, weighing myself twice a day and cutting out major food groups from my diet, I could tell you a dozen different ways to turn a rice cake into a slightly less bland “meal” or how to make cauliflower rice taste almost like the real deal. I could tell you exactly how many calories are in a serving of rice and exactly how many grams of protein are in a cup of yogurt. “Clean eating” dominated my Instagram explore page and TikTok feed until I was spending hours in the grocery store reading ingredient lists and nutrition labels every time I needed to buy something. 

There’s a fixation on cleanliness that dominates diet culture today. No longer are we in the era of keto diets or fat-free chips. Instead, we’re told to cook without oil, to cut out dairy and gluten and processed foods. To never drink alcohol and to live and breathe green smoothies and salad bowls. I tried, with great effort, to achieve the aura of cleanliness and light that seemed to saturate the women I followed on social media, an aura that they told me came from their diets. Clean eating told me to focus on protein, but only in the form of chicken breast or tofu nuggets. It told me that carbs make you fat — unless it’s oatmeal or quinoa — and that oils and sauces were my worst enemy. Most importantly, it told me that if I wanted to be like the girls I followed, there was a select group of food options I had to choose from … and Chinese food was certainly not included.

For context, my family’s primary love language is food. On nights I was up late studying in high school, my mother would bring a plate of cut-up fresh fruit to my room. My Ayi made me a homecooked meal everyday after school from grades K-12: xuěcài ròushí mian (pickled mustard greens and pork noodle soup), jiǎozi (dumplings) and yóufàn (savory sticky rice), suānlàtāng (hot and sour soup) and xiǎobáicài (sauteed baby bok choy). Once in ninth grade, I told her that I loved Asian pears and now every year when they’re in season, she buys me boxes and boxes of them (I would never tell her that I don’t really love them anymore). My grandmother has arthritis and can’t stand for too long without needing to rest, but she still makes me soup when I’m sick and mǐfěn (sauteed rice noodles) on the nights before I go back to school because she heard that it’s my favorite recipe of hers. I grew up on Chinese food from my grandmother’s kitchen, the restaurants Ayi’s sister worked at and the supermarkets where I had thirty aunties who would give me free mochi and Choco-pies. For a family that struggles to show affection in a conventional way, I’ve never doubted that I am truly and deeply loved, a sentiment communicated through our sharing of food. 

My family’s cooking has always been a source of pride for me. I thought of them as artists and musicians in the kitchen, creating colorful, intricate dishes from the simplest ingredients. When I was in third grade, I promised my Ayi that when I grew up and had my own money, I would buy her her own restaurant so that everyone could eat the food I loved so much. However, I quickly learned that others saw my culture’s food not as something to be revered, but something to be corrected.

In 2019, Arielle Haspel, a white health and nutrition coach, opened her own Chinese restaurant named “Lucky Lee’s”  in an attempt to do just that. The restaurant’s logo was adorned with chopsticks and a lotus flower painting decorated a wall inside (points for cherry-picking what fits her Orientalist aesthetic). When promoting her restaurant, Haspel described her vision as a ‘clean’ version of Chinese cuisine, one that would be accessible to her and her food-sensitive clients. She boasted that her lo mein would not make you feel “bloated and icky” the next day because her food would not be “too oily.” Blog posts on Haspel’s page mentioned health-ifying Chinese food that is usually “doused in brown sauces” and makes your eyes puffy. Upon facing backlash, Haspel defended herself by asserting that her mantra of clean eating is “all about finding a healthier alternative to your favorite indulgent food,” regardless of what cuisine that food was associated with. This pseudo-apology for offending the Chinese community failed to address how all of her “clean eating” marketing carried the glaringly obvious connotation that Chinese food in and of itself is dirty and unhealthy. By default, this response also failed to address the historical association of whiteness with cleanliness and Color with uncleanliness.

There’s nothing wrong with the concept of a Chinese restaurant tailored to those with dietary restrictions. Creating gluten-free, dairy-free or nut-free options, among others, is a great, inclusive idea. But you know what? I actually don’t even want to give Haspel that one, because my sister’s favorite restaurant when we were kids was a Chinese-owned, vegan Chinese restaurant. So it’s not an innovative idea then, because shocker! Chinese food is more than orange chicken and chow mein. My frustration with this restaurant doesn’t stem from a white woman opening a restaurant to serve another country’s cuisine, either. Fuchsia Dunlop’s Chinese cookbooks are awesome and delicious. Instead, my frustration stems from a white woman implying that Chinese food has something to be cured.

Haspel’s visions of “fixing” Chinese food are hardly novel. Chinese food’s original bogeyman, MSG, has been demonized since the 60s. There is no scientific evidence that MSG has negative health effects and yet, the term Chinese Restaurant Syndrome was coined in 1969 to describe the alleged burning and chest-pain inducing effects of MSG. In the 1990s, the FDA concluded that MSG is safe for consumption. But still, MSG continues to be vilified in the food industry and used to uphold the image of Chinese food as unhealthy and unclean. Anyway, MSG is in ranch dressing which is like, the most American thing I can think of.

To counter Haspel’s assertions about Chinese food and its alleged bloating properties, as well as the xenophobic undertones of our society having a term called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” allow me to walk you through a “what I eat in a day” in the life of a K-12 me. While much of Chinese cuisine might fall into whatever fad diet is trending at the moment, it already has universal health benefits that I’m glad to be acquainted with in my everyday life. 

Breakfast: 蘑菇蒸鸡蛋 (steamed egg with mushroom)*

Shiitake mushrooms: good amount of fiber, good source of B vitamins, contains many of the same amino acids as meat and compounds that help lower cholesterol, can strengthen immune system, the only natural plant source of vitamin D

Eggs: highly nutritious, excellent source of vitamin A, Vitamin B5, B12, and B2, raises good cholesterol, linked to reduced risk of heart disease, antioxidants with benefits for eye health, source of choline

*contrary to Haspel’s concerns about the “oiliness” of Chinese food, no oil is used in this dish. It is also vegetarian, gluten free, nut free, and dairy free all on its own.

Lunch: 排骨汤 (pork bone soup)*

Pork bone: high in protein, good source of vitamin B12 and B6, bone marrow full of collagen

Napa cabbage: no cholesterol, high in B vitamins, vitamin C, iron, calcium and fiber

Ginger: medicinal, anti-inflammatory, relieves nausea, promotes healthy digestion, lowers cholesterol levels, helps with menstrual pain 

Mung bean vermicelli: source of iron, choline, calcium, phosphorus

White pepper: anti-inflammatory, promotes healthy digestion, reduces blood pressure, increases energy

*gluten free, nut free, dairy free, could be made vegan by subbing tofu for pork

Dinner: 火锅 (hot pot)

Essentially a pot of boiling broth that you cook whatever you want in. Common ingredients for hot pot include thinly sliced pork, beef, lamb, fish cake, shrimp, cabbage, mushroom, lotus root, tofu and vermicelli. Then, you dip it into a homemade sauce, which can contain ingredients like vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, scallions, peanut sauce, sesame paste, chili oil, cilantro, oyster sauce, soy sauce, etc. 

As I hope this “what I eat in a day” illustrates, Chinese cuisine is balanced, hits necessary macronutrients and provides plenty of health benefits. As with any cuisine on Earth, Chinese food has its healthy options and its unhealthy options. I can’t think of a culture whose diet doesn’t include nutritious dietary staples. Diet culture and the clean eating craze solidify the idea that the Americanized version of another country’s cuisine is the only version. This portrayal delivers a blow when, for many POC, Americanizing their cuisines was a method to assimilate and survive in a new country, only to have these adaptations weaponized by American society to subordinate their cultures. This subordination is deliberate, selectively extended to non-Western cultures while conveniently avoiding cuisines that are associated with whiteness. If I ask, should we get French food or Chinese food tonight, I might get two very different answers. They’re both foreign to America, serving cuisines designed to appeal to American consumers, but one is classy, sophisticated and implies me breaking out a nice sweater and jeans, while the other is cheap, quick and suggests me wearing a full sweatsuit. There’s no skepticism when it comes to ordering fettuccine alfredo at an Italian restaurant; it’s Americanized foreign food, but it’s familiar, safe. In contrast, Chinese food raises concern over ingredients, quality and overall strangeness. While foods from all cultures have healthier recipes and more indulgent recipes, it’s undeniable that suspicion towards non-Western food items is much more prevalent.

I’ve probably googled “healthy recipes” a thousand times. Most results give me some variation of chicken breast and kale, but I also get a lot of posts about clean versions of Mexican food or healthy alternatives to your favorite Thai order. I love chips and queso as much as the next girl, but the tortilla chip definitely does not encompass the whole of Mexican food. I’ve never been to Thailand, but I am positive that their diet consists of more than pad thai and drunken noodles. This reductive view of “ethnic food” as being a curated set of stereotypical dishes — and those dishes being bad for you — reduces non-Western cultures to a monolith of cuisines that need saving, protecting the belief that Eurocentric culture is better than any other culture.

The lack of accurate representation of different cuisines — at least within diet culture and social media — partially stems from creators of Color not receiving the same appreciation as white creators. The idea of social media influencing being a full time job is a new concept. We have expanded our notion of the parasocial relationship and of what work can be done to elevate under-represented voices, but like all other forms of media, people of Color are hurdling while white people sprint on an open track. Creators like @okonomibakery or @veggiekins produce beautiful content of vegan, gluten free and inclusive recipes, including traditional Asian dishes, but the vast majority of popular influencers and nutrition experts that I hear about on social media are white. So the Americanized vision of “ethnic food” prevails. 

There was a period of time when food was the most important thing in my life. What I was going to eat — or more realistically, not eat — that day was my first thought in the morning and the majority of my thoughts throughout the rest of the day. As I started becoming less restrictive with food again, I began seeing the significance of food in my life through a different lens. Through food, my family tells one another they love each other. I feel closest to my mother when I am helping her cook. Food helps me feel connected to an identity that I constantly fear I do not have enough of. Food is how my friends and I spend time together. Food is a defining element of people’s identities that cannot be reduced or simplified. It should be represented that way. 

MiC Columnist Claire Gallagher can be reached at gclaire@umich.edu