American Chinese cuisine

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American Chinese cuisine is a style of food developed by Americans of Chinese descent and served in many North American Chinese restaurants. The dishes typically served in restaurants cater to American tastes and differ significantly from Chinese cuisine in China itself. Although China has various regional cuisines, Cantonese cuisine has been the most influential regional cuisine in the development of American Chinese food.[1][2]


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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

Differences from mainland Chinese cuisines[edit]

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.

A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United States of America

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. Market forces and customer demand have encouraged many restaurants to offer "MSG Free" or "No MSG" menus, or to omit this ingredient on request.

Carryout Chinese food is commonly served in a paper carton with a wire bail.

American Chinese cuisine often uses ingredients not native to 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.

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".[6]

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.[7]


American Chinese restaurant menu items[edit]

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,[8] 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.[9][10][11][12][13][14]
  • 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.[15][16][17]
  • Sweet roll - Yeast rolls, typically fried, covered in granulated sugar or powdered sugar. Some variants are stuffed with cream cheese or icing.
  • Sushi - Despite being part of traditional Japanese cuisine, some American Chinese restaurants serve various types of sushi, usually on buffets.

Regional American Chinese dishes[edit]

North American versions founded in China[edit]

Egg foo young
  • Cashew chicken – Stir fried tender chicken pieces with cashews.
  • 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 American 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 spicy hot, 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.
  • 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.
  • Beijing beef – In China, this dish uses gai-lan (Chinese broccoli) rather than American broccoli.
Beef with broccoli

Regional variations on American Chinese cuisine[edit]

San Francisco[edit]

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.[19]

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.

Jewish beliefs and Chinese cuisine[edit]

Though often viewed as a common stereotype, the relationship with Jewish people and Chinese cuisine during the Christian holiday of Christmas is well documented. The definitive scholarly and popular treatment of this subject appears in Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Jewish," in his third chapter entitled "We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas." The origin of Jews eating Chinese food dates to the end of the 19th century on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, 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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[21] Jews felt more comfortable at these restaurants than they did at the Italian or German eateries that were prevalent during this time period. Joshua Plaut writes the following on the origin of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas: "It dates at least as early as 1935 when The New York Times reported a certain restaurant owner named Eng Shee Chuck who brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark. Over the years, Jewish families and friends gather on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Chinese restaurants across the United States to socialize and to banter, to reinforce social and familiar bonds, and to engage in a favorite activity for Jews during the Christmas holiday. The Chinese restaurant has become a place where Jewish identity is made, remade and announced."(see the New York newspaper, Jewish Week 11/20/2012).

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”.[21] 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.[20]

Stimulating a cosmopolitan lifestyle[edit]

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’”.[20] 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”.[20] Many of the people whom 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”.[20] The restaurants had unusual wallpaper, eccentric decorations, chopsticks, and the names of the food even sounded intriguingly unique. The generations of Jews who grew up in New York after the initial Eastern European Jews immigrated wanted their identity to be based on cosmopolitan ideals.[20]

Transitioning principles of Kashrut in America[edit]

“Chinese food eased the transition from kosher to acceptable non-kosher eating”.[21] 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”.[22] 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”.[22] 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.[21] This process of cutting, chopping, and mincing, referred to as “ko p’eng—‘to cut and cook’” in Ancient Chinese texts, made the ingredients invisible and thus safe treyf.[20]

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”.[20] 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”.[21]

Chinese food, Jews, and Christmas: Elucidating the stereotype[edit]

The stereotype of Jews eating 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.[21]

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”.[22] 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[edit]

  • 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.[citation needed]
  • 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[23]
  • 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
  • The Great Wall – Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, New York, West Virginia, South Carolina
  • Stir Crazy - Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Florida, Indiana, Texas, and Ohio

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Charmaine Solomon (April 15, 2006). The Complete Asian Cookbook. p. 281. ISBN 9780804837576. 
  2. ^ Parkinson, Rhonda. "Regional Chinese Cuisine". Retrieved July 8, 2014. 
  3. ^ 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 1-86189-133-4.
  4. ^ Andrew Coe Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  5. ^ "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 March 20, 2013. 
  6. ^ "Chef Ming Tsai wants you to have a Chinese friend." CNN. January 19, 2011. Retrieved on January 19, 2011.
  7. ^ Anthony Bourdain Plays It Safe at Hop Kee, Shuns ‘Phantom Menu’ - Grub Street New York
  8. ^ "Solving a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside a Cookie". The New York Times. January 16, 2008. 
  9. ^ Fried Wonton,
  10. ^ Fried Wontons Recipe,
  11. ^ Fried Wontons Recipe,]
  12. ^ Fried Wontons (Zhá Yúntūn),
  13. ^ Chinese New Year: Fried Wontons,
  14. ^ Fried Wontons Recipe,
  15. ^ History and Culture: Chinese Food : New University
  16. ^ Beef and Broccoli | Can You Stay For Dinner?
  17. ^ The Best Easy Beef And Broccoli Stir-Fry Recipe - - 99476
  18. ^ Chinese restaurants ready for year's busiest night » Merrimack Valley », North Andover, MA
  19. ^ "Mu Shu Tortilla Flats: Chinese restaurant needs better mu shu wraps". AsianWeek. February 27, 2004. Archived from the original on October 7, 2007. Everything was well and good with one huge exception: The mu shu wrappers were flour tortillas! 
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h Tuchman, Gaye, and Harry G. Levine. "New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern." Queens College. Web. <>.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Plaut, Joshua Eli. "We Eat Chinese [food] On Christmas." The Jewish Week. N.p., Nov 20, 2012. Web. Apr 8, 2013. <>.
  22. ^ a b c Miller, Hanna. "Identity Takeout: How American Jews Made Chinese Food Their Ethnic Cuisine." The Journal of Popular Culture 39.3 (2006): 430-65. Print.
  23. ^ [1]

References and further reading[edit]


  • Chen, Yong (2014). Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231168922. 
  • Coe, Andrew (2009). Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195331073. 
  • Hayford, Charles. "Who's Afraid of Chop Suey?," Education About Asia 16.3 (2011): 7-12. Free download: [2]
  • Lee, Jennifer 8. (2008). The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve. ISBN 9780446580076. 
  • Roberts, J. A. G. (2002). China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West. London: Reaktion. ISBN 1861891334. 
  • Wu, David Y. H.; Cheung, Sidney C. H. (2002). The Globalization of Chinese Food. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon. ISBN 0700714030. 


  • Sara Bosse, Onoto Watanna, with an Introduction by Jacqueline M. Newman. Chinese-Japanese Cook Book. (1914; reprinted, Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 2006). ISBN 1-55709-371-7. ISBN 978-1-55709-371-4.
  • Ken Hom. Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood. (New York: Knopf 1997). ISBN 0-394-58758-8.
  • 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, 1999). ISBN 0-688-15826-9.

External links[edit]

  • "Chinese food in America History" (The Food Timeline) [3]