Hi! I'm Clarissa. I am a senior reporter for Goldthread, a social first, video-driven platform about Chinese culture. So far, I compiled very comprehensive guides to Chinese baos and zongzis. Our team was just in Sichuan, where I produced videos about a spicy hot pot factory and Sichuan rabbit salad (more to come!).

Previously, I was a nomadic freelance writer working for outlets like VICE, Eater, the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appetit, Saveur, and CNN. I was once on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern talking Chinese food. I've been writing and researching Chinese food for seven years now. I wrote this regional Chinese food guide to Los Angeles for KCET and for First We Feast, I wrote about how Los Angeles became a powerhouse for Chinese food.

When I'm not writing madly about food, I'm usually offline either gardening, scuba diving, or hiking. I once was a volcano hiking guide in Nicaragua, I've lived off-the-grid in Costa Rica, and diving with manta rays in Hawaii changed my life.

Proof: https://twitter.com/dearclarissa/status/1009628948232171520

Signing off now; thanks for asking all the wonderful questions. For more about Chinese cuisine and culture, follow me at Goldthread. We produce videos and articles about Chinese food on the regular and we're @Goldthread2 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube .

Comments: 893 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

sygede400 karma

Asking the important question:

soymilk - sweet or salty?

Dumplings- soy sauce or rice vinegar?

Douhua (tofu pudding) - savory or sweet?

Milk tea - boba or grass jelly?

dearclarissa358 karma

soymilk - sweet.

Dumplings- vinegar!

Douhua (tofu pudding) - sweet with ginger syrup. the versions here in Hong Kong are marvelous!

Milk tea - boba ftw.

shmalo210 karma

Hi Clarissa! Thank you so much for doing this AMA, I am a huge fan and I resonate very deeply with the mission to give a notion to Americans of how deep, diverse, cool and yet familiar Chinese food can be.

One of my favorite television shows in China is called 舌尖上的中国, or A Bite of China - I am sure you've heard of it. Some of the most gorgeous cinematography ever, incredibly beautiful, well-written voiceover narration - but something my friends and I notice about it when we watch is that some of the intention behind the show seems almost political in nature. The narrator seems sometimes to extol the virtues of the common rural worker, for example, or encourage citizens to take pleasure in simple things. And the show sometimes feels like it gives an image of China that's almost like a state-centered monolith - depicting ethnic minorities only if they are recognized by the government, etc. etc.

So I've got some questions about what you think about that. 1) Do you think my friends and I, specifically as it relates to A Bite of China, are reading into it a little too much? We still love the show, but I think as Chinese Americans, we get a dose of our parents' politics, which are government-skeptical. 2) During your travels, have you noticed instances where the government tries to use Chinese food as a political tool? Do you think that's influenced the evolution of Chinese food as it exists today, from a culinary/business perspective?

slavetothecause43 karma

Compared to most other nominally objective, documentary style TV fare being produced in China, 舌尖上的中國 is probably amongst the least political in nature. In particular, some other productions which similarly explore the lives of regional common folk tend to explicitly discuss the integration of local or national government policy and its (pretty much always positive) effect on on their livelihoods. 舌尖上的中國 avoids doing this, aiming to only talk about the people themselves and the food they make, though in an unfailingly optimistic light.

Nonetheless, all mainstream broadcast media in China passes through SAPPRFT (since reformed into a new media regulatory body whose name I forget) approval, so whether or not the production is purposefully trying to forward a government position or is merely meeting it by coincidence, the fact that the show is still broadcasting means SAPPRFT has no quarrel with its content. Take that for what you will, but consider that comparable food travel programs like the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown - a show unafraid of wading through headily controversial political subjects - often came to a similarly universally optimistic tone about the virtues of the common folk whom Bourdain interacted with.

Perhaps its more useful to simply conclude that while the government’s presence in Chinese mainstream media is close to ubiquitous, this does not mean one has to invalidate every part of it as astroturfed or artificial. Even in these circumstances, a lot of genuine, quality content can be produced, and I would consider 舌尖上的中國 ( at least the early seasons) to be one of those gems.

dearclarissa19 karma

Yes to this.

Grembert135 karma

How common is gutter oil?

I love watching videos of Chinese street food but after finding out about gutter oil I'd be hesitant to try any of it.

dearclarissa297 karma

I've heard and read the news pieces about it...but I have never heard it talked about or encountered it (knowingly, at least) in my travels.

When it comes to the literature on Chinese food, English media has a gross tendency of fixating on food scandals. Food scandals exist in China... but it isn't something that dominates day-to-day conversations or life.

Truth is: there isn’t enough conclusive information about whether or not gutter oil is common in China. The food safety standards in a country with 4x the population of the U.S., that’s only recently emerging from being a developing country, have a long way to go. The government seems to be taking some proactive measures to monitor food more, but, as an example, you’ll still find a lot of travelers going to Hong Kong from mainland China just to buy cooking oil because people are obsessive about eating good food, and, growingly more obsessive about good health.

With that said, I have gotten horrible food poisoning in China, though I'm pretty sure that was because of a salad (pro tip: eat cooked veggies in China, not raw).

almondparfitt114 karma

how did you first get into food writing to get this job?

dearclarissa256 karma

I first started writing about food when I was studying abroad in Shanghai in college. I saw how underwhelming food journalism in China was and cold-pitched to CNN Travel. They took my ideas and years later, here I am.

parmichili103 karma

Hi Clarissa!

If you could pick one spot in China to experience the most diverse and wholesome food culture, where would you go?

dearclarissa311 karma

Yunnan. Hands down. It's the most biodiverse region in all of China and the mushroom varieties there are stunning. I've read somewhere that Yunnan has the most varieties of mushrooms in the world as well. The team and I will be traveling there next month for mushroom season to produce a video and I'm thrilled.

it's also the most culturally diverse place in China. There are roughly 25-26 ethnic minorities in Yunnan and you can experience the nomadic Tibetan life in the high mountains or roam the rainforests with the Yi people in search for 1000+ year old tea trees. I've had the wonderful pleasure of doing both.

nomadic00876 karma

Hi Clarissa!

Sooooo I first read about you on xovain if I'm not wrong, when you wrote a particular post on having really bad skin. I related very well back then. I was also in a pit of despair. I believe that was 2 years ago. (I'm sorry I had to bring this up if you don't want to be reminded. I don't either, but that was the day I found you on the internet)

I've followed you since then, and am a big fan of you and your work. Especially admire your guts to be a nomadic freelance writer. And to write about the Taromak tribe! Now I want to go live amongst them as well.

I'm a Singaporean Chinese who has been called banana more than once. I have come to embrace my roots, and I am undeniably Chinese and proud of it. Although my mandarin is always a work in progress. I also spent 5 months in Shanghai during my university years.

Any advice for someone who also wants to travel the world sustainably, do something related to food systems, and has just graduated with a communications degree?

Second question: thoughts on veganism?

Hope you see this! Love, nomadic008 (I created an acccount on reddit just for this lololol)

dearclarissa79 karma

Love it!

My biggest advice is to just start moving and follow your curiosity. I started traveling full-time with a leap of faith and decided to give myself one year of toughing it out on savings and a measly freelance writing income. I ended up freelance writing for VICE that year and making more money than I did at my full-time web producer job.

Hang out with people who inspire you and sign up for events that feed your soul.

SHOUTING67 karma

Hey Clarissa, I just wanted to say I appreciate how much you are trying to demystify and clear up pre-conceived Western notions regarding Chinese food. It’s frustrating to hear so many negative opinions that are often factually baseless and obviously rooted in anti-Chinese sentiments.

My question for you is: how difficult do you find it is to combat this anti-Chinese sentiment? Do you have a way of dealing with it?

dearclarissa81 karma

It's more frustrating than it is difficult. When I first started posting semi-professionally on the interwebs back in high school about Chinese cuisine, the dog-eating topic would drown out everything and anything I wrote.

Heck, it still comes up [see this very thread].

The tides are changing though and to quote my Goldthread colleagues: this is an "opportunity for stories with greater cultural context and less exotic freakiness."

So while I do bring awareness to the ignorance and push back on the trolls, what I find most rewarding is writing and producing nuanced stories about different people in this very, very diverse world. That's the best way, I think.

xXtheyetiXx54 karma

Are our American Chinese restaurants in typical large cities accurate in cuisine or just a americanized version that doesn't really resemble true Chinese food?

dearclarissa154 karma

Generally, American-Chinese food does not resemble Chinese food in China.. Most of the dishes are modified versions of original dishes from Guangdong and Fujian...but have evolved so drastically that most Chinese people would not recognize them.

I wrote a history piece about this here: https://firstwefeast.com/eat/2015/03/illustrated-history-of-americanized-chinese-food

Speako_11 karma

I refuse to accept that Panda Express is anything less than true, authentic Chinese food.

dearclarissa150 karma

Why isn't Panda Express authentic Chinese food? The owners of Panda -- Andrew and Peggy Cherng -- are Chinese. And I had the pleasure of meeting the head chef of Panda last year, who is also Chinese and grew up in the same predominately Chinese/Taiwanese neighborhood as I did (626!).

If authenticity in food implies a cuisine with an undisputed origin... than Panda is truly, authentic American-Chinese food. Even with the hyphen, it's still authentic Chinese food made by Chinese people. Point blank. With a big side note: It's also 100% American.

The reality is that food identity is not confined to borders. And to categorize it and degrade it as such would severely limit our palates. Some people love orange chicken; good on them!

Hell, the chili pepper didn't come into China until the 17th century. And it came from South America via Portuguese maritime trade routes! By this logic, is lazijiding 辣子鸡 (deep-fried chicken covered in chili peppers), not authentically Chinese? And what about mapotofu, then?

rad_egg38 karma

What’s the most bizarre food you’ve come across in China?

dearclarissa224 karma

Before I answer this, I must preface with: I love this question because it really truly epitomizes the thought process people have when Chinese food enters the conversation. Chinese food in China = bizarre. The reality is that Chinese food is not bizarre. Pork tends to be the protein of choice (Fun fact: China accounts for more than half of the global pork consumption) and most people don't eat outside of the standard protein plate of pork, beef, and chicken.

With that said, Chinese cuisine is resourceful and you'll find a smattering of offals and parts of animals that are well -- unconventional from a Western standpoint.

The team and I went to Sichuan a couple months ago where we sampled spicy rabbit head.

How to eat one: crack the jaw open, pull the tongue out, crack open the skull. Tear off the cheek meat, suck out the brain, and gnaw at the rest. The head is adored for its texture.

I must emphasize....while this is a beloved delicacy in Sichuan, for locals -- it’s not the main attraction.

chunyangnc12 karma

What do you consider the best dishes to try in Jiangsu Province? My son was born there(adopted as baby) and really has a taste for food he ate on a return trip there.

dearclarissa16 karma

I love the small fresh-water shrimp of Jiangsu, gently cooked and served with a drizzle of vinegar. It's all about bringing out the natural sweetness of the shrimp.

itslavi36 karma

Do you think the PRC oppression on Tibetans, Muslim, and other minorities has made an impact on their respective food culture yet?

dearclarissa154 karma

I traveled to Tibet, Xinjiang, and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region with this exact question in mind. And when it comes to food culture, I'd say the inherent tides of modernization and capitalism has had more of an impact on food culture than government oppression.

Compared to the United States, where indigenous cuisine is nearly extinct...indigenous cuisine in China is still very, very much alive. In Tibet I had yak meat and butter tea nearly every day. In Xinjiang, hand-pulled noodles and lamb skewers and pumpkin dumplings were a staple. Ningxia, of course, had the best beef noodle soups.

(Perspective: I come from Chumash terrority in modern-day California...i.e. Los Angeles... where acorn mash was a traditional food staple and never have I encountered such a thing there in any restaurant.)

--

I'll give you this story:

I was staying with a Tibetan nomadic family near Langmusi and naively, over dinner, started to ask my host family about their thoughts re: the Dalai Lama and religious freedom. (To preface: they did not know I was a journalist, nor was I camping there with the intention of writing a story. It was purely out of curiosity.)

My host looked at me and said, "To be perfectly honest, I'm illiterate and don't really know what you're talking about."

With that interaction in mind, I began to realize that most people in these marginalized communities are more interested in getting access to fresh food, water, education, and money...than talking about political issues and historical oppression. I'm not saying these issues don't affect them; many folks simply don't have the privilege of thinking about these big ticket issues on a day-to-day basis.

In regards to the food culture, people who live closer to nature have more traditional food cultures. That's true of anywhere in the world.

The host family lived off of a diet of yak butter, tsampa, and highland barley. They had too; they were literally nomadic and depended on their yaks and non-perishable grains like barley. They had a solar butter churner and if they could afford more technologies or other foodstuffs, they would buy it.

Now the Tibetan Plateau is located in what people consider the Third Pole of the world (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/08/the-third-pole-what-it-is-and-how-it-could-affect-the-lives-of-a-billion-people/. And there is a lot of mining and nature resource extraction going on in that part of the world.

And the people I met there were more concerned and educated about their waterways (which they depended on...again, as nomads) being polluted vs. historical oppression.

potatoaster31 karma

What's the history of pearl milk tea? What's your favorite place for it in LA?

dearclarissa59 karma

The exact tea shop of origin is a point of contention. Some say Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in central Taiwan was the progenitor. Others are confident that title belongs to Hanlin Tea Room in southern Taiwan. 

I'm a fan of AU79 in Arcadia. Chewy, warm boba in fresh tea.

Eckswhye28 karma

Clarissa, your food guides were a massive boon to the 4 years I spent in Los Angeles. More than anything else, I trust your tastebuds — I'll continuing to follow your recommendations for good eats in the years to come, and I really hope you keep that going!

A question for you: what's your favorite Chinese Cuisine (and dish)? Are there any Chinese cuisines you find to be particularly underrated?

dearclarissa40 karma

So sweet!

As with anything as broad as Chinese cuisine, my cravings vary. But I love Yunnanese cuisine for it's spicy and sour flavor profiles. I had a marvelous meal last month by a Wa (ethnic minority in China bordering Myanmar) chef in Kunming with grilled fish, pickled veggies, and the most remarkable hot sauce I've ever had...all served on a glossy leaf platter.

twominitsturkish23 karma

What could you say to Americans who want a more authentic Chinese food experience? Are those experiences confined to Chinatowns in big cities? Specifically, what dishes might you recommend for someone who wants to get beyond sesame chicken but might not be ready for very "exotic" Chinese cuisine?

dearclarissa32 karma

Authentic is a tough word. After all, what defines authenticity? And what makes the American classic of sesame chicken not authentic to the land that it’s from -- the United States?

Now if you mean you're looking for regional Chinese cuisine, you're in luck. More than 50% of the provincial administrative units in China are represented in at least one restaurant in Los Angeles. Here's my [now very outdated] guide: https://www.kcet.org/food/regional-chinese-food-guide-to-los-angeles

The waves of new Chinese immigrants to the States in the last few decades, coupled with the growing number of international students from China, has brought a demand for diversity in Chinese cuisines that represents all the different regions that these newcomers are used to. Surprisingly enough, you’ll likely find some good options near university campuses.

And if you’re ready for the next version of sesame chicken: maybe try a whole or half chicken dish, like Hainan chicken and rice. You’ll be able to recognize that the food is actually an animal, not just a chicken in a ball of dough. ;)

tv99650919 karma

How did the manta rays change your life?

dearclarissa61 karma

It was a night scuba dive in Kona, Hawaii at a manta ray feeding station by the shore. I was submerged about 30 ft underwater and these giant manta rays (22 ft wing span!) came soaring by within inches of my head. It was the first and only time I cried underwater. (My cheesy GoPro video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uNL7V5GQy88)

To say that it was life-changing sounds hyperbolic, but it really did. And it was because of that cliched yet universal feeling of being small and humbled in the face of nature.

johnchang199113 karma

In recent years, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been rocked by large youth protests, the Umbrella Revolution and the Sunflower Student Movement, concerned about how Beijing’s growing power encroaches on their lives. Goldthread is Hong Kong-based and seems to be aimed at young people in China’s sphere of influence, so it’s reasonable to ask whether these perspectives will be represented in Goldthread. Your pre-Goldthread work and that of your colleagues have not shied away from such political concerns. Does diminishing press freedom in Hong Kong or ownership by the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba make that difficult?

dearclarissa23 karma

Food is tied to its culture which is tied to its people. It’s difficult to talk about where food originates from without talking about the land’s past, present, and future.

Will we shy away from political concerns? No. Because the political concerns are part of what defines this land. And just like all of our editorial decisions, thorough research, fact-checking, objective data, and cultural context will be key to delivering the highest quality of journalism. I moved here to produce the stories I’d be proud to put my name on.

TrueGritLook13 karma

Hi! What are your top spots in NYC?

dearclarissa48 karma

Unfortunately I haven't lived there since 2012. I lived in the East Village back then and loved the weekend pop-up Ukranian kitchens with grandmothers making pierogies in the basements on E. 7th street.

reglass212 karma

Hi Clarissa, I went to highschool with you! Awesome to see you doing well.

Do you still feel that SGV has the best Chinese food in the U.S.?

dearclarissa15 karma

Yes!

NoTargets11 karma

Is stinky tofu the closest thing to stinky cheeses in chinese cuisine?

Why is cheese not common in China?

dearclarissa25 karma

Alas there is cheese in China and we actually have a video coming out about it very soon. I was just in Yunnan, where I had tons of rubing 乳饼 -- which is a goat cheese chunks served either savory or sweet. A specialty of the Bai people ;)

A lot of the nomadic tribes also consume dairy. Here are some photos I took and put in my VICE article about dairy: https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/bm3vmq/reindeer-ice-cream-and-horse-milk-are-the-dairy-products-of-our-future

realreplicant5 karma

Hi Clarissa! I just returned from a month stay in Hangzhou and fell in love with bing cao 冰草. Any chance on finding it in America?

Also a variation of dong po rou, dong po ji was my second favorite dish!

dearclarissa5 karma

I adore and love bing cao! I've never seen it in the States, but it seems like it's pretty widespread on the prairies of the United States and Canada. Let me know if you do find it.

Sc06435 karma

What do you think of Dave Chang's commentary on Chinese/Chinese-American food in the Fried Rice episode of his show, Ugly Delicious? What do you think is the main reason why the exquisite Chinese food culture has never been celebrated properly in the West? Are we on a clear path towards greater recognition of Chinese food as a culture beyond greasy takeout or alien ingredients, or does something bigger have to be done to achieve that acceptance?

dearclarissa5 karma

I do think Chinese food and culture is getting more visible in the West, thanks to increased travel and personalities like Bourdain, Zimmern, and Chang helping to showcase how deep and varied Chinese food can be. I wouldn't say we're on a clear path, but we're on a clearer path than we were a decade ago.

Chinese food's international trajectory reminds me of that of Japanese cuisine. Japan's economic boom in the 1980s led to a fascination of its cuisine. The same is happening with China.

But honestly, this is why I joined Goldthread. While I had been writing about Chinese food as a freelance writer, it was always an uphill battle trying to convince people of my "niche." Does something bigger have to be done? Yes. This is on the part of the big mainstream publishers and media gate holders. They need to diversify their coverage on China outside from the usual rolodex of people who -- once upon a time -- studied abroad in China for a couple of months, took one cooking class, and dated a local.

There are many Chinese people who understand cultural nuances, can write English fluently, and have an intimate connection to the country.

The fact is: There's a deep lack of ethnically Chinese / multilingual reporters covering China. The bulk of my team are Chinese in heritage, we grew up with Chinese cuisine, and I truly believe we can do a better job than any of the traditional medias out there in covering Chinese food.

Schumi38915 karma

Is torturing and eating of dogs as widespread in China as we think it is?

dearclarissa104 karma

No. Not at all.

Dog meat in China is very regional and is typically eaten in northern areas where it's cold in the winter. It's considered a "warming" food and is traditionally served in hot pot. I personally have never eaten dog meat and don't think I could stomach it, but I know a lot of that is because of my Western bias. I am not opposed to the idea though. If anything, eating pig meat or chicken meat or cow meat should warrant the same outrage as dog meat. The latter is just put on a pedestal because it's a pet. 

It's frustrating how outsiders tend to fixate on the unconventional proteins. There's also camel (northwestern China), rabbit (60% of all rabbit meat in China is consumed in Sichuan), cats, horse (Kazakh tribe in Xinjiang), and snake being consumed in China. But again, most of these unconventional proteins are specific to a region or tribe. 

Westerns have a tendency to see Chinese people as a monolithic mass. The people who do regularly consume dog meat are a small minority in a country with a population of 1.379 billion. Yet "dog-eating" is a dominate topic when it comes to the Chinese. 

It's fear-mongering at its best. 

There are Scandinavian people, for example, who eat reindeer and moose (hi Max!). But that's not a conversation that's brought up when we talk about Nordic food. Instead, restaurants like Noma are overly covered and praised for its hyper-localism. Food for thought, eh? ;)

impersonalpizza3 karma

What is one thing you wish more people knew about Chinese Cuisine? Also what is the most underrated Chinese dish, in your opinion.

dearclarissa17 karma

1) That it's incredibly diverse. China's population is 4x the United States. Hell, China has more millennials than the United States has people. Given the numbers, it's incredible how I am considered a niche reporter in the food writing world.

2) Mixian 米线. Rice noodles in Yunnan. Served in spicy soup for breakfast. The rice noodle companies make fresh deliveries to all the breakfast shops first thing in the AM.

Gimli_a_Break2 karma

Hey Clarissa! I'm curious about the food culture like in Hong Kong since the end of British colonialism. What was it like before? Has there been a resurgence of any kind?

dearclarissa3 karma

I actually just filed a piece about this exact topic on Goldthread. It'll come out in the next month or two. Stay tuned!

goodmorningfuture2 karma

How often do you hear “Clarissa Explains It All” jokes?

dearclarissa5 karma

Too often ;)

PoddyOne2 karma

How easy is it to enjoy travelling China without knowing the language? Any route you would recommend as a starting point for a first trip plan?

dearclarissa5 karma

It's very hard to travel through the mainland without knowing Chinese, even in the first-tier cities. But language barrier aside....

The Goldthread team just came back from a nine-day trip in Chengdu and we loved it. I recommend starting there. I had been there before and adored it for its laid-back vibe,, but going with a group proved to be even more memorable. The street food culture there is insane.

My friend Jordan has a food tour company in Chengdu and I highly recommend him: https://chengdufoodtours.com/

#notanadiswear

guidetti3241 karma

Is it true some Chinese eat fertilised chicken eggs? Saw it on an idiot abroad.

dearclarissa12 karma

I personally haven't encountered this in my travels. You may be referring to balut -- a specialty of the Philippines. But I wouldn't be surprised if the dish exists somewhere in China. And if it does, it definitely is not mainstream.