When you think of American food what comes to mind? Macaroni and Cheese? Hot dogs and apple pie? Fried chicken and French fries? Or Sweet & Sour Chicken and Fortune Cookies? They are all pretty well-known American dishes, especially the last two which are the only ones that actually came from America.
Yes, that’s right. Many of our so-called Chinese food dishes did not come from China. They were created by immigrants here who combined some cooking concepts from home with ingredients found in North America.
What we find in “Chinese” restaurants bears little resemblance to the food found in restaurants in China, unless you are in a restaurant catering to recent immigrants in a large city Chinatown. There are many reasons for the differences in Chinese-American food and more traditional Chinese food:
Differences in Ingredients
There are many difference in the ingredients used by American-Chinese chefs and traditional Chinese chefs. Some of the differences are environmental, but some are cultural:
- American Chinese cuisine uses vegetables like carrots, tomatoes, onion and broccoli that are not native to China so few traditional Chinese dishes use them. You can find beef with broccoli in almost every Chinese restaurant in the U.S., but many real Chinese have never seen it before.
- American Chinese uses the vegetables to complement the meat in an entrée, almost like a garnish. In traditional Chinese cuisine, the vegetables, rice, noodles and bean products (like Tofu and soybean) are more important than the meat, which is often just one of the ingredients, not a main one for a dish.
- Most U.S. Chinese food is loaded with salt and sugar, so it tastes sweeter and saltier than authentic Chinese food. The Chinese people, however, like to use several different spices in one single dish. Besides salt and sugar, common spices used in China include Chinese cinnamon, dried chili, star anise, wild pepper, water chestnut powder, etc. However, you can’t generalize about the taste of authentic Chinese food because tastes in different regions vary. For example, south China provinces, like Szechuan, Yunnan, and Hunan, are famous for spicy foods, but the spices they use differ.
- Authentic Chinese cooking uses a variety of protein sources that seem unsavory in the West. These include snake, chicken feet, duck blood, ox tails, jellyfish, and a diverse range of seafood ingredients found in traditional Chinese food.
Cooking methods are also very different between authentic Chinese food and mainstream American Chinese restaurants:
- The food found in U.S. Chinese restaurants is mainly fried using a wok or a deep fryer. Traditionally, however, Chinese people believed that fried food is unhealthy. So, some traditional Chinese cooking may be fried, but cuisine is also stewed, braised, baked, steamed, boiled, and even fermented.
- Breading, like in chicken nuggets, is not used in authentic Chinese food; such cooking is the equivalent of chicken nuggets, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks. However, it is used in American dishes like orange chicken.
- It usually takes quite a long time for Chinese people to prepare and cook a traditional dish because they emphasize the harmony of “color,” “aroma” and “taste.”
Several dishes in the West do not really exist in the East:
- Crab Rangoon is a French Polynesian-inspired dish from San Francisco.
- Sweet ‘n’ Sour Chicken or Pork has no equivalent in traditional Chinese cuisine. It is believed they stem for Southern U.S. cooking where the meat is breaded and deep-fried.
- General Tso’s Chicken may use traditional Hunan flavors, but the dish was created by a Chinese chef in New York.
- Orange Chicken is a spin-off of General Tso’s, but sweeter. The Chinese do have a dish called orange chicken, but it’s completely different.
- Chop Suey loosely translates to “odds and ends” in Cantonese, but didn’t originate in China. It is often attributed to a Chinese-American chef who put a bunch of leftovers together to create a new dish.
- Duck Sauce is the Americanized version of Chinese plum sauce or hoisin. The orange tint come from apricots, which are not common in China.
America ‘Chinese’ Symbols
Two items that we readily identity with Chinese food in the U.S. are only known in China from American movies: Fortune Cookies and Chinese Takeout Pails.
Chinese fortune cookies were created in San Francisco. They were modeled after a Japanese cookie/cracker called tsujiura senbei. The Japanese cookies have fortunes in them and have been around for a while. Before World War II, fortune cookies were known as “fortune tea cakes”-likely reflecting their origins as Japanese tea cakes. It is unknown how fortune cookies became viewed as Chinese, but some reports say the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II forced the Japanese who had produced fortune cookies out of business, which gave an opportunity to Chinese manufacturers.
The white wire-handled containers that are ubiquitous with Chinese takeout are an American invention. They also have Japanese influences, mainly their origami design. The takeout pails are based on wooden oyster pails use to bright raw oysters in from the harbor. They were adapted to bring food home from restaurants.
7 Things You Didn’t Know About American Chinese Food — The Daily Meal
Shanghai warms up to a new cuisine: Chinese food, American-style – Southern California Public Radio
Chinese Food in America vs Chinese Food in China – Attract China
‘Chinese’ Food You Won’t Find in China – The Daily Meal