A new "clean Chinese" restaurant has prompted massive backlash for playing on racist tropes about the cuisine.
The New York restaurant, called Lucky Lee's, has been heavily criticized for using language that puts down classic Chinese American cooking as greasy and unhealthy.
The founder, nutritionist and blogger Arielle Haspel, told Eater the menu at her restaurant — which was named for her husband Lee — is for “people who love to eat Chinese food and love the benefit that it will actually make them feel good," and who don't want to "indulge" in dishes like lo mein and kung pao chicken. Haspel said she will "healthify" the dishes with a “menu that will leave you feeling great" — meaning meals without gluten, refined sugar, and with “less oil."
“We heard you’re obsessed with lo mein but rarely eat it," she said in a now-deleted Instagram post. "You said it makes you feel bloated and icky the next day? Well, wait until you slurp up our HIGH lo mein. Not too oily. Or salty.”
The website and social media posts have largely been wiped of the problematic language after complaints, and the Instagram post about lo mein was removed after Eater asked about it, the site reported.
Chinese food has long faced stereotypes of being too greasy, salty, and unhealthy, often in ways rooted in old racist stereotypes that have persisted to modern times.
In 2016, restaurant review site Infatuation was criticized when a writer declared that it's "rare you find a hip, cool, fun Chinese restaurant free of meat sweats and MSG." (MSG — which has long been accused of causing headaches, heart palpitations, and other adverse symptoms — is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, which has "never able to confirm that the MSG caused the reported effects.")
Studies have shown that people are more likely to blame the cause of food poisoning on non-European food, even though the likelihood of getting sick from Chinese food is no higher than that from the French.
On Haspel's food blog, Be Well With Arielle, she frequently invoked these tropes.
In one post, she wrote that she can rarely eat a dish from her local Chinese restaurant "because it makes [her] so thirsty and [her] fingers swell the next day."
"Most restaurants add MSG, globs of processed butter and sodium-rich soy sauce," she added.
In a post about tamari, she said, "You know the morning after you go to your favorite chinese restaurant or sushi joint and you feel bloated, your eyes are puffy and your rings hardly fit on your fingers?"
People are criticizing the restaurateur for playing into the overplayed, inaccurate stereotypes.
People are also flooding her Instagram with comments telling her to "keep your gentrified, white washed & cultural appropriated food to yourself."
"Don't shit on our culture and then profit from it," actor Olivia Sui wrote.
"You are implying that Chinese food is unhealthy & not clean," one commenter wrote. "Do you not see how harmful that is?
"Did you white wash the chicken before cooking it?" another commenter quipped.
Chef Eddie Huang also had quite a few colorful words for Haspel, whose "OUTDOOR VOICES BAKED ORANGE CAULIFLOWER" he called "THE FYRE FEST OF FOOD."
Some have noticed the name similarities with a number of Chinese restaurants that have faced similar criticism.
In a lengthy Instagram post on Tuesday, the restaurant said that following the backlash, it is "clear to us that there are cultural sensitivities related to our Lucky Lee’s concept" and that it promises to "always listen and reflect accordingly."
"A number of comments have stated that by saying our Chinese food is made with 'clean' cooking techniques and it makes you feel great that we are commenting negatively on all Chinese food," they added. "When we talk about our food, we are not talking about other restaurants, we are only talking about Lucky Lee's."
"Chinese cuisine is incredibly diverse and comes in many different flavors (usually delicious in our opinion) and health benefits," the post continued. "Every restaurant has the right to tout the positives of its food. We plan to continue communicating that our food is made with high quality ingredients and techniques that are intended to make you feel great."
The post also responded to criticism that the Chinese restaurant has white owners, saying its owners are "Jewish-American New Yorkers, born and raised," who grew up eating "bagels, pastrami sandwiches and yes, American Chinese food."
"... New York is the ultimate melting pot and Lucky Lee's is another example of two cultures coming together. To us, this is a good thing," the post said. "We love American Chinese food and at Lucky Lee's it is our intention to celebrate it everyday and serve great food."