Why is American Chinese food different than authentic Chinese food
Authentic Chinese food stems from the diversity in the Chinese population. The 8 most well-known cuisine types are Sichuan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Guangdong, Fujian, and Hunan cuisines. However the actual diversity in Chinese cuisine is way beyond the 8 major cuisine types mentioned in this article (and beyond one’s imagination). During the gold rush period, the number of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. drastically increased. However, the immigrant population was predominantly from the Guangzhou region. This first wave of Chinese immigrant heavily influenced the American Chinese food ever since. To this day, the majority of the American Chinese food still falls in the Guangdong (Cantonese) cuisine type. In general, the flavor leans on the sweeter side with a variety of steamed dim sums. The limited inclusion of the Chinese cuisine types significantly reduces the authenticity of Chinese food in the U.S.
Besides of the predominant Cantonese cooking style, the ingredients of the dishes altered to the available resources in the U.S. Next time you visit a Chinese market, I encourage you to count how many different types of green vegetable you can see. Every restaurant here has pages of vegetable options. However, the Western dietary habit heavily depends on meat and dairy products. This is reflected in the substantial amount of government investment in the industry every year. As a result of the limited ingredient, Chinese immigrants simply cannot recreate the authenticity. Over the years, American Chinese food adapted by incorporating the heavy meat and dairy culture.
Resources aside, one of the most obvious reason for the current version American Chinese food is market demand. After all, the priority of any business is to profit. Certain Chinese delicacies just simply cannot be understood in a country raised on chicken breast meat (i.e. chicken feet, fish head, and all sorts of gizzards). Growing up in a mixed family, I was exposed to Chinese and American cuisines equally. I witnessed first-handedly how dishes altered to cultural differences. My mother only eats pizza covered in spinach, artichokes, and mushrooms. The only pasta that suits her taste bud is seafood linguine in diablo hot sauce with no cheese (the spiciest Italian sauce). On the other end, my father eats rice by mixing it with ketchup and a dash of salt. This phenomenon of cuisine progression is not limited to American Chinese food but occurs between every combination of cultures you can think of. In the end, American Chinese food is just another chemistry reaction from the clash of two cultures (like the author, me ^^).
Students who have studied abroad often experienced confusion when they ordered from an American Chinese restaurant’s menu for the first time. I categorize all the American Chinese dishes into two types. “Lo-Mein, Ho-Fun, General Tsao Chicken, Kungpao Chicken, Stir-fried Boy-choy, Mooshoo Pork….” ? These might be strange names or utter nonsense for mandarin speakers. The name origin of these dishes is actually from the Cantonese dialect (again, relating back to the fact that the first wave of Chinese immigrants was mainly Cantonese) and translated with an American pronunciation. These dishes are what I call “Chinese food but you don’t recognize”. Although sounds unfamiliar, one would be surprised that the taste is not so far off.
The second type of American Chinese food is purely American creations. Ask an American what are the stereotypes of a Chinese takeout night. Most likely they will describe a night starting off with appetizers like crab Rangoon/ deep fried Wonton with cream cheese fillings, entrees of orange/sesame chicken, pupu platter, some beef and broccoli topped with siracha sauce, and end the meal with a fortune cookie. Very few Americans acknowledge the fact that none of those dishes exist in China. These are creations of market demand (mentioned in previous section) and often a combination from different cultures. For example, pupu platter is the combination of Chinese and Hawaiian cuisines that usually means an appetizer assortment dish. The American creations might have low authenticity but they are worth a try for the adventurous foodies.
How can students satisfy their Chinese food cravings while studying abroad?
Although authentic Chinese food is not as readily available in every city, American Chinese food deliveries are dispersed all over U.S.
If you are not studying in a city that has a Chinatown, search for a local Chinese chain restaurant such as PF Chang’s or Panda Express. It will not be the same standard as mom’s cooking at home, but it is a quick fix on those days that you are just sick of pizzas and burgers. If you are studying in a college town (for example, Gainesville Florida), there will be local Chinese take-out restaurants that are one step closer to mom’s cooking than chain restaurants. Due to the bubble tea culture in the U.S. right now, most of the restaurants mentioned in this article can serve bubble tea (for those of you who cannot fathom living without a boba, do not worry!) After 4 years of college, you might be surprised to find yourself craving for orange chicken occasionally.
For the students studying in major cities, most likely there is a Chinatown around.
Some of the most well-known (but limited to) Chinatowns in the U.S. are in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. In fact, New York has three Chinatowns spread amongst Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. The existence of a Chinatown is often a life savior for students abroad. The area contains authentic and economic Chinese restaurants serving from Sichuan hotpot to a snack of curry fish balls. The supermarkets in Chinatown contains most of the essentials needed for snack or beverage cravings.
What if you are an advanced level foodie who treats food quality as their number onepriority (like me)?
This is the perfect opportunity to become a master chef. Cooking skills is certainly part of the entire studying abroad away from home experience. Chinese supermarkets can satisfy most of the supply needs for cooking authentic Chinese home at home. If you do not have access to Chinatown or Chinese supermarkets, check out these websites used by international (or just Asian-American) students.
If there is one rare ingredient that you cannot find anywhere in store or online, remember to stock up during your next break home (no animal, fruit, or seed products).
Studying abroad in a foreign country certainly has challenges, with homesickness being number one. I hope this article, introducing the availability of Chinese food in the U.S., can console you in the times of missing home.