Tasty, but not authentic
Credit: Morguefile photo by Naomi

What's Real Chinese Food?

The best Chinese food I ever had was in a coastal resort in California. The fried rice was fluffy, with barely a hint of the soy sauce that typically smothers this dish. The stir-fry meats and vegetables were light and tasty.

There wasn't a pupu platter in sight. I didn't see any bright red pork spareribs, a staple in many Westernized establishments. This food tasted much different than any Asian food I'd eaten before, probably because it was a lot closer to the real thing.

The Chinese food found in most restaurants throughout the United States is heavily adapted to what the cooks think the customers want. That's why you'll see a lot of deep fried offerings, especially at the luncheon buffets.

This isn't to say that all American Chinese food is bad. It can be delicious if it's cooked well, which accounts for its popularity.

This particular cooking style, a product of the California Gold Rush, has become a unique cuisine in its own right. In the last 150 years it's continued to evolve. It has even taken on some regional characteristics. In some parts of New England you can find chop suey sandwiches. Chop suey is a good example of a dish that originated here, not in China.

By the way, fortune cookies are also an American invention. You won't generally find them in China because, apparently, they aren't popular there.

Credit: Morguefile photo by fidlerjan

Chinese Immigration to America

Many Chinese immigrants arrived in California during the mid-1800s. The Gold Rush was in full swing and many new arrivals transplanted themselves in the Northern boom towns, according to American Chinese cuisine author Diana Kuan.

To make a living, they opened restaurants that catered to both their countrymen and to the gold miners. Soon a brand new style of cooking developed.

Later, Kuan explained in the introduction to her book, these Chinese immigrants fanned out across the rest of the country, bringing their unique recipes with them.

This explains why we now find dishes such as chop suey. Other thoroughly American inventions include egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, pupu platters and stir fry beef and broccoli.

New Dishes Still Appear

American Chinese food continues to evolve. One of the latest trends is all-you-can-eat luncheon and dinner buffets. The food is usually very good for mass-produced buffet fare.

These food bars typically feature a mix of more Asian recipes and strictly American food, such as french fries and hotdogs.

Oftentimes, you'll find the standard stir-fry meat and vegetable dishes, as well as stir-fry noodles. Most buffets also offer a crab and cheese casserole, which is tasty, but not Chinese.

Some restaurants include a cold buffet with sushi, fruit and salad greens. One buffet we sampled had several flavors of jello and chocolate and vanilla pudding.

Desserts tend to be heavily American. We've seen cheesecake, chocolate cake and soft-serve ice cream.

Patrons typically visit the food bars multiple times before calling it quits.

If you patronize a Chinese buffet with teenage boys, the establishment will probably lose out on the deal.

Fortune Cookies aren't American

The origins of the fortune cookie are in dispute. But there's one thing nearly everyone agrees upon. These simple, but tasty, treats probably didn't get their start in China.

Most accounts peg the fortune cookie's rise to California, but there's disagreement over whether the birthplace is San Francisco or Los Angeles. It's also not clear whether the trend of serving crunchy cookies at the end of a meal was a Japanese-American or a Chinese-American invention.

In any event, fortune cookies are now served in just about every Chinese restaurant in the United States and Canada, and in many Chinese restaurants in Europe and Latin America.

Wonton Foods in New York is the biggest producer of fortune cookies. This company makes more than four million cookies a day, according to Wikipedia.

Although, in the early 1990s, Wonton tried to sell fortune cookies to the Chinese, this didn't work.

One author estimates there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States. Most serve standard American Chinese food, but this cuisine continues to change and adapt. A new trend is Asian Fusion cooking, a blend of American Chinese food, as well as recipes from other Asian countries and even Latin America.