Museum is a great place to get some education, relaxation, and appreciation of the arts. But, when a museum is about food and drink, it can get to the whole another level of education and fun! I have been waiting for such museum for…well, forever! So, I was so happy when this one opened up in Brooklyn. The Museum of Food and Drink (“MOFAD” for short) is a non-profit dedicated to educate the public about the culture, history, science and other elements of food and drinks.
The really fun part about this museum is that they offer several public programs, such as cooking classes, tastings, workshops, and many more. The current exhibition is called “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant” and we thought it would be a fun exhibition to go to around the Chinese New Year.
The inside was bright with lots of lights coming in from the outside. There is a counter in the middle of the front lobby with the museum staff where you can get your tickets ($14/adult). Right behind the counter, they had a small section that held some souvenirs that you can purchase, such as magnets, snacks, pens, etc..
Behind that is a massive curtain made with Chinese takeout boxes. You could actually go though it to see the actual exhibition, or you can walk around it. It was kind of fun to get in the middle of it as I was peeking through to the other side… Whoever made this must have had a great amount of patience…
The exhibition area was a lot smaller than I thought it would be…but they did have many history packed into the small space. It had larger-than-life sized photos, newspaper articles, restaurant signs, etc. Still, you could get through the entire exhibition in less than 30 minutes if you are not going to read every single items that are displayed.
So, in order to get our money’s worth, we went by slowly, paying closer attentions to the exhibit. The fun part was their wall of Chinese restaurant menus, ranging from 1910 – 2016! It must not have been easy to curate all of these menus… It was interesting to see what they used to offer, the names of restaurants, and the design on the menu. Some creative, some fancy, some really funny, and some that are very eye-catching in so many ways.
They also had a photo of an artwork from one of my favorite artist, Edward Hopper. It is titled Chop Suey and was painted in 1929. It is fascinating to see how people used to live, how they spend their days in the old days. It reads “Going out for chop suey was an affordable indulgence for America’s urban middle class. Edward Hopper’s iconic painting embodies cosmopolitan life in the Roaring Twenties.”
Alongside other histories and photos, they also had some histories depicting hard-life of Chinese immigrant around 1870s and 1880s. It seems that Americans workers were threatened by Chinese laborers who accepts lower pay for the same job. They were also blamed for America’s economic troubles. I did not know that these issues so many hundreds of years ago, and still continues today…
We found a really cool thing on the other side of the menu wall, an actual fortune cookie machine, making fortune cookies in real time! The staff told us that we can pick up the freshly made cookies off the conveyor belt if we’d like. Awesome! The machine was not a smooth running machine, and the staff had to constantly get up off her seat and take care of the jammed cookies…LOL
The real interesting part is that the fortune cookie is NOT really Chinese. I neglected to check to see if they have stated this at MOFAD… But, from what I know, fortune cookies were invented by Japanese immigrant. Yes, Japanese! It was first made at the beautiful Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and was called Japanese Tea Cakes, as they used to eat sweets with green tea. So, how did it become a Chinese staples in Chinese restaurant? I heard that back in 1890s, most of the Chinese restaurants in SF were run by Japanese people. I guess people back then have not warmed up to the idea of awesome thing called sushi or sashimi just yet… So, they introduced tea cakes with messages inside as dessert, which become quite popular. If you bring the fortune cookie to China, not many people know what that is, unless they’ve seen it in the US!
Then there was a Culinary Studio where they do cooking demonstration with tasting! They had a counter seats around the chef, and one table seating right by it also. It is not meant for a large group, but maybe up to 10 people or less at a time. This way, you can really see what the chef is doing, be able to hear the explanation of it, and get to have a freshly made, hot dish.
During this CHOW exhibition, they will have different Chinese American chefs to come in and do demonstrations. The chefs will create the recipes to highlight the culinary techniques of Chinese American restaurants. Super cool!
On this day, we got to see how Five Pepper Kung Pao Chicken was made, and yes, taste. It is included in the general admission, but limit to one tasting per person. It was made with chicken, poblano pepper, bell pepper, peanuts, lots of seasonings and ingredients like honey, vinegar, chili. It was placed on top of warm rice, and was really good! It had nice kick to it, with spices from five peppers. It was awesome. The chef was really nice, educational, and friendly. She explained what she was doing with each step, talked about stir frying, velveting, and corn starch thickening technique. I wish if I could’ve had another bowl…or two…or three!
And if you missed the educational part of it, they had a huge panel right by the table seating, explaining it all with nice visuals. Very cool! I have never heard of “velveting” so that alone was interesting, and good learning opportunity for future cooking experiments.
Tucked away in the corner was some fun equipment from the previous exhibition, when the MOFAD first opened. Here, you get to experiment with scent of many different things, such as fruit, coffee, caramel, etc. When you press the button, a rush of wind comes out from the nozzle with that scent.
It tells you to experiment with several different scent at the same time, like banana and caramel, to see what that mixed scent would smell like. Pretty fun to do, but kind of takes a while… After pressing a button, you have to wait for the machine to stop blowing the scented air before you can proceed (I think). It was still fun to play around with it.
Once we finished exploring, we came back around to the front lobby. There was this large Infinity parked there next to the front desk. I first thought that it was just an advertisement of the car, since Infinity is their sponsor. But then, I found a control monitor placed nearby the passenger door. I played with the monitor, and it asked me to choose one of the pre-selected cities, such as Crown Heights. I picked one, and then the monitor started a countdown, asking me to get inside the vehicle within the countdown (about 20 seconds).
Then the show started on all the windows of the car, like 360 degrees show and tour of the city, and the culinary culture attached to the city. It was really cool! They named this MOFAD City, and created by MOFAD, EATER, and of course, Infinity. It is a series of digital guides that tell the stories of global food cultures in America through neighborhood restaurants, vendors, and markets. You can actually see all the screen from the outside of the vehicle also, but it is so much more fun looking at it from the inside.
The funny part was that other visitors around the vehicle had no idea what it was all about, until we got inside the car. I heard them yelling “Oh, we are supposed to go inside the car!!!” After that, the Infinity became a celebrity real quick. You welcome.
Then, last but not least, a little extra culture that you can take home with you before you leave. They had fortune cookies there with the take home container, next to it. You can take one, two, three or how many ever you can fit inside the small container. Since not all of the fortune cookies had the message in the inside (again, not a well-oiled machine…), I suggest you take more than just one to ensure you receive your fortune.
We had a fun time learning about the culinary history and culture of China, especially the cooking demonstration and tasting! The exploration of MOFAD City inside the Infinity was pretty cool and made us want to visit there. I like how they added few interactive elements to this museum, instead of just viewing or reading. If you are in the area and wants to learn about Chinese American restaurant history and cuisine, check them out! I am excited to see what new exhibition they are going to bring in after this one. I am sure the creative team will have another super cool exhibit…
Museum of Food and Drink – 62 Bayard St, Brooklyn, NY 11222