Lucas Sin was recently telling a Dominican cook about hong dou sha, a red bean soup popular as a chilled Cantonese summer dessert. “Oh, yeah,” Mr. Sin recalled the cook’s saying, “habichuelas con dulce.”
The Dominican Eastertime dessert, also a cold red bean soup, is spiced with cloves, while the Chinese treat is cinnamon-driven, and the Dominican version has more milk, but the dishes are unmistakable culinary cousins.
It was an aha moment, unlocking for both chefs the cuisine of China’s far-flung diaspora. “We didn’t know,” Mr. Sin said, “because how often do Chinese and Dominican chefs really talk?”
As far back as the ancient Silk Road and up through the diasporas of the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese émigrés have made their homes across the world. Wherever they did, local riffs on recipes — then riffs upon riffs — were born.
Consider the halal Hui dishes of Cairo, chop suey in San Francisco, egg rolls in New York, a deep-fried shumai-like beef dimmy in Sydney, Big Mac baos in Toronto or sweet-and-sour fish in the Chinês clandestinos of Lisbon. Some, such as Kazakhstan’s laghman noodles, are national staples. There are whole cuisines — Chuka in Japan or Chifa in Peru — made up of interpreted Chinese recipes, including dishes as common as ramen or lomo saltado. All are satellite culinary provinces of mainland China.
Such has been the view of Mr. Sin, 27, a wunderkind chef who first opened a restaurant at 16 in an abandoned factory in Hong Kong, then ran a diner out of his dorm room at Yale. He is now the executive chef at Junzi Kitchen, a fledgling fast-casual chain serving modern Chinese food.
Because that food did not exist in the Hong Kong of his youth, Mr. Sin has an unabashed love of Chinese-American fare, especially at Wo Hop, an 82-year-old classic in Manhattan’s Chinatown. “It was new to me, and so exciting that it didn’t occur to me for years that Chinese food is too simple and monolithic in the U.S.,” he said.
He was disturbed, then, by how easily anti-Asian sentiment and violence surged — even in places like New York — as the coronavirus pandemic shut down the planet. Strangers tossed half-filled cans of beer at him. One threw a long, fluorescent light bulb at him like a javelin.
“It took me coming to New York to start really understanding what it meant to be a minority,” he said. “It’s disappointing that people who like our food and eat our food all the time are so quick to attack and deface Chinese restaurants.”
To counter the parochialism of quarantine, in March Mr. Sin started Distance Dining (“a dinner series about how Chinese food connects the world”) to highlight dishes of the Chinese emigrant population — at 10.7 million, the world’s third-largest, behind Mexico’s 11.8 million and India’s 17.5 million. They call themselves sanju, which translates to “scattered living.”
The pop-up meals — which are put together at Junzi from elements prepared by Mr. Sin and collaborating chefs — are available by delivery roughly once a week, and accompanied by an Instagram Live session explaining their origins and interplay.
China is home to some 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, and the culinary trend for Chinese food in recent years has leaned toward Imperial recipes and hyper-regional cuisines — Fujianese, Hunanese, Sichuanese, Shanghainese, Uighur, Xianese, Yunnanese. But Mr. Sin’s program, by provocative contrast, has embraced the authenticity of Chinese cuisine’s globalism while avoiding “fusion,” a term that has widely curdled into a slur among gourmands.
“This is confluence, not influence,” Mr. Sin said.
Andrew Doro, a Chinese-American food blogger intent on eating dishes from every nation in the world, without leaving New York City, favors Guyanese Chinese dishes like fried bangamary (a fish) and crispy cha chi gai. “There are so many more types of Chinese food than even most Chinese people realize,” Mr. Doro said.
Mr. Sin was suddenly partnering with celebrated restaurants left and right: Malaysian lobak and buckwheat mochi with Kopitiam, Taiwanese pineapple egg tart with Spot Dessert Bar, Thai khao soi and Yunnanese paoluda with Fish Cheeks, or Vietnamese bun bo Teochew and che bap with Madame Vo. Collaborations serve up to 200 diners, and two superfans have eaten all of the 14 meals so far.
As the zeitgeist shifted from pandemic panic toward rage for racial equity, inspired by the killing of George Floyd, Mr. Sin tweaked his program: Soon he was messaging with Kia Damon and Ghetto Gastro, a collective of food lovers based in the Bronx.
They discussed dishes as varied as yakamein, the Afro-Chinese soup of New Orleans — which Mr. Sin made with Ms. Damon for one dinner — or what the chef Eddie Huang and others call “hood Chinese” food, like the chicken wings served in many New York neighborhoods. The Chinese diaspora, it turns out, is remarkably agile.
“China is this incredible beacon in food,” said Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-Swedish host of “No Passport Required,” who has made Harlem his home. “We’re relearning about heritage, culture and history. That’s not just happening in the food world, but everywhere. We see it in taking down monuments, for example. We’re having a really important conversation in America and, if America is having it, very often the world is having it.”
Mr. Sin’s mission is beyond gastro-diplomacy, approaching gastro-activism, using the culinary intersections as conversational starting points. Chefs are happy to join in.
Ms. Damon, the founder of Supper Club From Nowhere, a culinary history project inspired by the civil rights chef Georgia Gilmore, cheered Mr. Sin’s request to collaborate. Amid what she called exhausting “Black for pay” propositions, designed to help brands burnish their political credentials by partnering with people of color, she called Distance Dining “a breath of fresh air.”
“He’s already doing the work in himself,” she said. “There’s relief because I’m not doing this work alone. I’m not having this conversation alone.”
Ms. Damon, whose mother is Gullah Geechee and father is Creole, sighed. “When we face those ugly parts of us and our distance, and we come together to reconcile with that, what does that taste like?” she said. “I want to look back and know what I was doing during the great Covid pandemic of 2020, when there was a nationwide, global movement for all Black lives. I want to know that I’m proud of what I was doing. I was cooking for a better future, cooking for a better me. When everything feels so bad, doing this feels good.”
Chintan Pandya, the chef at Adda Indian Canteen in Long Island City, Queens, said Distance Dining was an opportunity to showcase dishes that are authentic in a surprising way. The chile chicken he made with Mr. Sin, for example, was invented in the 1970s, when soy sauce and cornstarch were substituted for garam masala by members of the Chinese community that has flourished for decades in Kolkata.
“It’s a very nostalgic dish,” Mr. Pandya said. “We’ve grown up eating it. The way we were exposed to Chinese food was this dish. What General Tso’s is to America, this dish is for India. It’s integral.”
But the Chinese diaspora is not all about history or nostalgia. China is an emerging power in Africa, for example, and Mr. Thiam, the chef of Teranga, in East Harlem, has noticed the nascent Chinatown of his native Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
His collaboration with Mr. Sin used dawadawa (fermented locust beans) in an efo riro stew, as a nod to douchi (China’s fermented black beans), as well as fonio, a Senegalese grain, as tribute to China’s ancient, pre-rice Five Grains. They were substitutions he borrowed from his home kitchen, cooking with his fiancée, Lisa, who is Chinese-Japanese. Mr. Sin’s Eight Treasures pudding, in turn, was evocative of similar Senegalese desserts like sombi and thiakry.
“When I first came to New York and wanted to cook something with dawadawa, I would go to Chinatown and get fermented beans there,” Mr. Thiam said. “The closest substitute I could get to the flavors of home would be the Chinese markets. There’s going to be a revolution in cuisine because Chinese are getting more prominent in Africa. I’m looking forward to that.”
Mr. Sin’s idea, however, is not exactly new to anyone who has raved about Mei Lin’s mapo lasagna at Nightshade in Los Angeles, or the XO tartare at C.A.M. in Paris, or who remembers David Chang’s mapo ragù in 2006. And half a century ago, Chinese-Cuban restaurants sprang up across Manhattan. Chinese crossover has been on menus both divey and luxurious.
But Mr. Sin’s approach is emboldened and elevated by current events. After the death of Mr. Floyd, Mr. Sin knew the value of solidarity, he said, having seen it for years in Hong Kong’s own protests.
Two years of collaboration at the Museum of Food and Drink, he added, taught him that “African-American cooking really is the bedrock of American food culture.” The Black Lives Matter movement got him to act on that knowledge, embracing the cuisines of communities in crisis.
Mr. Sin’s new education has been tumultuous. He said he now knows that Chinese restaurants have often seen historically redlined African-American communities as “decent business opportunities,” which can become a potentially exploitative relationship.
He is more and more angry at what he calls the white supremacy of the Anglicized renaming of “potstickers” or “soup dumplings,” for example, in ways that are not applied to bratwurst, paella, pâté or ravioli. He has become more offended that Chinese food is “at the bottom of the price-point food chain,” and more appreciative of flavors like the sweet-and-sour mumbo sauce of Chinese restaurants in Washington, D.C., because it’s “not part of the white palate.”
Overall, he said, Distance Dining has amplified his creative sense of possibility — and cross-cultural optimism. His aim is to make the dinners permanent.
“Many people celebrate history and tradition with food,” said Cecilia Chiang, the 99-year-old godmother of Chinese restaurants nationwide, who has eaten at the storied Chinese restaurants of Kolkata, and recalled a terrible lo mein Bolognese in Rome. “This year, with the virus and everything, people say: ‘Take me back! Take me back to how it was before!’ Not so many celebrate the future now. But Lucas does.
“Lucas is so ambitious. The stories he wants to tell are too long to be spoken, but perfect for being eaten.”
Distance Dining: For more information, junzi.kitchen/distancedining.