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‘Ugly Delicious’ Explores MSG Myths in ‘Fried Rice’

On his Netflix show, David Chang looks at the state of Chinese food in America

Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

What is Chinese food and why do Westerners view it differently — and Asian food more broadly — than other cuisines? This is the crux of episode seven of Netflix’s new series with chef David Chang, Ugly Delicious. The founder of the Momofuku restaurant group uses fried rice as a springboard for conversations about how Chinese food is largely misunderstood and devalued in American culture. Chang gathers together a group of critics, chefs, and tastemakers to help tell the story, including Master of None co-creator Alan Yang, Chinese food expert Fuchsia Dunlop, and Eater NY’s own Serena Dai.

The episode opens with a roundtable discussion of the ubiquity of fried rice and Chinese food that culinary historian Jennifer 8. Lee notes is “the most pervasive food on the planet,” being served on seven continents including Antarctica — sweet and sour pork is even available on the International Space Station. Chang then meets Dunlop for a tasting of traditional imperial Chinese cuisine inside the Summer Palace, a relic of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing.

Following a conversation with former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl about her two-star 1994 review of Great N.Y. Noodletown, Change meets up with Serena Dai in Knoxville, Tennessee, to talk with the owner of a restaurant from her childhood about the difference between traditional Chinese food and Americanized versions of the cuisine. After an interlude at San Francisco hot spot Mister Jiu’s, Chang and Gillian Ferguson practice ordering from the “secret menu” at Newport Seafood in San Gabriel, California.

Later, the Momofuku chef/restaurateur pays a visit to Caesars Palace in Las Vegas where high-end cooks cater to the palates of Chinese diners. By serving common snack foods to a test group, Chang also tests out a theory that Americans are subconsciously wary of MSG due to prejudiced notions of Asian cuisine. And the episode concludes with a well-documented trip to Toronto’s Fishman Lobster Clubhouse Restaurant, home of the formidable Lobster Mountain.

Sidekicks and special guests

• Serena Dai, Eater NY editor
• Alan Yang, co-creator of Master of None
• Ed Schoenfeld, owner of RedFarm
• Joe Ng, chef at RedFarm
• Jennifer 8. Lee, Chinese food historian
• Fuchsia Dunlop, Chinese food historian
• Ruth Reichl, chef, author, editor, and New York Times restaurant critic (1993-1999)
• Chen P. Ren, owner of New China Palace
• Gillian Ferguson, food writer
• Wendy Lam, owner of Newport Seafood
• Gary Selesner, president of Caesars Palace
• Liye Sang, Asia Kitchen owner’s son
• Kris Yenbamroong, chef/owner of Night + Market
• Ian Mosby, food historian
• Chris Nuttall-Smith, former Toronto food critic
• Raymond Xie, owner of Fishman Lobster Clubhouse Restaurant

Restaurants and dishes featured in the episode

Wu’s Wonton King (New York, New York)
What they eat: golden fried rice and assorted dishes

Ting Li Guan (Beijing, China)
What they eat: Imperial Chinese cuisine including mandarin duck made of egg white, sea cucumber, and deer tendons

Great N.Y. Noodletown (New York, New York)
No dishes eaten

New China Palace (Knoxville, Tennessee)
What they eat: cashew shrimp with snow peas, General Tso’s chicken

Mister Jiu’s (San Francisco, California)
What they eat: steak fried rice with wagyu sirloin, broccoli, and egg

Newport Seafood Restaurant (San Gabriel, California)
What they eat: secret menu with fried rice, crab, a cold cucumber starter, and lobster

Beijing Noodle No. 9 (Las Vegas, Nevada)
What they eat: hand-stretched noodles with tomato and scrambled egg, Sichuan fish

Asia Kitchen (Knoxville, Tennessee)
What they eat: intestines

Night + Market (Los Angeles, CA)
What they eat: pork fried rice and crab fried rice

Fishman Lobster Clubhouse Restaurant (Scarborough, Canada)
What they eat: the “Lobster Mountain”

The best lines

“No one ever said Doritos made them sick. Look on the package. There’s MSG.” — David Chang on MSG perceptions

“There’s the asshole we were looking for. He was sitting at our table.” — Alan Yang after Ed Schoenfeld says fried rice with caviar is delicious

“Whenever you go to a place like this, you go to the fish tank.” — Chang at Newport Seafood in Los Angeles

“You’re so optimistic, but Italians are white.” — Serena Dai to Alan Yang, on the subject of whether or not Americans will someday become knowledgeable about Chinese food like they are about Italian food

“I want to believe him, I really do.” — Chang after being told by Liye Sang of Asia Kitchen that the restaurant sells more intestines than lo mein noodles

“Maybe we don’t give people enough credit.” — Dai, in response to the intestine claim

“No, we give people too much credit.” — Chang, in response to Dai’s reaction to the intestine claim

“If I make 100 percent Chinese [food], no business.” — Chen P. Ren of New China Palace on why he doesn’t offer traditional Sichuan food on his menu

“There are some pretty vile things that are associated with food that no one ever really wants to talk about.” — Chang on racism and its relationship with how Americans perceive Chinese food

“Oh, the heads are really key. Part of life. Taking photos of food.” — Yang on documenting the Lobster Mountain

“I’m a classicist at heart. I love French three-Michelin-starred dining, I love all of that stuff. But for me this is equal or more joy now than eating anything that super-fancy.” — Chang about the magic of the Lobster Tower

Click here for Eater’s complete guide to Ugly Delicious

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