Ristiano and Li
June 29, 2018
Authenticity: the Evolution of Chinese Food in America
Venturing down Mulberry Street, I hit an intersection with bright orange lights hanging from short buildings and signs filled with characters I could not read. Just a few seconds ago, I was trotting along the streets of young, vibrant SoHo and then somehow entered this new world. I had never been to Chinatown before, even though I have always lived so close to New York City. It was intriguing to see such a stark difference in culture from the rest of the city, and I was ready to explore it. There were museums, temples, bakeries, grocery stores, tiny ice cream shops, and so much more. The restaurants were quite tantalizing, so my family and I decided to settle on one of the cozy eateries on the corner of the street. The menu was similar to pretty much every other Chinese restaurant we had been to before, so we ordered our usual appetizers, soups, and entrees. I was curious to know how this food adapted to match the palates of so many people across America. Why did only Cantonese food become popular? Where did all the sizable differences of traditional Chinese dishes come from? The presence of native foods has always been of great significance in Chinese immigrant families as it allows them to keep a piece of their own homes, yet it has evolved into a novel style of Chinese cuisine in America that is so prevalent in this day.
The first wave of Chinese immigration to the United States of America was in 1815. Since then, more than 2.3 million Chinese immigrants, consisting of skilled workers, laborers, etc, have settled in America (Zong 2017). The Chinese played a monumental role in the development of the railroad system in the West and helped build the economy after the Civil War by picking up the jobs that slaves were doing before. Settling in a new land, these Chinese laborers used food as a way to remember their homeland: “Chinese food was important not only because of its familiar tastes but also because of the memories it carried” (Chen 2017). In their culture, food plays an essential role in providing strong family values and bringing people together. To balance the pressure that comes with settling into new land, a new life, they wished for some sort of familiarity. The few Chinese restaurants that were present were open primarily for these immigrants, and they provided inexpensive, yet hearty meals like bean sprouts and rice.
Even though these immigrants supported the growth of America as a whole, many other laborers despised them as they were additional competition in the job market: “Many of the non-Chinese workers in the United States came to resent the Chinese laborers, who might squeeze them out of their jobs” (US Department of State). They were willing to work longer hours for much less compensation. Other than fighting for job opportunities, the non-Chinese laborers used any differences between them as a mechanism to label them negatively. This increased animosity led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which prevented these immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens as well as restricting immigration. This discrimination increased the tension and pushed many Chinese workers out of their jobs. They moved out to the East Coast and were struggling to prosper like they previously were. Desperate to make a living, they turned to running laundries and restaurants, two types of businesses still primarily owned by Chinese people; “Cooking and cleaning were both women’s work. They were not threatening to white laborers” (Lee 2008). This was just the beginning of the overwhelming expansion of Chinese cuisine and culture that has become such a staple business now in America.
These Chinese restaurants were thriving, especially after Richard Nixon’s famous visit to Beijing, China. This, in addition to immigration reform, caused their restaurant businesses to grow exponentially (Rude 2016). Among all the dishes, chop suey spread across the United States like an epidemic. Everyone was raving over this perfect mixture of meats and vegetables and the intricate balance of flavors. Most people thought it was China’s national dish, and thought it was something unique and exotic. Yet, this was not actually a Chinese dish at all. The Chinese chefs knew they could not serve authentic dishes like sea cucumbers or chicken feet to the American population. Chop suey, in fact means “of odds and ends” and was just scraps of ingredients tossed together (Jurafsky 2014). It was speculated that chop suey came about when the Ambassador of China, Li Hung-Chang, refused to eat the food that was provided to him in his hotels. His personal chefs concocted whatever they could with the ingredients that were available, creating chop suey. After this, people started waiting in lines to taste this supposed traditional dish and his visit was the spark to this “chop suey fad” (Library of Congress). Yet, Jennifer Lee’s research determines that there was no exact point at which this dish was created, but there were so many small events and parts that built up to lead to this craze for chop suey (Lee 2008). This dish is just one example of how the Chinese cuisine has evolved and become popular in America.
At Chinese restaurants today, the big buzzword is General Tso’s chicken. It is the most well-known Chinese dish today and is usually the most popular item or number one chef special on thousands of Chinese menus. The deep orange, tangy sauce is mouthwatering and the small chunks of chicken are perfectly crispy. If you show this to any Chinese native or ask for it at a restaurant in China, they will probably look at you quite perplexed. Lee continued her journey to find out about who General Tso was and how the dish even came about. She travelled deep into the village, getting discouraged as no one was familiar with the dish. She finally found the General’s hometown and encountered the chef who first made this staple meal, Chef Peng. Excited to have finally found her answer and the origins, Lee took a bite of the his recipe of General Tso’s chicken and was confused and in fact, quite disappointed: “Where was the sweetness? The tanginess? Instead, it had a strong salty flavor” (Lee 2008). The food that she and millions of others had come to love and cherish was not even close to the taste and texture of the original. It was even quite saddening to read about Peng’s reaction to the popularized version of his special recipe. He stated as he walked away, “Chinese cuisine took on an American influence in order to make a business out of it” (Lee 2008). In order to make Chinese food acceptable and liked in America, chefs made these dishes “sweeter, boneless, and more heavily deep-fried”: three defining characteristics of General Tso’s chicken (Rude 2016). All these traditional dishes were transforming the true identity of Chinese cuisine, to the point where the Americans that were consuming this food became accustomed to it and believed it to be authentic.
Many of these Chinese dishes also changed due to the nature of living in a new environment that not only had a different culture, but also different resources available. They have adapted more and more to fit American tastes in order to keep their businesses running. Vegetables that are typically used in authentic recipes are bamboo shoots or Chinese cabbage, whereas popular dishes in Chinese-American cuisine are topped with broccoli and carrots as they are more readily available (Chan). Many of the dishes were typically savory (just like Chef Peng’s version of General Tso’s chicken), and yet due to American liking for milder, sweeter items and greater accessibility to refined sugar, the recipes were slowly changing. The American population also took to a strong liking of crab rangoon, a wonton dish that was filled with crab and cream cheese, typically eaten as an appetizer. This is also shocking as dairy is not typically consumed in Chinese cuisine in the first place (Jurafsky 2014). There has never been an emphasis on producing dairy and a large portion of the population is lactose intolerant as well. The greater availability of these new vegetables and dairy products in America have led them to be commonly integrated into their food.
When Chinese cuisine first started developing, much of the population was poor and had no proper ways of preserving their foods. Due to this, Chinese cuisine is filled with dishes of almost every single body part of chickens, fish, pigs and seafood (Lee 2008). Today, these may be considered revolting to Americans as they are much pickier about what textures and what animal body parts they can consume, to make consuming animals feel more humane. This is why Chinese American food turned towards using chicken breast; they diced them up into small chunks without any skin or bones. There were also many more constraints in their cooking style back then. Lee states, “Food had to be dried or pickled…stir-frying was a popular technique because it used little oil and consumed energy efficiently” (Lee 2008). Chinese food developing in America did not face any of these problems as there were appliances like freezers and salt was more heavily used to preserve meats. The Chinese also were not familiar with using ovens which made them lack in the department of baking and desserts. In a traditional Chinese dinner, there is no concept of dessert. If anything, there may be a plate of fruit instead. The fortune cookie, which actually originated in Japan, “filled the dessert gap in that cuisine for American eaters” and continued further to become a monumental symbol for Chinese food and culture itself (Jurafsky 2014). This change in resources and appliances have indeed played a tremendous role in how Chinese cuisine evolved in America.
The stark contrast between traditional Chinese cuisine and Chinese-American dishes can clearly be seen by looking into the homes of immigrant families in America. The dishes that they serve on the dinner table are much more authentic than you can find in any restaurant across the country. Susannah Chen reflects back on her mother’s recipe for making ping an mien, a type of Chinese chicken noodle soup. It was a recipe that was special in her home “for birthdays, and when someone was leaving to go far, far away” (Chen 2014). She realized the significance once her boyfriend was moving away to continue his studies, and she spent time trying to find the most authentic ingredients in order to make something meaningful. Though she did not make it perfectly, it was a special moment, making such an authentic recipe symbolic to her and her family. This dish is rarely found in Chinese-American restaurants, rather there are soups like chicken corn soup or plain vegetable soup. These authentic recipes, thankfully, are being passed down the generations, but it would be extremely difficult to bring these types of dishes to the public eye as Americans already believe that they are consuming authentic Chinese food since it has been around for so long.
Another example of the evolution of Chinese food in America is seen through Jennifer Chan’s experience with both her family and the restaurant they own. Her father is both the owner and head chef of the restaurant; Chan revealed many of the differences in his cooking between home and at work, over the years. Chan explains, “The food that we serve in the restaurant and what my parents cook at home is very different. We use different vegetables and steam our fish whole” (Chan). The food that the restaurant served was more for the public taste, compared to the genuine and comforting flavors that they would make for themselves. Only certain customers know to ask for particular authentic Cantonese or Sichuan dishes, but the majority stick to the most well known dishes. Furthermore, she stated that in Chinese culture, food is served in large bowls or plates at the center of the table to share. Everyone was to pass the dish around and place as much as they wanted on their plate. Yet, at her restaurant, she claims that everything is served in “individual portions” as that is how the Americans typically consume their food, even when sharing a meal as a large group (Chan). The Chinese food culture is even adapting to match the traditions and ways of the Americans.
Even as Chinese American food is evolving, the authentic Chinese dishes across the Pacific Ocean are also modifying quickly. Eddie Huang, a popular writer and chef, also discusses about trying to connect back to his homeland and past by using food. He explores China and goes on a adventure to discover how the food that he serves in his restaurant in America stands up to the authentic food of the Chinese streets. When he cooked beef noodle soup and served it to a couple of friends and family, his brother said, “Definitely different than Mom’s, but I like it” (Huang 2016). He received similar feedback on many of his other recipes as well. Huang had his own flair and people loved it, but it was still quite unlike the original recipe. Huang then goes out to try dan-dan noodles at little restaurant and compares them to the ones that he loved to devour: “I never liked Sichuan dan-dan mian because everyone got it confused with Taiwanese dan-dan mian that my dad grew up eating…A classic and irresistible dish” (Huang 2016). When visiting this restaurant, he discovered that the dish was barely popular anymore due to its simple ingredients and overly intimidating spice, while in the US, it was still one of the most desired Sichuan dishes to this day. Chinese cuisine is also rapidly changing. In this case, the Americans are appreciating a traditional dish, but it has lost its magic in its native land.
The Chinese American cuisine has established itself throughout the United States, but this does not mean that there are no other options available. Rude writes, “It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the United States got its first taste of ‘authentic’ Chinese cuisine” (Rude 2016). There were immigrants coming from more locations across China that brought Hunan, Sichuan, Taipei, and Shanghai cuisines to the table (Rude 2016). Though it did not explode and become as in demand like the Americanized Cantonese cuisine, these dishes are still available in various restaurants. Vincent Li discusses how his restaurant in Washington DC caters to both local Americans as well as Chinese people looking for a true meal. He states that cooking Chinese American food is much easier because there are fewer cooking styles and “one just needs to stir-fry the vegetables and meats” (CCTV America). There are even two different menus specific to the patron. The Chinese customers and those American foodies ready to explore new depths of this cuisine, can get a unique menu listing all of the legitimate Chinese dishes that they can prepare. These beautiful dishes are just hiding behind this overpowering, yet inaccurate portrayal of Chinese cuisine.
In conclusion, Chinese-American food has been consistently changing and adapting to fit the likings of the American people and to match the resources available. The rich history of Chinese immigration was the impetus to the widespread liking of Chinese-American cuisine, as well as through various events like the visit of Ambassador Li Hung-Chang or Richard Nixon’s travels to Beijing. The Chinese continued to experiment with new ingredients available in the United States and used cooking styles that were much different to what they were exposed to at home. The divergence between the Chinese cuisine and Chinese-American cuisine is shown directly between what is even cooked in Chinese immigrant homes than in restaurants. The evolution is still continuing and both disciplines of cooking are refining and reshaping. The fact is that these authentic dishes are available across the Unites States, but it is up to individual people to go out and seek the real definition of Chinese cuisine whether it is by asking a local restaurant for something novel or preparing one’s own traditional Chinese concoction.
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