One of my favorite museums in New York City is the Museum of Chinese in America, located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The long-term exhibition, tracing the history of the Chinese experience in the United States, is excellent. But I always look forward to the temporary exhibitions. (I previously wrote about one of those temporary exhibitions here.)
The current temporary exhibition, titled Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America, is the best one yet. The main part consists of a large space, set up to resemble a dinner table. Around the table are 33 place settings, each representing a Chinese or Asian-American chef. At each place is a small ceramic sculpture symbolizing that chef’s food influences, as well as a card giving more information about the chef’s personal background, food inspirations, signature dishes, favorite ingredients, and choice of ultimate comfort food. Museum visitors are invited to sit down at each place and learn more about the chefs.
It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the beautiful ceramics. There are larger pieces in the middle of the table that symbolically represent various geographic good influences. Then, each chef’s place setting has a smaller ceramic sculpture that includes the geographic symbols from the larger pieces. All ceramics in the exhibit were created by two ceramic artists: Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang.
Around the room, large screens hang on the wall. Visitors can sit at the table and listen to some of the chefs talk about their personal experiences with various topics, such as immigrating to the United States, growing up Chinese or Asian-American, and their food influences. The videos really add another layer to the whole experience – being able to see and hear the chefs that you are reading about, maybe even as you sit at that chef’s place at the table.
MOCA’s website has the following explanation of the exhibition’s title, which I found compelling: “In Chinese the saying Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy refers not only to the delicate balance of flavors that defines Chinese cooking but also the ups and downs of life.”
Once visitors finish in the first room, there is a second, smaller room across the lobby that offers another approach to the exhibitions theme. In the smaller room, each chef loaned the museum an item from his or her kitchen. The artifacts are very practical, but also very personal. On a surface level this room may seem less impressive, but if you read the descriptions for each item you begin to understand the chefs’ connections to the food they create.
For example, Wilson Tang loaned these moon cake molds to the museum:
And Ken Hom has loaned his cleaver:
Want to see Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy in person? The exhibition was originally scheduled to end on March 26, 2017, but it has been so popular that the museum has extended it to September 10, 2017. The Museum of Chinese in America is located at 215 Centre Street in Manhattan.