Jerk chow mein is a spicy example of third-culture cuisine

Jerk chow mein is a spicy example of third-culture cuisine

Jerk chow mein is a spicy example of third-culture cuisine

Jon Kung doesn’t like to put his food in a box. In the Chinese American chef and social media personality’s debut cookbook, “Kung Food,” you’ll find recipes for Buffalo Chicken Rangoon, a clay pot rice inspired by jollof, lomo saltado, dan dan lasagna and jerk chow mein.

As with most chefs, his culinary point of view is formed based on where he’s lived. Kung grew up going back and forth between Hong Kong and Toronto, where he enjoyed a mix of Cantonese home cooking and what he described as the typical North American food experience, which included grilled cheese sandwiches served with canned cream of chicken soup. For about the past two decades, he has been based in Detroit. “I would describe my culinary style as American Chinese, or third-culture Chinese, and really what does that mean but to celebrate my own expression of cultural diversity where I live now?” he wrote in the book’s introduction.

Get the recipe: Jerk Chow Mein With Tofu

Third-culture cuisine is “a fusion cuisine that is informed by the lived experience,” Kung said in a phone interview. “Instead of dabbling in one culture with a base from another, it’s pretty much living between both of them and possessing the nuance and understanding and appreciation of a local, of a native.” When he initially rose to fame on TikTok, he faced criticism from viewers who questioned the authenticity of his versions of recipes.

“As a queer person, I’ve had to defend my identity and my own existence every day of my life,” Kung said. “But then once I started cooking, I found that I had to do it again.”

But he never backed down, often directly addressing the issue in his videos alongside topics of gatekeeping and cultural appropriation. “By fully embracing this as what my identity is and what I identify as, it has literally erased any of those comments and criticisms that people have normally been so comfortable throwing at me,” he said. “I think when you own something so freely, nobody can really question the truth behind it anymore.”

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And now Kung’s audience has embraced his third-culture cookbook with open arms. “Like every week, somebody is making that [dan dan] lasagna, and it makes me very happy.”

In deciding what recipes to include in this book, Kung said, “a lot of what I was trying to do involved just following Chinese migration, whether it had been willing or unwilling.” And as people move, they take their style of cooking with them, but often have to reimagine it with a different set of available ingredients or, in the case of entrepreneurs, to suit a new customer palate.

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Through his research, he learned about the history of Chinese people in the Caribbean and how thousands were brought to the region as indentured laborers during the 19th century, particularly after slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean in 1834. “This steady influx led to the development of Caribbean Chinese cuisine, which blends West Indian flavors with the (mainly) Cantonese palate and cooking techniques,” Kung wrote. “Jerk chow mein is one of the staples of this cuisine.”

His version of the dish starts by making a jerk paste with scallions, garlic, Scotch bonnet or habanero peppers, ginger, and a slew of seasonings, similar to what you might use to marinate jerk chicken. Then you simply stir fry it with chow mein noodles, tofu and snow peas — or whatever protein or vegetables you want — and it’s ready to be savored.

The chiles give the dish a scalp-tingling level of spice that made me pause briefly — and then go right back for another bite, which is exactly what any true spicy food lover wants. If you love Caribbean food and noodles, then this Jerk Chow Mein With Tofu recipe is one for you. However, a word of caution: This dish is not for the faint of heart — or tongue. But, as Kung said, “The best things in life challenge us.”

Get the recipe: Jerk Chow Mein With Tofu