Chinese food in North America is not so Chinese
By: Daniel Otero
Translated by: Jessy Xu
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, there was my favorite Chinese restaurant in Williamsburg called, ‘The New Star’. This restaurant has long disappeared since the 1970s and later substituted for the cheaper variations of the ‘Take out foods’.
It was popular with us locals who thought we were eating ‘exclusive’ Chinese food from the Mainland. Time progressed and I grew-up, then things started to make sense; especially after I came to China. I realized that, over 30 different ‘so called Chinese dishes’ were actually American influenced or prepared to fit the North American palate.
When did this phenomena begin?
It began in the 1850s with the California gold rush, as Chinese immigrants started pouring into America and establishing restaurants in their respective Chinatown. They prepared foods for their compatriots, but more and more Americans started to enjoy these ‘bites of China’. So much so, that by the 1920s, already Chinese food was and still is very popular with middle-class America.
Chinese and Chinese Americans, with other Asian groups like Japanese, began adapting their menus to the local or regional taste buds.
Today, yes, we have an infusion of flavors. But if we travel across China, we’ll also notice dishes from Guangdong and Fujian Provinces; which has influenced what we have today in North America. One thing we can’t ignore, most of these culinary arts hold to the concept of ‘sweet and sour’. A variation of dishes stylized to fit the American and Canadian diet.
Therefore, voila, this is what we have today with famous-restaurant chains like, Panda Express or Yum Yum Tree–a mixture of American flavors into the Chinese cuisine.
I’m not saying it isn’t any good; however, sometimes the dishes can be a little too on the fatty side or oily for my taste.
To go further into details with dishes which are very popular in Chinese restaurants in North America; however, nobody has a clue in Mainland China what there all about. Here are some examples, just to name a few:
- Chop Suey (杂碎) – fried vegetables with a thick layer of sauce
- Egg roll (蛋卷) – which is more like a spring roll, but fried in a deep cornstarch and batter
- Fried Wonton – with pork or beef filling, quite crunchy
- Chow Mein (炒面) – stir fried noodles
- Kung Pao Chicken (宫保鸡丁) – leaving out entirely the Sichuan pepper and having nothing to do with the Province
- Fortune cookie with ice cream – come on, that’s something entirely Californian
- Fried wonton strips – enjoyed with duck sauce and hot mustard
- Egg Foo Young (芙蓉蛋) – basically an American-British Chinese omelette in soy sauce, onions and chives
Most of these versions are fried; while other Chinese restaurants have added Japanese dishes into their menus. Sushi and sashimi are the two most popular, just to name a few.
If you have lived in China and visit a Chinese restaurant (one that’s not a franchise) in the United States or Canada; you may have to ask the owner for ‘the other menu’. Usually, one will fit to the local taste. The other is for those who have really experienced what Chinese food is all about, one of the greatest foodie cultures in the world!