No matter how homesick I grow while traveling overseas in North America, from Asia, I remain reluctant to enter restaurants many Americans would promptly label “Chinese.” From the dollops of gooey sweet and sour chicken to the spongy stir-fried broccoli sitting dejectedly at the bottom of a Chinese buffet tub, it’s all too disheartening to admit that the foods so carelessly drenched in grease and rolled around in sweet sauce could still bear the name of my native cuisine.
Upon arriving in Japan, many people would be surprised to discover that the Japanese consume sushi highly infrequently. Cultural stereotypes can create many misconceptions, but I have yet to find a popular cuisine more misunderstood than the Chinese. In reality, it would be painstakingly difficult to find chop suey or fried wontons in China. Neither would egg rolls ever appear on a menu—only spring rolls with diaphanous wrappers nowhere as leathery as the doughy skins of their American counterparts. Dishes like orange chicken, sesame chicken, and pepper steak can be labeled syncretic dishes at best. A fortune cookie would bewilder most Chinese grandparents, and broccoli, onions, black pepper and satay sauce are in fact foreign to the Chinese diet. Oddly enough, these foods continue to spring up in the take out boxes of Chinese American restaurants.
Although food adaptation is nothing new (McDonalds serves rice and soy milk in many Asian countries), the phenomenon present in most modern Chinese American restaurants today is cuisine fusion. Traditional Chinese food is often enjoyed lightly steamed, braised or stewed; however, a foreigner used to baking his fish fillets would probably find the briny odor of steamed fish unappetizing. Likewise, traditional tofu soup might seem too watery for satisfaction while steamed bok choy, too bland to taste. That’s why the Canton immigrants who arrived in America during the mid 19th century shrewdly Americanized their Chinese eateries to make their dishes more palatable to new customers.
The oleaginous meat orientated Chinese American food we see in Western restaurants today differs greatly from the meals prepared in Chinese family kitchens. Everyday dishes rarely focus on fried spareribs or pork chops; instead, meats are utilized as condiments for vegetable stir-fries or soups. Sub genres of the uniquely heterogeneous cuisine are also abundant amongst China’s vast landscape. Scallion paste, for example, is characteristic of the Zhejiang genre while peppercorn oil is often solely associated with Sichuan cooking. It is all much more complex than the monotonous gluey sauces perpetually utilized by fast food “Chinese” restaurants.
Without a little effort, many of us will pass a lifetime without ever indulging in authentic Chinese fare. But whether it’s a piquant “drunken” chicken immersed in bak jau or eight-treasure rice swathed with fragrant home-ground sesame paste, it’s not impossible to find the bona fide Chinese cuisine near you. Begin by opening yourself up to experimentation. At a family-owned Chinese restaurant, ditch the fried rice and ask to be surprised. Pop into Chinatown and introduce yourself to a friendly vendor who might just be willing to share a secret recipe or two. During your next holiday, why not travel to China and verify this article. But if all else fails, nothing is wrong with enjoying take away Chinese food. Just remember: it won’t be the real deal you’re tasting!