This new monthly column, Apocalypse Chow, is about radically rethinking our understanding of food. While we can’t live without food and drink, cuisine is not merely a physical product. It is foremost a social product of capitalism. Apocalypse Chow will explore how physical tastes are socially produced. For the first column, I explain why the best-tasting Chinese dumplings tend to be the cheapest.
Future columns will tackle: The rise of “platform foods” like pizza, burgers, and sandwiches. The spread of fake bistros in Paris. America’s crucial role in popularizing Japanese ramen. The production problem that led Starbucks to invent the Frappuccino. Why culinary authenticity is real. And I’ll recommend some great restaurants along the way.
Food can show us how to build a future rich in social, cultural, and culinary variety where we don’t just rethink labor and work, family and gender, but experience them in endlessly delicious ways. —Arun Gupta
I lead food and history tours around New York City. On a recent tour, I was asked a simple question. Why might the same dish—a sandwich, a slice of pizza, a plate of dumplings—cost three or four times more in one restaurant than in another restaurant a block or two away, and the cheaper version tastes much better?
The question came up in Manhattan’s historic Chinatown while a group of us ate pork and chive, chicken and mushroom, and pork and cabbage dumplings. Everyone agreed they were superb. The skins were silky and gently chewy, the fillings juicy, well-seasoned, and packed with aromatics like chives and ginger. And they avoided the three fatal flaws of dumplings: thick and doughy wrappers, torn skins, and opening when boiled, all signs of poor craftsmanship.
The restaurant was bare bones and dingy. One person said, “I would normally never go into a place like this. How can the food be so good in such a dump?”
The spot, Shu Jiao Fu Zhou, a Fujianese joint on Grand Street near Eldridge, sells six dumplings for $3. Not far away, across Houston Street, lots of restaurants serve dumplings. But six dumplings can cost $15, and they won’t be as tasty as what we ate.
The reason for this divergence in price and quality comes down to how migration, labor and immigration laws, supply chains, and culture all interrelate. In essence, political economy can not only explain the production and distribution of food, it can also help us understand how capitalism shapes cuisine in aesthetic and cultural ways.
In a dynamic city like New York, historical patterns repeat. For more than 200 years, one wave of immigrants after another has landed in the city. More than 1 million Germans settled downtown Manhattan during the 1800s, earning it the nickname of Kleindeutschland. Two million immigrants fled Ireland in the nineteenth century, most as a result of the British-created famine. Many lived in Five Points, then known as “the world’s most notorious slum,” which bled into the original Chinatown in Manhattan. (New York City is so vast that there are nine distinct Chinatowns.) Later that century, more than 1 million Italian peasants fled destitution for dreams of a better life in America and passed through New York. From 1880 to 1920, about 1.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe, Ukraine, and Russia escaping poverty and pogroms arrived in the Lower East Side. Still more communities came after the First World War: the “Great Migration” of African Americans from the South, Puerto Ricans granted U.S. citizenship by the Jones Act in 1917, and new groups from Asia, Africa, and the Americas after nativist immigration laws were relaxed in 1965.
In 2014, one report estimated as many as 500,000 Fujianese had migrated to New York City since the 1980s. Fujian is a mountainous province on the east coast of China across from Taiwan, with extensive cultural diversity, profound poverty, and low literacy rates only a generation or two past. As recently as 2010, farmers and fisher folk in Fujian netted an annual income of $500 to $750, and workers in factory sweatshops perhaps twice that. With numerous major languages such as Min and Hakka, and hundreds of subdialects not spoken in the rest of China, Fujian is “one of the most linguistically fragmented” provinces in China, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. (Most Fujianese speak Mandarin now.) The economic migrants coming in search of a better life tend to be poorer. Most are undocumented. The threat of deportation reinforces insularity. In Sunset Park, the largest Fujianese community in the city, many residents will understandably eye outsiders suspiciously if they are lurking around or taking photographs.
Fujianese migrants pay as much as $75,000 to be smuggled to the United States. Once here they are essentially indentured servants—criminalized and easily exploited. Saddled with huge debts, migrants take whatever jobs they can get, working hard and long hours for low wages. While some jobs exist in the remaining garment industry, many women work as maids in hotels, as home healthcare aides, or are pushed into sex work. For men, the restaurant industry is a significant source of employment: it is easier for them to stay in the shadows when they are in their own community and paid under the table. The influx of Fujianese immigrants was a boon for restaurant owners.
In Chinatown, cooks can be seen working feverishly in open kitchens. Because owners can pick from a large pool of employees, a type of natural selection occurs in which the fastest, most skilled, and exploitable workers get jobs. When I cooked professionally in New York City, I noticed that immigrants work harder and faster than nearly all the middle-class American kids inspired by Anthony Bourdain to pick up knives and tongs.
But not everything was milk and honey for restaurant owners. Chinese restaurants proliferated, the industry became hyper-competitive, and owners cut costs to the bone to survive. If a shack next door is selling dumplings for fifty cents a piece, you have to do so too.
One way to survive—and even thrive—is volume. It’s the Walmart model. Profits are razor thin at $3 for six dumplings, but huge volume adds up to huge profits. At the Fujianese restaurant, I recently watched a cook pull five bags each filled with 100 dumplings out of a dumbwaiter and lug them to the kitchen. She then dragged a five-gallon bucket of pork-and-chive filling back—enough for 1,200 dumplings. Shu Jiao Fu Zhou also sells bags of fifty frozen dumplings to customers. They might sell 10,000 dumplings on a busy Saturday. In a year they could make and sell a million dumplings. In effect, it’s a dumpling factory disguised as a cafeteria.
Unlike the crap sold at Walmart, Shu Jiao Fu Zhou’s dumplings are excellent. The reason they do such a high volume—there are many shacks nearby with dumplings that are tasty but not as good—is the low cost and high quality. High volume is also self-reinforcing. The cooks become extraordinarily skilled and fast at making that many dumplings day after day. A hipster restaurant would probably struggle to make and sell 500 dumplings in a day, a significant reason its prices are much higher and quality lower.
But the social production of high-quality low-cost food can be undone by capitalist overexpansion. One example is Vanessa’s Dumpling House. It used to be the reigning champion of delicious, cheap dumplings in Chinatown. Twenty years ago it earned acclaim from the New York Times, Village Voice, and Eater. New York magazine still calls it “hands down” one of the best deals in Chinatown. But Vanessa’s expanded to eight locations around the city and New Jersey. The food at its premier location on Eldridge Street has declined in quality as its prices have increased. Its dumplings are now 60 percent more expensive than the Fujianese restaurant, and are doughy and dull.
Working-class immigrant culture is a crucial reason why cheap food can be so tasty. Unlike Little Italy, a Disneyfied tourist trap devoid of Italian Americans, Chinatown is a living community. Officially 27,000 Asian Americans live there, mostly low-wage workers or retirees, but many estimates place the population at 50,000 or more, an indication of how many migrants live below the radar for fear of deportation. The scores of dumpling spots, noodle huts, and Chinese bakeries serve as their canteens. Foods are made from low-cost, industrialized farm commodities such as flour, sugar, pork, chicken, oil, salt, and cabbage, and served in bare-bones cafeterias by low-wage workers. They provide a fast, tasty, and thrifty way for industrial proletariats to socially reproduce themselves. If you just finished a long shift, you can pop into a shabby eatery and order a mound of fatty, meaty, carb-heavy food that is tasty, costs five to ten bucks—less than McDonald’s—fills you up, and can be eaten in minutes. It’s food ideally suited for the spatial and temporal conditions of urban workers.
Like in the late 1800s, many immigrants today live in crowded tenements. Where I live, up to seventeen South Asian immigrants crowd into two-bedroom apartments. In one Chinatown apartment I visited, I counted six bunk beds, or twelve beds, in one bedroom—and next door was a brothel. In such conditions it is simpler to eat out than cook at home.
Low-cost cafeterias and street foods are an ancient innovation. There are clues that street-side eateries catering to urban residents go back 5,000 years to Ancient Babylon. In Ancient Rome, street food was a major source of sustenance for the urban poor who lacked their own kitchens. In Pompeii, some eighty public cafeterias have been identified.
New York City is renowned for hundreds of immigrant communities with unique, superb, and inexpensive food. These communities gather thousands of immigrants who are intimately familiar with the foods of their home region. They are experts in how their cuisine should taste and be eaten, which further selects for high quality.
Genuine cuisine requires both skilled cooks and knowledgeable eaters. In a city like Portland, Oregon, the whitest big city in America, a lot of the “ethnic” cuisine is expensive and mediocre because it is made and eaten by white people who have no idea of how the food should taste or be prepared. In immigrant cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and New York, it’s completely different. A lot of immigrant food is bad or mediocre, but it is cheap. Among immigrant restaurants where the food is delicious, even spectacular, many are also cheap.
Immigrants will not shell out a lot of money for food they grew up eating, but they will flock to the best restaurants. If you spent twelve hours hunched over a sewing machine, nailing drywall, or driving a taxi, you would look forward to a hot, delicious meal as a daily reward. So the immigrant restaurants with tastier food than their competitors are often the most successful.
Jonathan Gold, the late Los Angeles food writer who is the only restaurant critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize, developed rules on how to locate the best immigrant food. He said that the best restaurants are invariably those furthest out from the city center and the hardest to get to and find.
Gold hit the nail on the head, but never explained why. I will. The further you get from a downtown, the fewer tourists there are. In Los Angeles or New York, it can take an hour or two to discover some of the most exceptional restaurants. They are in dense communities where migrants huddle because the cost of living is low and they have support networks. The restaurants draw cooks and customers from their own community, raising the quality of the cuisine. Often they are based on famous restaurants in their home countries. The flavors, dishes, and menus cater to those immersed in the cuisine, making it harder for outsiders to navigate. Because cuisine is a powerful connection to one’s homeland, culture, and sense of self, those restaurants with the best food tend to attract the most customers.
One example of Gold’s rules is Sunset Park, Brooklyn. As good as the food is in Lower Manhattan, the restaurants in Sunset Park are even better. The neighborhood’s exceptional Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, Malaysian, and Salvadorean restaurants are filled with members of their own community. Their collective experience and knowledge raise the bar. Other examples are Jackson Heights and Flushing in Queens.
I grew up eating Punjabi food every day. The cuisine runs through my veins. I know how the dishes should look, smell, and taste. I know how to make them, select the best ingredients, and properly serve and eat the food. With a glance or whiff, I can spot poor versions. Multiply my experience by thousands of people, and that explains why restaurants rooted in immigrant communities will consistently be far better than expensive knockoffs in foodie enclaves or touristy downtowns.
The next time you want to get delicious immigrant food, go to the source—and don’t forget to tip the workers well for their hard work, knowledge, and skill.
Arun Gupta is an investigative reporter who has written for the Guardian, the Daily Beast, the Intercept, The Washington Post, and other publications. He is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, cooked professionally in New York City, and is author of the forthcoming, Apocalypse Chow: A Junk-Food Loving Chef Explains How America Created the Most Revolutionary Food System in History (The New Press). Read all of Arun’s writings on Substack, and email him at email@example.com with question, comments, or to join a food tour.