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Ingredients and types of food
American Chinese cuisine is a style of Chinese cuisine developed by Americans of Chinese descent. The dishes served in many North American Chinese restaurants are adapted to American tastes and often differ significantly from those found in China. Of the various regional cuisines in China, Cantonese cuisine has been the most influential in the development of American Chinese food, especially that of Toisan, the origin of most early immigrants.
Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States to work as miners and railroad workers. As the large groups of Chinese immigrants arrived, laws were put in place preventing them from owning land. They mostly lived together in ghettos, individually referred to as "Chinatown". Here the immigrants started their own small businesses, including restaurants and laundry services. By the 19th century, the Chinese community in San Francisco operated sophisticated and sometimes luxurious restaurants patronised mainly by Chinese. The restaurants in smaller towns (mostly owned by Chinese immigrants) served food based on what their customers requested, anything ranging from pork chop sandwiches and apple pie, to beans and eggs. Many of these small-town restaurant owners were self-taught family cooks who improvised on different cooking methods and ingredients. These smaller restaurants were responsible for developing American Chinese cuisine, where the food was modified 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. Even though the new flavors and dishes meant they were not strictly Chinese cuisine, these Chinese restaurants have been cultural ambassadors to Americans.
Along the way, 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. By the 1920s, this cuisine, particularly chop suey, became popular among middle-class Americans. However, after World War II it began to be dismissed for not being "authentic." Late 20th century tastes have been more accommodating. Take away food became popular amongst Americans, Chinese food becoming a favourite "take out" option. By this time it became evident that Chinese restaurants no longer catered mainly for Chinese customers.
With the continuing success of American Chinese cuisine, including its portrayal to mainland Chinese audiences through the medium of American television sitcoms, American Chinese restaurants have opened in China itself. Products and ingredients needed to recreate these adapted dishes are imported into China. They include "Philadelphia cream cheese, Skippy peanut butter, cornflakes and English mustard powder".
In 2011, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History displayed some of the historical background and cultural artefacts of American Chinese cuisine in its exhibit entitled, Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States.
Differences from other regional cuisines in China
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American Chinese food builds from styles and food habits brought from the southern province of Guangdong, typically the Toisan district of Toisan, the origin of most Chinese immigration before the closure of immigration from China in 1924. These Chinese families developed new styles and used readily available ingredients, especially in California. The types of Chinese American cooking served in restaurants was different from the foods eaten in Chinese American homes.
Among the common differences is to treat 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. Cuisine in China 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 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.
American Chinese cuisine takes advantage of ingredients not native to and very rarely used in China. One such example is the common use of western broccoli (Chinese: 西蘭; pinyin: xīlán) instead of Chinese broccoli (Gai-lan, 芥蘭; jièlán) in American Chinese cuisine. Occasionally, western broccoli is also referred to as sai laan fa in Cantonese (西蘭花) 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 a large, pungent white radish. The orange western carrot is known in some areas of China as "foreign radish" (or more properly hung lo bac in Cantonese, hung meaning "red"). When the word for onion, cong, 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.
Egg fried rice in American Chinese cuisine is also prepared differently, with more soy sauce added for more flavor whereas the traditional egg fried rice 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 and host of PBS culinary show Simply Ming, 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".
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 items such as liver, chicken feet, or other meat dishes that might deter American customers. In Chinatown, New York, the restaurants were known for having a "phantom" menu with food preferred by ethnic Chinese, but believed to be disliked by non-Chinese Americans.
American Chinese restaurant menu items
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. Believed to be named after Qing Dynasty statesman and military leader Zuo Zongtang, often referred to as General Tso.
- 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 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, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wonton strips – commonly served complimentary along with duck sauce and hot mustard, or with soup when ordering take-out
Regional American Chinese dishes
- Chow mein sandwich – sandwich of chow mein and gravy (Southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island).
- Chop suey sandwich – sandwich of chicken chop suey on a hamburger bun (North Shore of Massachusetts).
- St. Paul sandwich – egg foo young 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).
- Yaka mein - Chinese-Creole food found in New Orleans that evolved from beef noodle soup
North American versions found in China
- 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 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 sometimes 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.
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 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" (Chinese: 黃毛雞; pinyin: huángmáo jī; Cantonese Yale: wòhng mouh gāai; 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 (豆苗; 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.
Chinese restaurants and American Jews
The perception that American Jews eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day is documented in media as a common stereotype with a basis in fact. The tradition may have arisen from the lack of other open restaurants on Christmas Day, as well as the close proximity of Jewish and Chinese immigrants to each other in New York City. It has been portrayed in film and television.
Kosher Chinese Food is also available in large cities in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and are usually under strict Rabbinical Supervision.
American Chinese chain restaurants
- 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.
- 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
- 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, Louisiana
- Stir Crazy - Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, Florida, Indiana, Texas, and Ohio
References and further reading
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to American Chinese cuisine.|
- "Chinese food in America History" (The Food Timeline) 
- Imogen Lim Restaurant Menu Collection: American menus. Vancouver Island University Library.