October 15, 2012
Culture on the menu
Times Square, the icon of New York kitsch and tourism, pop culture and media art, not only looked different that day in late September, it smelled different. The place that many people call the center of the world was transformed into one big Chinese kitchen. That's right. Times Square was home to the 5th International Chinese Culinary Competition.
I was there, ostensibly, to taste and review the first offerings of the day kosher Chinese food. In order to maintain a strict level of 'kashrut' the kosher competition was the first item on the agenda to ensure that all utensils, still new, would neither touch nor be tainted by anything non-kosher.
But more than my taste buds were tingling. This was not a mere foodie fest, it was an educational culture fest. The cook off organizers created a cooking challenge in order to make Chinese culture fun, hip, vibrant and if you will, palatable to Chinese youth living around the world who have abandoned the ways of their ancestors in order to realize the modern dream of franks, beans and apple pie.
The competitions are sponsored by the NTD-TV, the New Tang Dynasty Television network. Mr. Zhong Lee, president of NTD-TV, sat with me as the chefs were saut ing and explained that of all the competitions they could have chosen they felt that the food competition would be the best vehicle to educate and inform a new generation about the greatness of Chinese culture.
Mr. Lee explained that his network, rather than toeing the Chinese line, challenges the dictates coming from mainland China. The network is a tool to teach people about what is actually happening both around the world and also - in China. Most importantly, they teach about freedom and democracy to people who are always fed the party line.
NTD-TV is not welcomed by the Chinese government. In fact, the station is blocked in China, but yet, people still find a way to watch and to listen. Not surprisingly, NDT is also closely watched and carefully monitored by the leadership of Communist China. The government, too, uses NTD-TV as a learning tool. Communists need to know what is really happening in the world and they need to understand other points of view in order to confront them.
Communism, in addition to denying liberties and individual expression, has destroyed the great love for and appreciation of Chinese history, culture and, of course, religion. They created a revolution in order to step away from the past. The result is that a legacy forged over centuries has been pushed aside and forgotten.
Today's youth cannot connect to Confucius. They have no understanding of Daoism or of Buddhism. No matter where they live in the world, from Tiananmen Square to Trafalgar Square to Times Square, today's Chinese youth know very little and care even less about their heritage and culture.
Until, that is, NTD-TV was born. This TV network, broadcast around the world to a half billion viewers, introduces people to their heritage by making their heritage hip and sexy. The 6th International Cooking Competition was part of the network spin. It tweaked an age old tradition and injected a sense of modern day pride. The Food Network does it. The Cooking Channel does it. And so does NTD.
The addition of kosher Chinese food as an appetizer was not just shtick. The Jewish-kosher angle fit simply and squarely into the NTD-TV paradigm. Jewish culture and community serves as a model for NTD president Zhong Lee. Jews throughout the world demonstrate communal awareness and love of their unique culture and heritage. The highly developed Jewish sense of pride in the past and the great gifts that individual Jews and the Jewish people donate to the world are, according to Lee, what he hopes to inculcate in his audience. And especially the connection to Israel - the ancestral homeland. Through NTD-TV Zhong Lee hopes to recreate the Jewish model for Chinese living in China and living in the Chinese Diaspora.
Jewish food is part of Jewish tradition. Jews from various parts of the world all have their own very unique and distinctive foods. There is a literature about food and there is lore and recipes are handed down from generation to generation with great pride and satisfaction. That was one of the goals of the Chinese cook off competition in Times Square and that is why there were four kosher chefs who participated in the first round.
I tasted the kosher offerings- and they were OK. But I did not come for the tasting. I came to understand the link between a world media giant and kosher Chinese. And I came away with an understanding of the great pain that some very creative and exceptional minds not in China, but expressly outside the community, feel over a loss of pride and lack of knowledge in Chinese heritage.
Let me tell you a famous story about an argument between a Chinese person and Jewish person. The
Chinese person said: We Chinese have the oldest, richest culture in the world dating back to the Xia dynasty 2100 BCE. That is 4100 years ago.
The Jewish person said: Nonsense. We have the oldest culture in the world dating back 5700 years ago.
The Chinese man stroked his beard for a few seconds and then politely asked: If that is so what did the Jews eat for 3600 years?
Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is "Thugs: How History's Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder" (Thomas Nelson).