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American Chinese Cuisine

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 styles and differs significantly from traditional Chinese cuisine.

Kung Pao chicken - western version

An example of American Chinese cuisine – Kung Pao chicken (western version)

History of American Chinese cuisine

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. They developed American Chinese cuisine when they modified their food to suit a more American palate. First catering to miners and railroad workers,they established eateries in towns where Chinese food was completely unknown. These adapted local ingredients and catered 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.

Differences from Mainland Chinese cuisines

American Chinese food typically treats vegetables as a side dish or garnish while cuisines of China emphasise 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 this cuisine, which are all easily done using a wok. The food also has a reputation for high levels of MSG to enhance the flavour. 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.

American Chinese cuisine

A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United States of America

American Chinese cuisine often uses ingredients not native and very rarely used in China. One such example is the common use of western broccoli instead of Chinese broccoli 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, spring onions, or green onions). The many-layered onion common in the United States is called yang cong. This translates as “western onion”. These names make it evident that the western broccoli, carrot, and onion are not indigenous to China and therefore are less common in the cuisines of China. Since tomatoes are New World plants, they are also fairly 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 Americanised . 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.

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 mein 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 in American Chinese cuisine

Takeaway Chinese food is typically served in a paper carton with a wire bail.

Takeaway Chinese food is typically served in a paper carton with a wire bail.

American Chinese restaurant menu items

Dishes that often appear on American Chinese restaurant menus include:

  • Almond Chicken – chicken coated 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, spring onions, and hot chilli 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, cornflour, vinegar, chicken broth, and sugar.
  • Chinese Chicken Salad – it 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.
  • 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.
  • Crab Rangoon – Fried wonton skins stuffed with (usually) artificial crabmeat (surimi) and cream cheese.
  • Fortune Cookies – Invented in California as a westernised version of the Japanese omikuji senbei, fortune cookies have become sweetened and found their way to many American Chinese restaurants. Fortune cookies have become so popular that even some authentic Chinese restaurants serve them at the end of the meal as dessert and may feature Chinese translations of the English fortunes.
  • Royal Beef – deep-fried sliced beef, doused in a wine sauce and often served with steamed broccoli.
  • Yaka Mein – Chinese-Creole food found in New Orleans with similarities to Beef noodle soup
  • Hulatang – Chinese traditional soup with spices.
  • Pepper Steak
  • Orange Chicken
  • 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 appetiser, 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 yung 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).

Westernised versions of native Chinese dishes

  • 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 cornflour.
  • Egg Foo Yung – A Chinese-style omelette with vegetables and meat, usually served with a brown gravy.
  • Egg Roll – While native Chinese spring rolls have a thin crispy skin with mushrooms, bamboo, and other vegetables inside, the Westernized version (specifically the version found in such American Northeast metro areas as Boston and New York) uses a thick, fried 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 unused leftover rice to good use. It typically uses more soy sauce than the mainland version.
  • Ginger Beef – Tender beef cut in chunks, mixed with ginger and Chinese mixed vegetables.
  • Ginger Fried Beef – Tender beef cut in strings, battered, deep dried, then re-fried in wok mixed with a sweet sauce, a variation of a popular Northern Chinese dish.
  • Kung Pao Chicken – The authentic Sichuan dish is quite spicy, and the westernised versions tend to be less so if at all. The westernised versions also 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 – The term means “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 and meat. Sometimes this dish is referred to as “chow mein” (which lited puts a greater emphasis on frein Cantonese).
  • Mei Fun  –
  • Moo Shu Pork – The native Chinese version uses more typically Chinese ingredients (including wood ear fungi and day lily 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.
  • Wonton Soup – In most American Chinese restaurants, only wonton dumplings in broth are served, while native Chinese versions may come with noodles. Authentic Cantonese Wonton Soup is 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. Westernised wontons, especially in takeout restaurants, are often made with thicker dough than the authentic version.
  • Cashew Chicken
  • Beijing Beef – This dish exists in native Chinese form, but using Gai-lan (Chinese broccoli) rather than  western broccoli.

Regional variations on American Chinese cuisine

San Francisco

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 specialising 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, dim sum teahouses, and hot pot restaurants. Many Chinatown areas also feature Chinese bakeries,boba milk teashops,roasted meat,vegetarian cuisine, and specialised dessert shops.Chop sueyis 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 flavour, 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 Miuis 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.

Hawaii

Hawaiian-Chinese food developed a bit differently from the continental United States. Owing to the ethnic diversity 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.

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