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Cuisine Born of Necessity: Authentic American-Chinese Food

For most of my life people have been asking me for food recommendations.

“You have to tell me where has the best egg rolls!”

“But like, where do you eat? You know, for real Chinese food?”

“Dude, you gotta take me to dim sum – I LOVE crab rangoon! Where do you usually go?”

And occasionally I get, “Can you take me to your favorite ramen place? So I know what to get?”

That last one usually leaves me with my head cocked like a Labrador trying to understand her master’s command to “Set my alarm clock, Taffy.” Maybe they know that I’ve lived in Japan? Sometimes. But even before I moved, well-meaning people occasionally asked me about ramen, as well as “How does your family make sushi?”

My family hates raw fish. My dad once sent an Ahi tuna roll back, asking the chef to “grill it up, please.” But they’re Hong Kong Chinese, not Japanese, and I digress.

It typically doesn’t bother me at all when people ask for Chinese food recommendations in America. As I find Chinese, specifically Cantonese cuisine, to be my ultimate comfort food, I almost always enjoy sharing my favorite dishes. But sometimes, I think people are disappointed.

To my non Chinese-American or even Asian-American friends, my recommendations aren’t always what they thought they wanted or even expected.

In Los Angeles, I took a friend of mine to a cramped “hole-in-the-wall” Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The food was pretty typical as far as Hong Kong Cantonese dim sum goes; typical, but pretty authentic for the US: tofu skin rolls, pan fried turnip cakes, fried glutinous rice dumplings (which sound much more delicious when you call them ham sui gok), something green like gai lan or Chinese broccoli, pork buns, chicken feet, egg tarts.

When our food came, it was just the food on plates with no flourish. The foods were devoid of the cloying sweetness I often find in bad American-Chinese food. Each dish was quite simple; a few ingredients that were allowed to come through clearly, some restrained but purposeful seasoning, and a distinct texture that helped to define each dish. While some dishes have an acquired taste or texture (few of my non-Asian American friends can understand my devotion to turnip cakes), the flavors of Cantonese dim sum are not especially aggressive.

I was in Heaven. My friend…liked it.

This has happened to me a lot in both the US and when American friends have visited me in Hong Kong. I take them to a Chinese restaurant, they are excited for an “authentic” experience, and then leave a wee bit disappointed because the food is so simple.

“Chinese food” to the American palate is “sweet and sour”, glazed in something that tastes like some sort of teriyaki abomination to me, greasy, salty, and deep-fried in dense, starchy wrappers. In my experience, that’s bad American-Chinese food.

And while I think friends are savvy enough to realize that the above doesn’t represent Chinese Chinese food, I think they are often surprised at how basic Cantonese-style Chinese food (the style most dominant in American-Chinese food history) really is. It’s flavorful, but it doesn’t beat you over the head with sweet or salty.

It should be noted that I’ve chosen to use Cantonese-style food and its offshoots as examples, because that’s what I know best, and that’s historically what Americans largely identify as “Chinese food”. That being said, Beijing, Hunan, and Sichuan-style dishes have much stronger, spicier flavors that might challenge the American palate in a different way. However, it is still balanced and nuanced beyond a lazily composed sweet and sour chicken.

I know I keep hinting at “bad American-Chinese” food; many might ask, “Is there such thing as good American-Chinese food?”

I’d argue yes. American-Chinese food is its own cuisine, its own beast. To call chop suey or General Tso’s Chicken “Chinese” is like calling Pizza Hut “Italian”, but that doesn’t mean that they both don’t have a place in the world.

I actually really like a lot of American-Chinese food; which often surprises my “foodie” friends. But they aren’t the same cuisine to me. There are times I crave crab rangoon, or sometimes a nice-and-balanced sweet and sour dish hits the spot for me. I do think there’s room for both types of food.

After all, much like myself, American-Chinese food is a hybrid of the Chinese-American experience.

But where did American-Chinese food come from? What is its pedigree? Is there a point when how American culture regards Chinese food crosses over into being reductive or limiting to Chinese-American culture?

As with a lot of the “iconic” Chinese imagery associated with American culture, Chinese food as Americans know it was born during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Acts.

Chinese people, mostly men, began arriving in California during the mid-19th century for the Gold Rush. Staying on as laborers to build the railroad and to send money home, Chinese people went from sought after workers to demonized, unassimilable, aliens barred from citizenship. During the Exclusion era, from 1882 to 1943, very few Chinese people were allowed into the US, with those living in America relegated to Chinatowns.

It’s in Chinatowns that American-Chinese food was born.

Due to ease of access to the port of Canton, and the need to escape the violence and poverty of the region, the vast majority of early Chinese immigrants in America came from what is now Guangzhou. Therefore, the food reflected that.

With very few options for work (employing a Chinese person was illegal, Chinese could only work in food service, as servants, or doing laundry), many immigrants decided to open restaurants. Partly to satisfy a yearning for the taste of home, partly to appeal to the Chinese community, Chinatown restaurants started cooking up versions of dishes from the Canton, specifically Toishan, region.

They were “versions” because not all the ingredients from Toishan could be found in late 19th century-early 20th century California. Substitutions with ingredients like carrots, broccoli, yellow onion were made; over time flavors were altered to accommodate the tastebuds of bohemian Americans who “braved” Chinatown to try exotic foods in the 1920s.

And while dishes like chop suey and General Tso’s Chicken were invented by Chinese cooks (General Tso’s Chicken was created by a Chinese-Taiwanese chef) they were born in America. These were foods born of necessity and have evolved to endure in America.

America may embrace Chinese food now, both in its fast food Panda Express incarnation and its Michelin-starred counterparts, but this wasn’t always the case. Part of the reason Chinese food adapted and changed to please western tastebuds was in part to change the view of Chinatowns and Chinese people.

Seen as filthy, crime-ridden slums, Americans were initially repulsed by Chinatowns and in turn Chinese food. Americans could not fathom eating such things as chicken feet. Chinese aging and fermentation preparations seemed vile, seasonings were too foreign. Rumors spread that Chinese restaurants would cook up rats, cats, and dogs to put in their mysterious dishes. (Sound familiar?)

But adapting was a matter of acceptance, survival. If more white Americans enjoyed Chinese food, this offered Chinese people a little bit of a foothold. Chinese immigrants could earn more money, Chinese culture might be less reviled, and perhaps assimilation into American culture could have one less roadblock?

Largely the adaptation of Chinese food to American-Chinese food worked. Throughout the early to mid 20th century, American culture embraced Chinese food and in a limited way, Chinese culture. Food was an entry point for Americans to meet the Chinese.

American culinary likes and dislikes so influenced Chinese food, that a new cuisine emerged: what we now recognize as American-Chinese food.

And while American-Chinese food has sparked interest of many people to learn about authentic Chinese food and culture, and I do think that’s a good thing, I can’t help but think about how American-Chinese food is a result of America cannibalizing Chinese culture.

In America’s history of suppressing and oppressing Chinese people and culture, is American-Chinese food potentially another way that American culture has conveniently rewritten Chinese culture in its image? Consume what is unchallenging, palatable – spit out the rest.

But understandably, Chinese-Americans throughout history have been a party to this; but their choice was a necessity, not one driven by the lust for exoticism. It’s a constant balance immigrants have to find in America – what parts of culture are worth fighting for, what parts are worth budging on in the name of assimilation and acceptance.

At this point, so many Chinese-Americans have built their lives on American-Chinese food, it’s impossible to say it’s all a bad thing. Like I said, I do enjoy the food, I do think it has its place. Chinese-American culture is my culture; in a lot of ways I look at a dish like chop suey, a dish of “odds and ends” and I see myself – Chinese born but fashioned by America.

So perhaps, despite its troubling beginnings and barely “Chinese” recipes, there’s no need to look down your nose at American-Chinese food. It may not be “authentically” Chinese, but it is an authentic taste of the Chinese-American experience.

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Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.