Chinese food, it is America's favorite cuisine. Whether it is a late night in the office or a family night at home, every night millions of Americans order Chinese and imbibe in its sweet and sour or spicy and savory goodness. However, there is Chinese food and American Chinese food. Whether you want to admit it or not, they are two different things. Like any cuisine, Chinese food has been badly bastardized outside of China to better appeal to Western palates.
Restaurants like Happy Wok, P.F. Changs or Panda Express may have popularized Chinese food, but what they are serving on their menu is usually not what people in China are having for dinner. In fact, some of these dishes have become such staples on Chinese menus that to get authentic Chinese food, one would pretty much have to go to China to get it these days. However, I suppose that is the same with any cuisine.
Crab Wontons (or Crab Rangoons)
Crab Wontons are crispy deep fried dumplings that are stuffed with crab meat, green onions and cream cheese. While a popular appetizer in the west served with some sweet and sour sauce, eaters are unlikely to find this dish in China. Ever wonder why you don't see many Chinese dishes slathered in cheese like so many other ethnic foods? Well, there is a reason for that. There is an old stereotype going around that almost all Chinese people are lactose intolerant. While that may have been true in the past, plenty of Chinese people drink milk today, though many do have lactose intolerance to some degree.
However, the primary reason Chinese people do not incorporate cheese in their cuisine was because they never had any. In many portions of China, the temperature was too extreme to raise cattle so keeping them for cheese was never a big priority. This is likely why many Chinese people are indeed lactose intolerant, they were not really exposed to lactose until civilizations and culture started spreading and mingling together.
General Tso's Chicken
For those that want to go to Hunan province and have a heaping plate of General Tso's Chicken, you are going to be very disappointed. While those in Hunan province will probably know of General Tso as he was indeed a real person, they will likely have no idea about his chicken. In fact, General Tso's Chicken did not really become a thing until the 1970's when Chef Peng Jia (or T.T. Wang, depending on who you ask) started serving it in their New York City restaurant.
General Tso's Chicken is the prime example of American Chinese food as it was at one point an authentic dish using spicy Hunan province flavors, but it was adapted because American palates could not take the heat.
Sweet and Sour Pork / Chicken
Sweet and Sour sauce is actually Chinese. However, it is typically used for dipping meats in rather than slathering them in it. The slathering is a wholly American Chinese food custom, as if the frying of chicken. While pork is often battered and fried, chicken is not. In China, chicken is primarily used in soups or stir fried up. Only at KFC is chicken fried in China and everyone knows KFC is hardly authentic Chinese food.
So while you may find some sweet and sour food in China, it definitely won't be the melange of fried things that Westerners are accustomed to. You will have to dip your meats by hand.
Beef and Broccoli
So were they cooking up beef and broccoli and serving it to Confucius? Definitely not, and not just because Confucius was a vegetarian.
For the longest time, people thought the egg roll to be quintessentially Chinese. The egg roll has traits of the traditional Chinese spring roll, which has a thin flakey crust and is stuffed with mushrooms, bamboo and other native vegetables, but the egg roll is basically the fat American version. The egg roll has a much tougher crust and is often stuff with cabbage and bits of ground meat, which begs the question of why it is called an "egg" roll when there is no egg inside.
Many actual Chinese people find egg rolls to be the most insulting bastardization of their cuisine as the spring roll is a delicate affair while the egg roll involves some muscle to get into the blistering hot insides.
It is a well known fact now that fortune cookies are not Chinese, though they do go hand in hand with American Chinese food. In fact, fortune cookies are Japanese in origin opposed to Chinese. So how did they get associated with Chinese restaurants? When the cookies were sweetened in the 1900's, they took off in the United States in both Japanese and Chinese restaurants. However, during World War 2 when many Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps, leaving Chinese restaurants to become the primary carrier of these cookies. It just kind of stuck after World War 2 ended.
For those who want an authentic and more fortuitous Chinese dessert, partake in an orange. They are considered good luck. By oranges, I of course mean Mandarin oranges in which China is the lead producer of. These are particularly popular during the Chinese New Year, as everyone wants another year of goof fortune.