Meet China's Unofficial Culinary Diplomat
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because as China’s influence spreads, so too will its mouthwatering food.
By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu
Watching Theresa Lin cook is like witnessing a traditional healer at work. Plop some cinnamon and honey into warm water, for “good health,” she says. Throw in red dates for longevity and goji berries for top-notch eyesight. And beware: “If you eat too much raw tomato, you’ll become impotent and your womb will be cold,” she warns. The ingredients she tosses into her hot wok are more like prescriptions for the body and soul. “Balance is key,” says Lin, as she hands me a spoonful of her spicy Sichuan tofu. Balanced I am not — my taste buds are on fire.
Lin’s cooking isn’t the only thing that comes with a kick. With pearl earrings and perfectly coiffed hair, the 61-year-old doesn’t just saunter into rooms, she commands them, says Lawrence Chu, co-founder of the Asian Chefs Association. Lin bills herself as “the homestyle” chef, rekindling the dishes of Mom’s comfort food — ranging from Cantonese stir-fried shrimp and eggs to Taiwanese pineapple cake and Beijing boiled dumplings — in kitchens across the Chinese diaspora. While she doesn’t carry the same star power as, say, Bobby Flay, utter her name in any Chinatown worldwide and you’ll find adoring fans who own one of her 16 cookbooks, listen to her hourlong Mandarin-language radio show or have watched her culinary craft on TV. Some refer to Lin as “the Julia Child of Taiwan,” but most simply call her Ma, or Mom. “She has a vivacious personality. People fall under her spell,” says Andrea Redman, a gourmet food writer.
Lin isn’t afraid to venture into the far reaches of Chinese cuisine that are lesser loved in the West — Taiwanese braised pig feet, Xinjiang mutton stew or Tibetan yak-meat dumplings, for example. From her kitchen in Los Angeles’ Little Taipei, a trifecta of soy sauce, sesame oil and vinegar simmer around steamed tilapia, freshly killed only minutes before at a nearby 99 Ranch Market. On the stove, Lin stirs together seasoned ground pork, garlic and glass noodles into a beloved albeit oddly named Sichuan dish called ma yi shang shu (蚂蚁上树), or “ants climbing on a tree” — which describes the bits of pork amid the tangle of noodles. For 20 years, Lin hosted the International Food Festival for Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau before moving on to cooking demos at the Cannes Film Festival in France, the Academy Awards in Los Angeles and the International Travel Trade Show in Berlin. As we cook, Lin spouts out folklore and history for every dish she makes. In fact, her encyclopedic knowledge of China’s vast repertoire of food famously led Oscar-winning director Ang Lee to recruit Lin as the chief food stylist for Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, as well as catering director for Life of Pi and Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Silence.
Food pokes at both the proud and prickly parts of national identity and patriotism.
Born in the city of Tainan, Lin honed her cooking chops under the tutelage of her mother-in-law, Fu Pei-Mei, one of the first cookbook authors and TV personalities in China. Newly graduated from Fu Jen Catholic University with a degree in French, Lin originally aspired to serve as an ambassador or translator. But Fu had other plans for her — researching, writing and translating parts of Fu’s 48 cookbooks. Back then, master chefs and home cooks like Fu fled China’s Cultural Revolution to set up shop in Taiwan, where the heritage of food was vehemently kept alive amid a mass shutdown of mainland restaurants in the 1960s, all considered to be symbols of bourgeois excess. In 1996, Lin emigrated to Los Angeles and spread her culinary influence even farther, carving out her own name by penning cookbooks and hosting cooking shows on TV and radio.
Today, as her native China takes on bigger roles on the world stage, Lin serves as unofficial food ambassador, spreading “gastro-diplomacy” in a foreign policy bid to help global gourmands better understand China as a culture and a cuisine, rather than as a hulking beast. She sees her food as a language everyone speaks, a “bridge between East and West,” and her kitchen as an embassy for cultural outreach.
Lin wouldn’t be the first to use food as a way to butter up a country’s brand abroad. Thailand pioneered its Global Thai program in 2002, with South Korea, Malaysia, Peru and America following suit shortly after. But let’s not pretend food can do all the work: Distilling a country as massive as China to only its cuisine can be reductionist, warns Sam Chapple-Sokol, a scholar of gastro-diplomacy and editor of Culinary Diplomacy. Plus, food pokes at both the proud and prickly parts of national identity and patriotism: Peru and Chile still spat over naming rights to the pisco sour, Israel and Lebanon have engaged in a so-called hummus war since 2006 and Greece fought with the European Union over feta cheese for nearly 20 years.
Lin’s response is tactful, that of a quasi ambassador: “Have a heart,” she says. “I don’t bring hatred or resentment to my food.” It’s a typical Theresa Lin way of viewing the world. To her, the best way to win over hearts and minds is to start at the stomach, with irresistible food as her soft power.