American Chinese cuisine
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American Chinese cuisine refers to the style of food served by many Chinese restaurants in the United States. This type of cooking typically caters to American tastes and differs significantly from homeland Chinese cuisine.
- 1 History
- 2 Differences from mainland Chinese cuisines
- 3 Dishes
- 4 Regional variations on American Chinese cuisine
- 5 Jews and Chinese cuisine
- 6 American Chinese chain restaurants
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References and further reading
- 10 External links
In the 19th century, Chinese in San Francisco operated sophisticated and sometimes luxurious restaurants patronized mainly by Chinese, while restaurants in smaller towns served what their customers requested, ranging from pork chop sandwiches and apple pie to beans and eggs. These smaller restaurants developed American Chinese cuisine when they modified their food to suit a more American palate. First catering to miners and railroad workers, they established new eateries in towns where Chinese food was completely unknown, adapting local ingredients and catering to their customers' tastes.
In the process, cooks adapted southern Chinese dishes such as chop suey, and developed a style of Chinese food not found in China. Restaurants (along with Chinese laundries) provided an ethnic niche for small businesses at a time when the Chinese people were excluded from most jobs in the wage economy by ethnic discrimination or lack of language fluency.
In 2011, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History displayed some of the historical background and cultural artifacts of American Chinese cuisine in its exhibit Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States.
Differences from mainland Chinese cuisines
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American Chinese food typically treats vegetables as a side dish or garnish, while traditional cuisines of China emphasize vegetables. This can be seen in the use of carrots and tomatoes. Native Chinese cuisine makes frequent use of Asian leaf vegetables like bok choy and kai-lan and puts a greater emphasis on fresh meat and seafood.
Stir frying, pan frying, and deep frying tend to be the most common Chinese cooking techniques used in American Chinese cuisine, which are all easily done using a wok (a Chinese frying pan with bowl-like features). The food also has a reputation for high levels of MSG to enhance the flavor. The symptoms of a so-called Chinese restaurant syndrome or "Chinese food syndrome" have been attributed to a glutamate sensitivity, but carefully controlled scientific studies have not demonstrated such negative effects of glutamate. Market forces and customer demand have encouraged many restaurants to offer "MSG Free" or "No MSG" menus, or to omit this ingredient on request.
American Chinese cuisine often uses ingredients not native and very rarely used in China. One such example is the common use of western broccoli (xīlán, 西蘭) instead of Chinese broccoli (jie lan, 芥蘭 jièlán) in American Chinese cuisine. Occasionally western broccoli is also referred to as sai lan fa (in Cantonese) in order not to confuse the two styles of broccoli. Among Chinese speakers, however, it is typically understood that one is referring to the leafy vegetable unless otherwise specified.
This is also the case with the words for carrot (luo buo or lo bac) or (hong luo buo, hong meaning "red") and onion (cong). Lo bac, in Cantonese, refers to the daikon, a large, pungent white radish. The orange western carrot is known in some areas of China as "foreign Daikon" (or more properly hung lo bac in Cantonese, hung meaning "red"). When the word for onion, chung, is used, it is understood that one is referring to "green onions" (otherwise known to English-speakers as "scallions" or "spring onions"). The larger many-layered onion bulb common in the United States is called yang cong. This translates as "western onion". These names make it evident that the American broccoli, carrot, and onion are not indigenous to China, and therefore are less common in the traditional cuisines of China.
Since tomatoes are New World plants, they are also relatively new to China and Chinese cuisine. Tomato-based sauces can be found in some American Chinese dishes such as the "beef and tomato". Hence, if a dish contains significant amounts of any of these ingredients, it has most likely been Americanized. Fried rice in American Chinese cuisine is also prepared differently, with more soy sauce added for more flavor whereas the traditional fried rice in Chinese culture uses less soy sauce. Some food styles such as Dim sum were also modified to fit American palates, such as added batter for fried dishes and extra soy sauce. Even more divergent are American stir-fry dishes inspired by Chinese food, that may contain brown rice instead of white, or those with grated cheese; milk products are almost always absent from traditional Chinese food.
Salads containing raw or uncooked ingredients are rare in traditional Chinese cuisine, as are Japanese style sushi or sashimi. However, an increasing number of American Chinese restaurants, including some upscale establishments, have started to offer these items in response to customer demand.
Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, said that American Chinese restaurants typically try to have food representing 3-5 regions of China at one time, have chop suey, or have "fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce", "eight different sweet and sour dishes", or "a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes". Tsai said "Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food. It’s adapted... to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public".
Most American Chinese establishments cater to non-Chinese customers with menus written in English or containing pictures. If separate Chinese-language menus are available, they typically feature delicacies like liver, chicken feet, or other meat dishes that might deter American customers. In New York's Chinatown, the restaurants were known for having a "phantom" menu with food preferred by ethnic Chinese, but believed to be disliked by non-Chinese Americans.
Dishes that often appear on American Chinese restaurant menus include:
- Almond chicken - chicken breaded in batter containing ground almonds, fried and served with almonds and onions
- General Tso's chicken – chunks of chicken that are dipped in a batter and deep-fried and seasoned with ginger, garlic, sesame oil, scallions, and hot chili peppers.
- Sesame chicken – boned, battered, and deep-fried chicken which is then dressed with a translucent red or orange, sweet and mildly spicy sauce, made from soy sauce, corn starch, vinegar, chicken broth, and sugar.
- Chinese chicken salad – usually contains sliced and/or shredded chicken, uncooked leafy greens, crispy noodles (or fried wonton skins) and sesame dressing. Some restaurants serve the salad with mandarin oranges.
- Chop suey – connotes "assorted pieces" in Chinese. It is usually a mix of vegetables and meat in a brown sauce but can also be served in a white sauce.
- Crab rangoon – fried wonton skins stuffed with (usually) artificial crab meat (surimi) and cream cheese.
- Fortune cookie – invented in California as a westernized version of the Japanese omikuji senbei, fortune cookies have become sweetened and found their way to many American Chinese restaurants.
- Royal beef – deep-fried sliced beef, doused in a wine sauce and often served with steamed broccoli.
- Pepper steak – consists of sliced steak, green bell peppers, tomatoes, and white or green onions stir-fried with salt, sugar, and soy sauce. Bean sprouts are a less common addition
- Mongolian beef - fried beef with scallions or white onions in a spicy and often sweet brown sauce
- Fried wontons – somewhat similar to crab rangoon, a filling, (most often pork), is wrapped in a wonton skin and deep fried.
Regional American Chinese dishes
- Chow mein sandwich – sandwich of chow mein and gravy (Southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island).
- Chicken fingers – boneless pieces of chicken, dipped in egg batter and deep fried. Served as an appetizer, they can also be covered in sweet and sour sauce and served as an entrée (New England) or the sauce can be served on the side.
- Chop suey sandwich – sandwich of chicken chop suey on a hamburger bun (North Shore of Massachusetts – the only known remaining restaurants serving this specialty are "Genghis Salem", "Salem Lowe" (Salem), and the newly opened "China Roma" restaurant on Revere Beach, (Revere, Massachusetts).
- St. Paul sandwich – egg foo young patty in plain white sandwich bread (St. Louis, Missouri).
- Springfield-style cashew chicken – a style of cashew chicken that combines breaded deep fried chicken, cashews, and oyster sauce. (Springfield, Missouri).
- Yaka mein - Chinese-Creole food found in New Orleans that evolved from to beef noodle soup
- Pu pu platter - Primarily sold in New England, a Pu pu Platter is an appetizer combination platter sold in Chinese style restaurants. The platter usually consists of Deep Fried Chicken fingers (Lotus flour), Deep Fried jumbo shrimp (Lotus flour), Crab Ragoons, pork strips or bone-in pork ribs in red BBQ sauce, Beef Teriyaki, Fried Chicken Wings, and pork egg rolls. Contents of the platter may vary depending on the restaurant or region.
Due to the large Chinese American population in the Southern United States, some fusions of Chinese cuisine and Southern "comfort food" have been made over the years. Some of it being Bourbon Chicken and other dishes.
North American versions of dishes not found in China
- Beef & Broccoli - Flank steak cut into small pieces, stir-fried with broccoli, and covered in a dark sauce made with soy sauce and oyster sauce and thickened with cornstarch.
- Chow mein – literally means "stir-fried noodles". Chow mein consists of fried crispy noodles with bits of meat and vegetables. It can come with chicken, pork, shrimp or beef.
- Egg foo young – A Chinese-style omelet with vegetables and meat, usually served with a brown gravy. While some restaurants in North America deep-fry the omelet, versions found in Asia are more likely to fry in the wok.
- Egg roll – While spring rolls have a thin, light beige crispy skin that flakes apart, and is filled with mushrooms, bamboo, and other vegetables inside, the "New York" style eggroll, which can be found throughout the northeast corridor (but is uncommon to find elsewhere in the country) has a thicker, chewier, dark brown bubbly skin stuffed with cabbage and usually bits of meat or seafood (such as pork or shrimp), but no egg.
- Fried rice – Fried rice dishes are popular offerings in American Chinese food due to the speed and ease of preparation and their appeal to American tastes. Fried rice is generally prepared with rice cooled overnight, allowing restaurants to put leftover rice to good use (freshly cooked rice is actually less suitable for fried rice). The Chinese American version of this dish typically uses more soy sauce than the versions found in China. Fried rice is offered with different combinations of meat and vegetables.
- Ginger beef – 生薑牛肉 shēngjiāng niúròu Tender beef cut in chunks, mixed with ginger and Chinese mixed vegetables.
- Ginger fried beef – 乾炒牛肉絲 gānchǎo niúròu-sī Tender beef cut in strings, battered, deep dried, then re-fried in a wok mixed with a sweet sauce, a variation of a popular Northern Chinese dish.
- Hulatang – a Chinese traditional soup with hot spices, often called "spicy soup" on menus
- Kung Pao chicken – The Sichuan dish is quite spicy, but the versions served in North America tend to be less so if at all, and to usually leave out the Sichuan Pepper that is a fundamental part of the original dish. Additionally, they use breast meat while the original is frequently made with leftover chicken of all kinds including bones.
- Lo mein ("stirred noodles"). These noodles are frequently made with eggs and flour, making them chewier than simply using water. Thick, spaghetti shaped noodles are pan fried with vegetables (mainly bok choy and Chinese cabbage (nappa)) and meat. Sometimes this dish is referred to as "chow mein" (which literally means "fried noodles" in Cantonese).
- Mei Fun (see Rice vermicelli dishes)
- Moo shu pork – The original version uses more typically Chinese ingredients (including wood ear fungi and daylily buds) and thin flour pancakes while the American version uses vegetables more familiar to Americans, and thicker pancakes. This dish is quite popular in Chinese restaurants in the United States, but not so popular in China.
- Orange chicken – chopped, battered, fried chicken with a sweet orange flavored chili sauce that is thickened and glazed. The traditional version consists of stir-fried chicken in a light, slightly sweet soy sauce that is flavored with dried orange peels.
- Wonton soup – In most American Chinese restaurants, only wonton dumplings in broth are served, while versions found in China may come with noodles. In Canton, Wonton Soup can be a full meal in itself, consisting of thin egg noodles and several pork and prawn wontons in a pork or chicken soup broth or noodle broth. Especially in takeout restaurants, wonton are often made with thicker dough skins.
- Cashew chicken – Stir fried tender chicken pieces with cashews.
- Beijing beef – In China, this dish uses gai-lan (Chinese broccoli) rather than American broccoli.
Regional variations on American Chinese cuisine
Since the early 1990s, many American Chinese restaurants influenced by California cuisine have opened in San Francisco and the Bay Area. The trademark dishes of American Chinese cuisine remain on the menu, but there is more emphasis on fresh vegetables, and the selection is vegetarian-friendly.
This new cuisine has exotic ingredients like mangos and portobello mushrooms. Brown rice is often offered as an optional alternative to white rice. Some restaurants substitute grilled wheat flour tortillas for the rice pancakes in mu shu dishes. This occurs even in some restaurants that would not otherwise be identified as California Chinese, both the more Westernized places and the more authentic places. There is a Mexican bakery that sells some restaurants thinner tortillas made for use with mu shu. Mu shu purists do not always react positively to this trend.
In addition, many restaurants serving more native-style Chinese cuisines exist, due to the high numbers and proportion of ethnic Chinese in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Restaurants specializing in Cantonese, Sichuanese, Hunanese, Northern Chinese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong traditions are widely available, as are more specialized restaurants such as seafood restaurants, Hong Kong-style diners and cafes (also known as Cha chaan teng (茶餐廳 chácāntīng)), dim sum teahouses, and hot pot restaurants. Many Chinatown areas also feature Chinese bakeries, boba milk tea shops, roasted meat, vegetarian cuisine, and specialized dessert shops. Chop suey is not widely available in San Francisco, and the city's chow mein is different from Midwestern chow mein.
Authentic restaurants with Chinese-language menus may offer "yellow-hair chicken" (黃毛雞, Cantonese Yale: wòhng mouh gāai, Pinyin: huángmáo jī, literally yellow-feather chicken), essentially a free-range chicken, as opposed to typical American mass-farmed chicken. Yellow-hair chicken is valued for its flavor, but needs to be cooked properly to be tender due to its lower fat and higher muscle content. This dish usually does not appear on the English-language menu.
Dau Miu (Chinese: 豆苗; pinyin: dòumiáo) is a Chinese vegetable that has become popular since the early 1990s, and now not only appears on English-language menus, usually as "pea shoots", but is often served by upscale non-Asian restaurants as well. Originally it was only available during a few months of the year, but it is now grown in greenhouses and is available year-round.
Hawaiian-Chinese food developed a bit differently from the continental United States. Owing to the diversity of ethnicities in Hawaii and the history of the Chinese influence in Hawaii, resident Chinese cuisine forms a component of the cuisine of Hawaii, which is a fusion of different culinary traditions. Some Chinese dishes are typically served as part of plate lunches in Hawaii. The names of foods are different as well, such as Manapua, from Hawaiian meaning "chewed up pork" for dim sum bao, though the meat is not necessarily pork.
Jews and Chinese cuisine
While on the surface, one might believe it to just be a stereotype related to Christmas, the relationship with Jews and Chinese cuisine is well documented. The origin dates to the end of the 19th century on the Lower East Side because Jews and the Chinese lived in close proximity to each other. There were around a million Eastern European Jews living in New York around 1910 and the Jews constituted over “one quarter of the city’s population”. The majority of the Chinese immigrated to the Lower East Side from California after the 1880s and many of them went into the restaurant business.
The first mention of the Jewish population eating Chinese food was in 1899 in the American Hebrew Weekly journal. They criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, particularly singling out Chinese food. Yet, Jews continued to eat at these establishments. In 1936, it was reported that there were eighteen Chinese restaurants open in heavily populated Jewish areas in the Lower East Side. Jews felt more comfortable at these restaurants than they did at the Italian or German eateries that were prevalent during this time period.
The reason for feeling comfortable in the Chinese restaurants largely had to do with the lack of prejudice that came from the Chinese people. The Chinese “accepted Jews and other immigrant and ethnic groups as customers without precondition”. In lower Manhattan, immigrant Jews would open delis for other Jews, the Italians ran restaurants primarily for other Italians, and the Germans had many places that would serve only Germans. The Chinese were so welcoming that more of the Jews and Italians would want to eat at their restaurants than they would want to eat at their own ethnic restaurants.
Stimulating a cosmopolitan lifestyle
While the Jews felt secure in the restaurants with how welcoming the Chinese people were, they were also drawn to the restaurants for reasons that did not relate directly to the food. “Of all the peoples whom immigrant Jews and their children met, of all the foods they encountered in America, the Chinese were the most foreign, the most ‘un-Jewish’”. Yet, this was appealing to the Jewish people and they viewed the food as exotic, which enticed them to go to the restaurants even more. A large majority of the Jews saw “eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been”. Many of the people that Tuchman and Levine spoke to felt that eating in a place that was “un-Jewish” showed that they could be “somewhat sophisticated, urbane New Yorkers”. The restaurants had unusual wallpaper, eccentric decorations, chopsticks, and the names of the food even sounded intriguingly unique. The generations of Jews that grew up in New York after the initial Eastern European Jews immigrated wanted their identity to be based on cosmopolitan ideals, and the second/third generation Jews felt that possessing sophistication would put them above others.
Kashrut: Bending the rules
“Chinese food eased the transition from kosher to acceptable non-kosher eating”. This is an interesting notion, considering that the “Jewish preoccupation with food is at least partially rooted in kashrut, the intricate set of dietary restrictions codified in the Torah”. While first generation Jews living in America practiced kashrut, the “second- and third-generation Jews precipitated an ethnic eating revolution by rejecting kashrut as impractical and anachronistic”. Chinese food put on a façade that allowed Jewish people to look the other way when thinking about the fact that Chinese food wasn’t particularly kosher. The food was “disguised through a process of cutting, chopping and mincing. Pork, shrimp, lobster, and other so-called dietary abominations are no longer viewed in their more natural states”. The pork was hidden and wrapped in a wonton that disguised it as a Jewish dumpling. This process of cutting, chopping, and mincing, referred to as “ko p’eng—‘to cut and cook’” in Ancient Chinese texts, made the ingredients visible and thus safe treyf.
Chinese cuisine was “unusually well suited to Jewish tastes because, unlike virtually any other cuisine available in America, traditional Chinese cooking does not use any milk products whatsoever”. These small loopholes and ways of tricking oneself into believing that they weren’t breaking the rules of kashrut became prevalent in the younger generation. Breaking the rules of kashrut by eating Chinese food allowed the younger generation to assert their independence and it further established a “cosmopolitan spirit”.
Chinese food, Jews, and Christmas: Breaking down the stereotype
The stereotype of Jews going to eat Chinese food on Christmas does have an origin. In 1935, the New York Times reported that a restaurant owner named Eng Shee Chuck had brought chow mein to a Jewish children’s home in Newark on Christmas Day. This article is considered to be one of the earliest publications of the stereotype that relates Jews to Chinese food on Christmas.
The relationship that Jews have to Chinese food certainly goes deeper than this stereotype. “Eating Chinese [food] has become a meaningful symbol of American Judaism… For in eating Chinese, the Jews found a modern means of expressing their traditional cultural values. The savoring of Chinese food is now a ritualized celebration of immigration, education, family, community, and continuity”. Chinese food is considered a staple in the Jewish culture, and the further option of kosher Chinese food is also becoming more and more available in the US.
American Chinese chain restaurants
- China Coast – Closed in 1995; owned by General Mills Corp., formerly 52 locations throughout the United States
- Chinese Gourmet Express - throughout the United States
- Leeann Chin – Minnesota and Wisconsin; owned at one time by General Mills Corp.
- Manchu Wok – Throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Guam, Korea and Japan
- Panda Express – Throughout the United States, some locations in Mexico
- Pei Wei Asian Diner – Throughout the United States; a subsidiary of P.F. Chang's
- P. F. Chang's China Bistro – Throughout the United States; features California-Chinese fusion cuisine
- Pick Up Stix – California, Arizona, and Nevada
- Sam Woo Restaurant – California, Nevada
- The Great Wall – Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, New York, West Virginia, South Carolina
- Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Florida, Indiana, Texas, and Ohio
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- Ch Six, "The Globalization of Chinese Food: The Early Stages," in J. A. G. Roberts. China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (London: Reaktion, 2002) ISBN 1861891334.
- Andrew Coe Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- "Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States". Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Retrieved 20 March 2013.
- "If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?", "The Observer", 10 July 2005, retrieved 18 April 2011
- "American Chinese cuisine", "Beijing Tourism Administration", 14 November 2011, retrieved 9 April 2013
- "Chef Ming Tsai wants you to have a Chinese friend." CNN. January 19, 2011. Retrieved on January 19, 2011.
- Anthony Bourdain Plays It Safe at Hop Kee, Shuns ‘Phantom Menu’ - Grub Street New York
- "Solving a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside a Cookie". The New York Times. January 16, 2008.
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- History and Culture: Chinese Food : New University
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- Tuchman, Gaye, and Harry G. Levine. "New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern." Queens College. Web. <http://dragon.soc.qc.cuny.edu/Staff/levine/SAFE-TREYF.pdf>.
- Plaut, Joshua Eli. "We Eat Chinese On Christmas." The Jewish Week. N.p., 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. <http://www.thejewishweek.com/special-sections/literary-guides/we-eat-chinese-christmas>.
- Miller, Hanna. "Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine." The Journal of Popular Culture 39.3 (2006): 430-65. Print.
References and further reading
- Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) ISBN 9780195331073.
- Charles Hayford, "Who's Afraid of Chop Suey?," Education About Asia 16.3 (2011): 7-12. Free download: 
- Jennifer 8. Lee. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. (New York, NY: Twelve, 2008). ISBN 9780446580076.
- J. A. G. Roberts. China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West. (London: Reaktion, Globalities, 2002). ISBN 1861891334.
- David Y. H. Wu and Sidney C. H. Cheung. ed., The Globalization of Chinese Food. (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, Anthropology of Asia Series, 2002). ISBN 0700714030.
- Sara Bosse, Onoto Watanna, with an Introduction by Jacqueline M. Newman. Chinese-Japanese Cook Book. (1914; reprinted, Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 2006). ISBN 1557093717 9781557093714.
- Ken Hom. Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1997). ISBN 0394587588.
- Eileen Yin-Fei Lo and Alexandra Grablewski. The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques and Ingredients, History, and Memories from America's Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking. (New York: William Morrow, 1st, 1999). ISBN 0688158269.
- "Chinese food in America History" (The Food Timeline)