By Brendan Wu & Illustrated by Christina Bennett
Their Trans-Pacific Voyage and What They Left Behind
Mention General Tso on the streets in China—his name is spelled Zuo, pronounced “zwoh” on the Mainland, by the way—and history buffs might recognize the 19th century military man whose campaigns bought some time for the rapidly crumbling Chinese Empire. Mention his association with the crispy, saucy chicken dish that finds its way in some form to every Chinese menu in this country and you’ll get blank stares.
As a kid, I noticed that some Chinese restaurants (in the United States) had two menus. On one, the stars were steamed, stir-fried, and braised Cantonese dishes, as well as the region’s famous slow-cooked soups and stews. The other included the deep-fried, heavily-sauced lunch and dinner specials with a choice of white or fried rice, spring roll or egg drop soup, add $1 for shrimp, familiar to virtually every restaurant in this country that claims to sell Chinese food.
I enjoy shovelling fork-fulls of Panda Express orange chicken and fried rice into my mouth as much as the next person, but this can’t always satisfy my taste buds. Why can’t I find any traditional dishes from my homeland-the ones that showcase the vibrant diversity of a massive country where gastronomy has been held in high regard since at least the time of Confucius? How did China’s cuisine change so much on its journey across the Pacific?
One of the factors that makes importing Chinese culinary culture difficult is the sheer volume of it. Many of the simplifications that define the Americanized menus do not apply when speaking about the entirety of Chinese food. For example, north of the Yangtze, grains such as wheat, millet, and sorghum are just as common, if not more so, than rice. Aside from a small number of dishes such as spring rolls, which are from the Shanghai area, deep-frying is almost entirely absent from Chinese cuisine; sautéing in a wok is by far more common. Tofu, far from a struggling health food, is available in varieties and epicurean sophistication that resemble the place of cheese in European traditions. There is also a heavy emphasis on pork and leafy vegetables across most of China, which is not matched in American Chinese food.
Nationally, Sichuanese food is very popular. This regional cuisine is known for often being bright red with pungent spices and bold flavors. There is an emphasis on “numbing spice,” owed to the liberal use of Sichuan peppercorns that the most-hip foodies here are now beginning to discover like Columbus stumbling upon the Americas. Some Sichuanese dishes like gongbao (kung pao) chicken and mapo tofu are relatively common in American Chinese food as well.
Finally, keep in mind that China is a multi-ethnic nation comprised of dozens of ethnically non-Chinese peoples who contribute a multitude of interpretations and practices to the national cuisine. For example, along the northern and western borders one would find Turkic, Mongolian, and Tibetan influences that resemble Middle Eastern cuisines. The mountainous province of Yunnan that borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar incorporates many Southeast Asian ingredients into its food such as mint and banana flower.
The composition of American Chinese food is rooted in the history of America’s Chinese, who came mainly as laborers to build new railroads. The first immigrants came largely from the province of Guangdong, home of Cantonese cuisine that consists of recognizable dishes like wonton soup and ingredients such as oyster and sweet and sour sauces. After the railroads were finished, Americans didn’t exactly relish the idea of competing with non-white workers in this newly accessible West (strange how some things never change) so opening a restaurant became one of the few opportunities for the entrepreneurial young Chinese man. There were restaurants that catered primarily to other Chinese, but this business model only worked if you lived in the segregated ghettos like San Francisco’s Chinatown. In the less cosmopolitan railroad junctions and mining towns of the Wild West, the food had to be adapted to fit a less familiar palate. And thus began the ever-evolving process of cultural diffusion, in which familiar and even definitively non-Chinese dishes of this “Chinese” cuisine like chop suey and fortune cookies began appearing.
American Chinese food is thus a bastardization of authentic Chinese food, but also a legitimate cuisine unto itself that developed independently in the New World. The inconsistency and confusion between the two speaks a cultural mis-interaction. Chinese Americans are often incorrectly assumed to represent and carry around with them several millennia worth of arcane Chinese knowledge and culture. People have trouble distinguishing between China and people whose ancestors happened to come from that country. Food is sometimes the sole access point to all things Chinese for non-Chinese. Non-Chinese eat American Chinese food thinking it’s authentic because, unless they’ve been told otherwise (you’re being told otherwise), how would they know?
However, as Americans become more and more cosmopolitan and as China becomes more influential not only economically but culturally as well, I think that truly authentic foods will find their way into American restaurants. Chinese restaurants like Malan Lamian, a fast-casual noodle store, and Little Sheep, a hot pot restaurant, have already franchised in several large North American cities. In Brooklyn, I recently ate at a chic little hole-in-the-wall that served authentic dishes from Yunnan, tapas style with cocktail pairings. I hope in the future, more accurate culinary representation will help Americans come to respect and understand Chinese culture more thoroughly and serve as a synecdoche for more fruitful interactions between Americans and Chinese Americans.