January 14, 2020

Food for Thought

How a foodie student from China and his Beloit Professor of Chinese teamed up over translations, culture, and cuisine.
  • Weining Wang’21 and Professor of Chinese Daniel Youd working together.
    Photo by Howard Korn’87

Food is a huge part of life for Weining Wang’21. A native of Beijing, he grew up eating traditional Chinese cuisine, and his great-grandfather was a famous chef for a Chinese emperor. He brought that legacy to Beloit last year by cooking Kung Pao chicken in Commons for International Club’s annual Tastes of the World event, which invites international students to cook dishes from their home countries and share them with the campus community.

Even greater than his love of food and cooking is Wang’s aspiration to become a food writer. He has a food blog in the works, and last year, he wrote “The Old Snack Shop,” a short story in Chinese that Professor of Chinese Daniel Youd helped translate into English. Wang hopes to publish the story in a literary journal.

Wang’s Beloit food journey started in Youd’s Chinese literature class two years ago. At the time, Youd was translating the story “Shujuan” (“The Black Bear”) by contemporary Chinese author Ye Guangcen for a new short story collection focused on ecological issues. The story follows a Beijing family with a strong background in cuisine, as well as a baby bear who is sent to a zoo, mistreated, and eventually killed for its paws, which are considered a Chinese delicacy.

The story struck a chord with Wang when he talked about it with Youd during his office hours one day. While the family sounded much like his own, he did not understand how people could treat a soulful animal with such disrespect. “We’re human beings, so we’re at the top of nature,” he says, “but we should be equal to the bear.”

Youd gave Wang the Chinese language version of the story and his newly translated English version to look over and discuss. “It’s really hard to translate the names of the food and get them just right,” explains Youd. “We worked together on the names of some of the dishes that are served in the novel. We also looked at some of the cultural allusions and worked on refining some of the emotions that are conveyed.”

The two are currently at work on another round of translating and editing Wang’s short story. “As a translator, it’s really important to talk with people about their reactions to the work—that’s how you make it better,” Youd says. “It’s just like with creative writing: You workshop pieces and get people’s opinions. It was a great opportunity to work with a student in that way.”

Wang’s short story “The Old Snack Shop” was inspired by his childhood and his anxieties about the disappearance of traditional Chinese cuisine.

“The old snack shop was located near my primary school,” Wang says. “About 20 years ago, it used to be a very excellent restaurant. A lot of chefs tried their best to continue their old ways—their traditional ways. But a lot of people forgot or disrespected the traditional culture. Finally, the old snack shop was destroyed.”

Kung Pao chicken is a prime example of a shift in Chinese cooking. The version of the dish that Wang grew up with, made mostly of chicken and peanuts, has been supplemented in recent years with cheaper alternatives like cucumber and more rice to keep the price down.

Other aspects affect the evolution of recipes, too, including how they are recorded, if at all. “In many cases, you don’t have written recipes [in Chinese cuisine]—you have to learn them from watching,” says Youd.

Like many traditional families in China, Wang’s family recipes are passed down from generation to generation. While he hopes that the cuisine of the past is not forgotten, he thinks there is room for experimentation—just as long as it does not replace tradition entirely. “I would like to create some new recipes,” says Wang. “But we can do both—not just keep old recipes, but also create more.”

Weining Wang’s Kung Pao Chicken

(4 to 6 servings)

This recipe is adapted from the one Wang made for fellow students in Commons during an event called “Tastes of the World.”

Ingredients

  • 1 ¾ to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small cubes
  • ¼ cup salad oil
  • 1 ½ cups unsalted peanuts (can be chopped in a food processor)
  • ½ cup chopped scallions
  • 3 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 7 tablespoons chili sauce
  • 8 tablespoons French dressing
  • ¼ cup chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch mixed in
  • ⅓ cup water
  • Salt to taste

Steps

Stir fry the chicken in salad oil until it’s white on all sides. Add peanuts and cook another three minutes or until chicken is tender. Add scallions, then garlic, and stir fry for a few minutes.

In a bowl, stir together chili sauce, French dressing, chicken broth, and cornstarch mixture. Add to the chicken mixture and stir over heat for about five minutes. Add salt to taste. Serve with your favorite rice.


Meg Kulikowski’21 is a junior at Beloit, majoring in literary studies and creative writing and minoring in history. She is studying abroad this spring at University College-Cork, Ireland.


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