American Chinese cuisine
refers to the style of food served by certain Chinese restaurants
in the United States
. This type of cooking typically caters to Western
tastes, and differs significantly from the cuisine of China
In the 19th century, Chinese restaurateurs developed American Chinese cuisine when they modified their food for American tastes. First catering to railroad
workers, they opened restaurants in towns where Chinese food was completely unknown. These restaurant workers adapted to using local ingredients and catered to their customers’ tastes. Dishes on the menu were often given numbers, and often a roll and butter was offered on the side.
In the process, chefs would invent numerous dishes such as chop suey and General Tso's Chicken. As a result, they developed a style of Chinese food not found in China. Restaurants (along with Chinese laundries which have since nearly vanished) provided an ethnic niche for small businesses at a time when Chinese were often excluded from most jobs in the wage economy by discrimination or lack of language fluency.
For most of those who run such restaurants, wages tend to be low, and hours long as much of the labor is provided by immigrants or family members, but part of the attraction of Chinese restaurants is the quality and low cost of the food. In modern times, some Asian professionals invest their savings into running restaurants.
Types of restaurants
American Chinese restaurants may be divided into three primary categories:
- Sit-down dining: These restaurants cater to customers who sit down in a dining room and order from a menu. They tend to provide more authentic Chinese food than fast-food restaurants or places of informal dining.
- Take-out: These restaurants, which cater primarily to call-in and take-out orders, serve as convenient outlets for traditional American Chinese dishes. Nearly all of them feature delivery to customers' homes, thus allowing the folded, waxed cardboard boxes that are commonly used to attain similar recognition as that of the pizza box.
- Buffets: Buffet-style American Chinese restaurants, which have recently seen an increase in popularity, tend to serve a wide variety of food in buffet style; the authenticity of the food varies from outlet to outlet.
Differences from native Chinese cuisines
American Chinese food typically treats vegetables
while cuisines of China emphasize vegetables. This can be seen in the use of carrots and tomatoes
. Native Chinese cuisine makes frequent use of Asian leafy vegetables
like bok choy
and puts a greater emphasis on fresh meat and live seafood
. As a result, American Chinese food is usually less pungent than authentic cuisine.
American Chinese food tends to be cooked very quickly with a great deal of oil and salt. Many dishes are quickly and easily prepared, and require inexpensive ingredients. Stir-frying, pan-frying, and deep-frying tend to be the most common cooking techniques which are all easily done using a wok. The food also has a reputation for high levels of MSG to enhance the flavor. The symptoms of MSG sensitivity have been dubbed "Chinese restaurant syndrome" or "Chinese food syndrome." Market forces and customer demand have encouraged many restaurants to offer "MSG Free" or "No MSG" menus, although some restaurateurs don't believe that people can be allergic to MSG.
Most American Chinese establishments cater to non-Chinese customers with menus written in English or containing pictures. If separate Chinese-language menus are available, they typically feature delicacies like liver, chicken feet or other exotic meat dishes that might deter Western customers. In New York's Chinatown, the restaurants are legendary for refusing to offer non-Chinese Americans the "secret" (i.e., authentic) menu.
American Chinese cuisine often uses ingredients not native and very rarely used in China. The most famous of these is broccoli, which the majority of American Chinese cuisine meals contain.
Unlike certain establishments in China, American Chinese restaurants cannot serve dog or cat meat due to animal welfare regulations.
American Chinese dishes
Dishes that often appear on American Chinese menus include:
- General Tso's Chicken— chunks of chicken that are deep-fried and seasoned with ginger, garlic, sesame oil, scallions, and hot chili peppers.
- Sesame Chicken— boned, battered, and deep-fried chicken which is then dressed with a translucent but dark red, sweet, slightly sour, mildly spicy, semi-thick, Chinese soy sauce made from corn starch, vinegar, chicken broth, and sugar, and often served with steamed broccoli.
- Chinese chicken salad — Salad, in the form of uncooked leafy greens, does not exist in traditional Chinese cuisine for sanitary reasons, since manure and human feces were China's primary fertilizer through most of its history. It usually contains crispy noodle (fried wonton skin) and sesame dressing. Some restaurants serve the salad with mandarin oranges.
- Chop suey — connotes "leftovers" in Chinese. It is usually a mix of vegetables and meat in a brown sauce but can also be served in a white sauce.
- Chow mein — literally means 'stir-fried noodles.' Chow mein consists of fried noodles with bits of meat and vegetables. It can come with chicken, beef, pork or shrimp.
- Crab rangoon — Fried wonton skins stuffed with artificial crab meat (surimi) and cream cheese. Rangoon (now Yangon) is the former capital of Burma (now Myanmar).
- Fortune cookie — Invented at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, fortune cookies have become sweetened and found their way to many American Chinese restaurants. Fortune cookies have become so popular that even some authentic Chinese restaurants serve them at the end of the meal as dessert and may feature Chinese translations of the English fortunes.
- Fried rice — Pan-fried rice, usually with chunks of meat, vegetables, and often egg.
Regional American Chinese dishes:
Americanized versions of native Chinese dishes
- Batter-fried meat — Meat that has been deep fried in bread or flour, such as sesame chicken, lemon chicken, orange chicken, sweet and sour pork, and General Tso's chicken, is often heavily emphasized in American-style Chinese dishes. Battered meat occasionally appears in Hunanese dishes, but it generally uses lighter sauces with less sugar and corn syrup.
- Chicken ball — Uses a large amount of leavening and flour in its preparation and battering process which causes them to be more similar to doughy "hush puppies" than actual batter-fried meat.
- Egg drop soup — A soup of chicken broth with scrambled egg ribbons. Often served with fried noodles.
- Egg foo young — A Chinese-style omelet with vegetables and meat, usually served with a brown sauce. Also known as egg foo yung or egg foo yong.
- Egg roll — While native Chinese spring rolls have a thin crispy skin with mushrooms, bamboo, and other vegetables inside, the Americanized version (specifically the version found in such American Northeast metro areas as Boston and New York) uses a thick, fried skin stuffed with cabbage and usually bits of meat or seafood (usually pork or shrimp). In other areas of the US outside of the Northeast, egg rolls tend to be of the spring roll/Panda Express variety.
- Fried rice — Fried rice dishes are popular offerings in American Chinese food due to the speed and ease of preparation and their appeal to American tastes. Fried rice is generally prepared with rice cooled overnight, allowing restaurants to put unserved leftover rice to good use. It typically uses more soy sauce than the authentic version.
- Kung Pao chicken — The authentic Sichuan dish is very spicy, and the American versions tend to be less so.
- Lo mein — The term means "stirred noodles"; these noodles are frequently made with eggs and flour, making them chewier than simply using water. Thick, spaghetti shaped noodles are pan fried with vegetables and meat. Sometimes this dish is referred to as "chow mein" (which literally means "fried noodles" in Cantonese).
- Mei Fun (see Rice vermicelli dishes)
- Moo shu pork — The native Chinese version uses more typically Chinese ingredients (including wood ear fungi and daylily buds) and thin flour pancakes while the American version uses vegetables more familiar to Americans and thicker pancakes. This dish is quite popular in Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but not so popular in China.
- Wonton soup — In most American Chinese restaurants, only wonton dumplings in broth are served, while native Chinese versions may come with noodles. Authentic Cantonese Wonton Soup is a full meal in itself consisting of thin egg noodles and several pork and prawn wontons in a pork or chicken soup broth or noodle broth. Americanized wontons, especially in takeout restaurants, are often made with thicker dough than the authentic version.
- Cashew chicken — see Regional variations.
- Meat "with" a vegetable — Examples of common variations on this dish are pork, chicken, beef or shrimp cooked with mushrooms, snow peas, or other assorted vegetables. This dish is sometimes served with oyster sauce or with garlic sauce. These dishes are primarily variations on Cantonese-style stir-fry.
- Broccoli beef — This dish exists in native Chinese form, but using gai-lan (Chinese broccoli) rather than Western broccoli. Occasionally western broccoli is also referred to as sai lan fa (in Cantonese) in order not to confuse the two styles of broccoli. Among Chinese speakers, however, it is typically understood that one is referring to the leafy vegetable unless otherwise specified. This is also the case with the words for carrot (lo bac) or (hung lo bac hung meaning red) and onion (chung). Lo bac, in Cantonese, refers to the daikon, a large, blandly flavored white radish. The orange western carrot is known in some areas of China as "foreign Daikon" (or more properly hung lo bac in Cantonese, hung meaning "red"). When the word for onion, chung, is used, it is understood that one is referring to "green onions" (otherwise known to Westerners as scallions or spring onions). The many-layered onion common to Westerners is called yeung chung. This translates as "western onion". These names make it evident that the Western broccoli, carrot, and onion are not indigenous to China and therefore are less common in the cuisines of China. Hence, if a dish contains significant amounts of any of these ingredients, it has most likely been Westernized.
- Tomatoes — Since tomatoes are New World plants, they are also fairly new to China and Chinese cuisine. Tomato-based sauces can be found in some American Chinese dishes such as the popular "beef and tomato."
Traditional take-out dishes
Most American Chinese restaurants get their supplies from a few companies leading to a similarity in the menus of separate restaurants. While sit-down and buffet restaurants are more varied, most menus have the following sections:
- Appetizers— usually including Chinese spare ribs, Teriyaki chicken or beef skewers, Prawn crackers, Barbecued Pork, chicken fingers and egg rolls. Typically these are dishes that are not served with soup or rice rice.
- Soups— including egg drop and hot and sour.
- Fried Rice, Chow Mein, Chop Suey, Lo Mein, Egg Foo Young and Mu Shu- These dishes are served with rice, typically by the pint or quart. They are normally divided into vegetable, roast pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, occasionally lobster, and 'house special' or "combination" usually the first four ingredients together.
- Roast or Barbecued Pork — Usually the smallest section (due to pork being less popular than beef and chicken today), mostly "with" dishes (Roast pork with mushrooms et al.)
- Chicken — Moo Goo Gai Pan, Kung Po, and most of the "with" dishes (Such as chicken with cashew nuts or water chestnuts)
- Beef — Beef with Broccoli, Pepper Steak, and "with " dishes
- Seafood — Basically shrimp with the occasional scallop or lobster dish.
- Special Diet Plates and Vegetable and Tofu — Vegetarian and low-calorie dishes
- Combination platters — More expensive than the previous dishes, these come with fried rice and usually an egg roll. Usually you'll find General Tso's and Sesame Chicken here, along with the most popular of the other dishes.
- Chef's Specialties — the most expensive dishes that normally include multiple meats and vegetables.
The back of the menu often has Lunch Specials, which are normally a smaller version of the combination platters offered only at lunch for less money.
Regional variations on American Chinese cuisine
Since the early 1990s, many American Chinese restaurants influenced by the cuisine of California
have opened in San Francisco and the Bay Area. The trademark dishes of American Chinese cuisine remain on the menu, but there is more emphasis on fresh vegetables, and the selection is vegetarian-friendly.
This new cuisine has exotic ingredients like mangos and portobello mushrooms. Brown rice is often offered as an optional alternative to white rice.
Some restaurants substitute grilled wheat flour tortillas for the rice pancakes in mu shu dishes. This occurs even in some restaurant that would not otherwise be identified as California Chinese, both the more Americanized places and the more authentic places. There is a Mexican bakery that sells some restaurants thinner tortillas made for use with mu shu. Mu shu purists do not always react positively to this trend.
In addition, many restaurants serving more native-style Chinese cuisines exist, due to the high numbers and proportion of ethnic Chinese in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Restaurants specializing in Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong traditions are widely available, as are more specialized restaurants such as seafood restaurants, Hong Kong-style diners and cafes (also known as Cha chaan teng (茶餐廳)), dim sum teahouses, and hot pot restaurants. Many Chinatown areas also feature Chinese bakeries, boba milk tea shops, roasted meat, vegetarian cuisine, and specialized dessert shops. Chop suey is not widely available in San Francisco, and the city's chow mein is different from Midwestern chow mein.
Authentic restaurants with Chinese-language menus may offer 黃毛雞 (Cantonese Yale: wòhng mouh gāai, Pinyin: huángmáo jī, literally yellow-feather chicken), essentially a free-range chicken, as opposed to typical American mass-farmed chicken. Yellow-hair chicken is valued for its flavor, but needs to be cooked properly to be tender due to its lower fat and higher muscle content. This dish usually does not appear on the English-language menu.
Dau Miu is a Chinese vegetable that has become popular since the early 1990s, and now not only appears on English-language menus, usually as "pea shoots", but is often served by upscale non-Asian restaurants as well. Originally it was only available during a few months of the year, but it is now grown in greenhouses and is available year-round.
Hawaiian-Chinese food developed a bit differently from the continental United States. Owing to the diversity of ethnicities in Hawaii and the history of the Chinese influence in Hawaii
, resident Chinese cuisine forms a component of the cuisine of Hawaii
, which is a fusion
of different culinary traditions. Some Chinese dishes are typically served as part of plate lunches
in Hawaii. The names of foods are different as well, such as Manapua
, from Hawaiian meaning "chewed up pork" for dim sum bao
, though the meat is not necessarily pork. Chinese food in Hawaii is also noted for its use of SPAM
American Chinese chain restaurants
- China Coast — Now defunct, closed in 1995; owned by General Mills Corp., formerly 52 locations throughout the USA
- City Wok — Locations in California, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina
- Leeann Chin — Locations in Minnesota and Wisconsin; owned at one time by General Mills Corp.
- Manchu Wok — Nationwide in the USA and Canada, as well as Guam, Korea and Japan
- Panda Express — Nationwide in the USA
- Pei Wei Asian Diner — Locations in the western and southwestern USA; a subsidiary of P.F. Chang's
- P. F. Chang's China Bistro — Nationwide in the USA; features California-Chinese fusion cuisine
- Pick Up Stix — Locations in California, Arizona and Nevada