- General Tso’s chicken and orange chicken are both variations on the same thing – and both are somewhat unrecognizable in China.
- Fortune cookies have Japanese roots but they were popularized by American-Chinese restaurateurs.
- “Chinese” or “Asian” salads are not authentically Chinese.
- “Chinese takeout boxes” are an American invention.
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It’s easy to knock Chinese food served in American restaurants as being mostly inauthentic, but as Clarissa Wei asked, how can it be inauthentic if it’s made by Chinese people for Chinese people (and others)?
As people from different cultures travel and adapt to new places, their food naturally changes. When my dad came to the US from Bangkok, he couldn’t find fresh, fat rice noodles in nearby stores, so he substituted lasagna noodles to make pad siew. At the time, it was a necessary – and ultimately delicious – adaptation.
Food is like language: It adapts slowly over time to fit conditions, as any culture spreads around the globe. Diners in China might not recognize Indian-Chinese cuisine either, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t tasty.
That said, here are some Chinese-American foods that aren’t as traditionally Chinese as you might think.
In China, General Tso is far better known for his battle prowess than for his chicken.
Jennifer 8. Lee did extensive research to write a book about American-Chinese food called “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.”
In the course of her travels, she found that General Tso was a very real military hero, and his family still lives in his hometown of Xiangyin, in Hunan province – but no one there knows him for his fame as the namesake of an American fried chicken dish.
Fortune cookies are most likely from Japan — but were popularized in the US.
In 2008, while reading a Japanese storybook, researcher Yasuko Nakamachi discovered an 1878 etching of a man making something that looked awfully similar to fortune cookies. But Japanese food is not Chinese food – so how did fortune cookies end up as a ubiquitous American-Chinese restaurant staple?
As Jennifer 8. Lee wrote for the New York Times, many Japanese restaurateurs in the 1920s and 30s owned chop suey restaurants – and probably added the cookies to their menus around that time.
During the dark days of Japanese-American prison camps in the US during World War II, Chinese restaurateurs took over existing fortune cookie factories. The cookies then rose in popularity to occupy a special place in the hearts of anyone who dined in an American-Chinese restaurant.
Kung pao chicken as an American-Chinese food exists in part because a key ingredient needed for the original recipe was illegal in the US until 2005.
- Jules/ Flickr
China, like any sizable country, is a place full of regions – and those regions have very distinct styles of cooking. Sichuan food is known for being spicy – and kung pao chicken’s parent dish, gong bao ji ding also relies on a special Sichuan peppercorn for its distinct flavor.
But according to the South China Morning Post, Sichuan pepper was banned from being imported into the US from 1968 until 2005 – so making a legitimate version of this dish in the US was next to impossible.
Up until 1972, most Chinese food served in America had Cantonese roots, but historian Andrew Coe told Hayes that President Nixon’s historic visit to China that year encouraged Americans to start seeking out the flavors of other regions of the country – hence the rise of kung pao chicken.
Orange chicken is a variation of General Tso’s chicken — and was invented in the kitchens of Panda Express.
- Elena Veselova/Shutterstock
Panda Express co-founder Andrew Cherng told NPR’s The Salt that Chef Andy Kao created orange chicken one fateful day in Hawaii in 1987. Originally, it was served bone-in – but customers there didn’t like the bones, so Kao developed a boneless version of the chicken and an American-Chinese staple was born.
Crab rangoon was likely popularized in the US during the 1950s.
There’s some debate about the exact origins of this dish – the earliest appearance of this dish that culinary researcher Lynne Olver could find for her Food Timeline database dates back to April 1958, when the dish was mentioned in the New York Times. The next mention was a review of the dish from the same year, and it was ordered from California restaurant Trader Vic’s.
The dish isn’t authentically Chinese, as cream cheese isn’t indigenous to China. Plus, lactose intolerance is pretty high in the East Asian region. Culinary historian E. N. Anderson pointed out in his book, “The Food of China” that cheese, in particular, is simply not thought of as a pleasant taste or texture for many Chinese people.
The exact origins of chop suey are heavily disputed — but it’s almost certainly a variation on a Taishan dish that took off in America.
According to the Chicago Tribune, chop suey’s early-1900s popularity in the US most likely came as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act – more untrained chefs meant they were learning and adapting on the job.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 resulted in a much higher number of trained chefs entering American-Chinese restaurants – and they brought their training and recipes with them, which led to the decline in popularity of this dish.
Egg foo young was created during the Gold Rush wave of Cantonese immigration to the US.
- Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock
As Mei Chin wrote for Saveur, the meaty omelet dish most commonly served floating in a sea of brown gravy may possibly have its roots in a much fancier Cantonese banquet dish called fu rong – but the specifics of its adaptation in America have been lost to history.
Some dishes, like beef broccoli stir-fry, represent adaptations that Chinese-American restaurateurs made to use locally available ingredients.
- Ruslan Mitin/Shutterstock
Anyone selling food to the public wants their food to be popular – but it’s also important to work with readily available ingredients. In the US, it can be pretty easy to find Chinese broccoli – or gai-lan, but it wasn’t always that easy – and that’s where a dish like beef broccoli comes into play, according to First We Feast.
Egg rolls are American-Chinese cousins to Hong Kong’s spring rolls.
Chinese-American restaurateurs in the early and mid-20th century wanted what all good restaurateurs want: to make their customers come back for more.
According to the Chicago Tribune, that often meant creating “Chinese-ish foods” to appeal to their clientele – including the now-ubiquitous egg rolls, which were likely created in New York before spreading across the country.
“Chinese” or “Asian” salads are a wholly American invention.
As Bonnie Tsui wrote for the New York Times, these salads – with names that were riffs on a general and fairly cringeworthy theme, such as “Oriental salad” and “Secret Asian Man salad” – date back to at least 1906 in the US.
Whereas many of the other dishes on this list were created by Chinese immigrants in American-Chinese kitchens, these salads are a major exception. For one thing, vegetables in Chinese food have generally been served cooked, not raw.
When Tsui investigated further, she found that the majority of the quasi-Chinese descriptors applied to these salads were not an actual representation of any particular facet of the food of China.
Finally, people in China don’t eat food out of what Americans call “Chinese takeout containers.”
According to the New York Times, the iconic “Chinese takeout container” came from Chicago, and was invented by a man named Frederick Weeks Wilcox in 1894.
It started life as a disposable oyster pail – after all, you’d want a leak-proof container for your seafood as much as your takeout. In the 1970s, an unknown graphic designer slapped that red pagoda and the words “Thank You” in a font called “chop suey” that still makes some Chinese-Americans cringe and the rest was American-Chinese restaurant history.
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