Americans love Chinese food. They love it so much that there is nearly 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, varying from local take out shops to fancy sit down restaurants . However, most of these Chinese foods that us Americans love to indulge in are actually very different from traditional Chinese dishes. They are “westernized” or as we like to call it, “Americanized.”
How did Chinese food come to America?
The Chinese began immigrating to America in the early 19th century for new economic opportunities. Upon arrival, many worked on the transcontinental railroad. However, native-born Americans often regarded the Chinese with spite for they believed that Chinese immigrants stole jobs from other native-born citizens. Despite their’ hard work ethics, many Chinese immigrants were forced to find other jobs such as cooks in order to avoid discrimination by native-born citizens. Opening restaurants enabled many Chinese immigrants to earn livings in the new country. As restaurant owners, Chinese immigrants have brought many of their traditional dishes over to America, however they have drastically changed many of the dishes to adapt them to the local tastes.
How does it differ from authentic Chinese food?
Chinese food that we find in local New York restaurants differ greatly from traditional Chinese foods you would find in Chinese homes. In an interview with an employee from Shanghai Heiping Restaurant, she mentioned that she does not eat some of the foods that they serve in this restaurant at home.
“They are pretty similar to traditional Chinese dishes, but they are still slightly altered to cater to American tastes. Even though I live and work in Chinatown, it’s sometimes hard to find authentic Chinese food. “
The main difference between traditional and Americanized Chinese foods is the ingredients used. To appeal to local residents in the neighborhood, many Americanized Chinese restaurants substitute traditional ingredients with those found in the local areas. Rather than featuring vegetables, such as rice, noodles, and soybeans, Americanized Chinese foods focuses on meat, using rice and vegetables as side dishes. One dish that is found in virtually every restaurant is pork over rice. Just as Americans like it, the dish’s main focus is the pork, using rice to add variety to the meal. Though Americanized Chinese foods would include vegetables such as rice, they often substitute the other main vegetables used with more Western vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, onion, tomatoes, and dairy product. Similarly, just as Americanized Chinese foods use different ingredients for vegetable substitutes, they also use different types of meats. Americanized Chinese foods typically contain beef, pork, or chicken, whereas authentic Chinese foods use tofu, chicken feet, pig feet, and a variety of other protein sources that most Americans would find distasteful. Even the sauce used in the two dishes differs. Though many Americanized Chinese restaurants try to replicate the traditional sauce used in authentic Chinese cuisines, the sauce used lacks a main ingredient: soy. In fact, the company who manufactures this sauce in America, called Kari-Out, uses a “mysterious substance” that is “unknown in China” .
Many of the Americanized Chinese dishes served in restaurants are adapted versions of authentic Chinese foods, and some are complete inventions. One of the most notable Americanized Chinese dishes is Chop Suey, which is composed of leftovers and a thick sauce. Though this is a beloved American dish, it is not traditional Chinese food – not even an adjusted version. Chinese immigrants invented this dish during the early 19th century to appeal to the American palate. Another dish that we commonly find in local Chinese restaurants is Sweet ‘n’ Sour Chicken or Pork, which contains breaded, deep fried meat marinated in a thick sweet and sour sauce. Like Chop Suey, this is an incredibly popular dish among Americans, however this Americanized Chinese dish is not served in China at all. In fact, this dish (Sweet ‘n’ Sour Pork or Chicken) is known to be an adaptation of Southern styled dishes.
Yet another incredibly big difference between Chinese home cooking and restaurant cooking is the method used in cooking and preparing the food. Considering the large amounts of food that restaurants have to produce throughout a typical business day, many restaurants begin preparing food the day before they serve it. Generally, many restaurants would use a technique called par cooking for it enables chefs to cook anything on the menus in a relatively short amount of time and also minimalizes the workload for the next day. Chefs would partially cook their foods (approximately two-thirds of the way to done) the day before, and then store it in the freezer, so that they could easily and quickly cook, without overcooking, their’ foods the next day. A dish that could have typically taken half an hour to make would take less than ten minutes to make. At a local dumpling shop located in Chinatown, an employee stated:
“We prepare most of the ingredients the day before, so that we can quickly serve our customers.”
They would prepare the dough and meat and store it in a freezer until they are ready to cook them the next day. Although these restaurants may make their foods from scratch, many Chinese foods from restaurants lack the freshness that can often be found in Chinese home cooking for they are premade and have been frozen to prevent rotting.
Moreover, Chinese foods found in restaurants tend to be less healthy than authentic Chinese foods found at home. As can be found in any restaurant, chefs can care less about the foods that their’ customers are consuming, whether it be trans fat or saturated fat. They only worry about making the food on par with customer expectations. Unlike Chinese foods found at home, which are made with the best and freshest ingredients, many restaurants purchase cheap commodities to make maximum profit. Restaurants would typically use an abundance of sauces and spices to make these dishes taste better. Though these restaurant dishes may taste incredibly delicious, they are not as delicious and savory as home cooked meals for they are typically “over-sauced, over-salted, and over-rich” . (Keep in mind; this mindset is not employed just by Chinese chefs, but by any restaurant chef).
Just as Chinese home style cooking and restaurant style cooking differ in the ingredients used and in the preparation methods, they also differ in the cooking styles overall. Authentic Chinese foods can be cooked in anyway that the individual prefers, varying from steaming to frying. However, in Chinese restaurants, most foods are prepared through frying methods, using either a wok, which is a round-bottomed cooking vessel used for stir-frying, or a deep fryer. Though woks are frequently used to cook traditional Chinese foods, most restaurants only use this method to cook their foods, rarely ever using any other tools. In many Chinese restaurants, foods are usually fried – even the vegetables – to give it more flavor, thus making it more unhealthy for the consumer. But traditional Chinese foods found at home usually utilize the other methods of cooking food, such as steaming. At the local dumpling shop, the cooks usually fry all of their dumplings in woks, unless requested otherwise by their customers. However, in Chinese homes, dumplings are usually steamed in bamboo steaming vessels to make it more nutritious. Chinese home style cooking is typically much healthier but lacks the flavor that can be found in restaurant style cooking.
Some Chinese restaurants may sell authentic Chinese cuisines, however the majority of the foods you find in Chinese restaurants typically differ greatly from foods that you would find in a Chinese home. Many restaurants adapt their’ foods to cater to the local tastes. Therefore, not only will the Chinese foods that you find in one neighborhood not taste the way it would in Chinese homes, they may not necessarily taste the same in another neighborhood.