Growing up in the United States, “Chinese food” usually meant American Chinese food. You know it’s not the real deal, but those words still conjure images of white takeout boxes, egg rolls, and fortune cookies.
And yet time-honored American Chinese classics such as General Tso’s Chicken would be unrecognizable to most people in mainland China. So where do these dishes actually come from?
American Chinese food has deep roots in Cantonese cooking from China’s Guangdong province (formerly referred to as Canton). Before the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 effectively halted immigration to the US, immigrants from Guangdong arrived in droves during California’s Gold Rush, forming communities that would come to be known as “Chinatowns.”
As immigrant families began to open small businesses using the resources available to them, restaurants became a popular choice. The cooks adapted their ingredients and recipes to suit the palates of their increasingly non-Chinese customers, and thus American Chinese food was born.
“Guangdong cooking definitely has an influence on the food in our restaurant,” says Jess Zhou, whose family operates the American Chinese kitchen Mei Mei House in South Carolina. “At home we usually eat real Guangdong dishes, which are more health-conscious and clean, but that sensibility finds its way into our versions of the sweet, fried, American Chinese classics as well.”
Popularized by restaurants like Zhou’s found all over the US, here are eight staples of American Chinese food and the Chinese originals they came from.
The Dish: Meat, bean sprouts, celery, and cabbage are tossed in a wok with sauce and starch, cooked together into a thick stir-fry, and served over rice or fried chow mein noodles.
The Origin: As early as the 1800s, chop suey was one of the first Chinese dishes to proliferate in the US. The source of this dish varies depending on who you ask. Some insist it was created during the US visit of Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang in 1896, whose chef tried to create a dish that would suit both Chinese and US palates. Others say that it was created by a humble restaurant owner who collected scraps to serve the same premier after his hotel kitchen had closed, and still more say it was invented in San Francisco, after a cook quickly invented something to serve a group of drunk, aggressive miners that stumbled in after a late shift.
In truth, all of these stories are probably fictional, perhaps drummed up by savvy restaurateurs to promote chop suey as the premier’s favorite dish during his highly-publicized visit. Despite its fuzzy origin story, however, we do know the dish traces back to Guangdong’s Taishan county, where locals ate a dish called tsap seui, or za sui in Mandarin (杂碎, “miscellaneous leftovers”).
The Dish: General Tso’s Chicken — as well as its brethren orange chicken and sesame chicken — represents some of the longest-lasting ingenuity to emerge from the canon of American Chinese food. Succulent, deep-fried chunks of chicken thigh, perfectly crispy, are tossed in a sweet and tangy sauce. This staple dish is iconic, and we must all salute the great warrior General Tso, who clearly brought that same killer instinct to the kitchen.
The Origin: Not so fast. It’s true that General Tso, or Zuo Zongtang in Mandarin, was a general from Hunan province. But he would never have known of the dish — it has no recorded history in Hunan, and Zuo’s descendants living in his native Xiangyin county have never even heard of it.
The true origin of this fried chicken dish is highly disputed (it’s the subject of an entire documentary, in fact). One supposed inventor of the dish is Peng Chang-kuei, a Hunan native who served as the official banquet chef for the Nationalist government and fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. Peng would later open a restaurant in New York, where he reportedly invented the dish to suit the tastes of “non-Hunanese people.”
The owner of New York’s Shun Lee Palaces also lays claim to the dish, swearing that they were the first Hunanese restaurant in the country and that their four signature dishes were copied by all subsequent Hunanese eateries.
The Dish: You might see egg foo young described on menus as a “Chinese omelette” — which is not wholly inaccurate. Beat your eggs, throw in some minced ham, and then add vegetables such as bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts. Cook them all together, et voilá — a Chinese breakfast.
The Origin: Egg foo young actually comes from fu yung egg slices, a dish that originated in Guangdong. And in some cases, the American Chinese version can actually be pretty identical to the original. The devil is in the details, and aspects such as texture, cooking style, and ingredient choice can define whether a dish is truly furong dan (芙蓉蛋) or its wacky foreign cousin.
If you’re familiar with Chinese food, you’ll know that “Chinese omelette” is simply not specific enough. Are we talking about danbing (蛋饼) or shou zhua bing (手抓饼)? Or the big one itself, jianbing (煎饼)? China loves an egg, no matter how you slice it.
The Dish: Sweet and sour pork is another time-honored classic. Pork is battered and fried until crispy, coated in a sweet, tangy sauce, and served with onion, bell peppers, and pineapple.
The Origin: To find the ancestor of sweet and sour pork, we must once again look to Cantonese food. The Cantonese dish gulaorou (咕噜肉 or 古老肉) is surprisingly similar to the American Chinese version: boneless pork tenderloin, deep fried and crispy, served in a sweet sauce with pineapple.
But sweet and sour goes a lot further in China. Some scholars say that the first sweet and sour sauce can be traced to Henan province; however, that sauce is made from vinegar and sugar, and doesn’t taste like the sweet and sour sauce we know and love. (Throughout most of China, sweet and sour sauce is traditionally made from spices, sugar, or honey, mixed with rice vinegar or soy sauce to add the sour flavor.)
To get what many in America recognize as “sweet and sour sauce,” you’d have to throw in a few more ingredients, such as ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and Chinese brown sugar candy.
For more authentic Chinese fare, sweet and sour fans can try tangcu pai tiao (糖醋排条, sweet and sour pork strips), or tangcu songshuyu (糖醋松鼠鱼, sweet and sour squirrel fish). Both dishes, which are specialties of Jiangsu province, are sure to please.
The Dish: Wontons are generally served in soups, but the deep-fried version of the dish is the most popular with American tastebuds. The concept of fried dumplings has proliferated in American Chinese restaurants to such an extent that crab rangoon, a deep fried pocket of imitation crab and cream cheese, is considered by most to be a Chinese food (even though it was most likely created at the famous Trader Vic’s Polynesian-style restaurant).
The Origin: So are fried wontons another flight of American Chinese fancy? No, these are a very real dish in China. Zha hundun (炸混沌, literally “fried wontons”) are flash-cooked and crispy just as you’d expect.
But for fried dumpling lovers, why stop there? Anyone who’s been to China will know that the blanket term “dumplings” doesn’t really exist — instead, there’s a different word for every kind of meat- or veggie-filled pocket. Are you in the market for guotie (锅贴, literally “potstickers”) or are you craving shengjian bao (生煎包), a crispy, fried version of the classic soup dumpling?
Read our Chinese dumpling guide to find out exactly how deep the rabbit hole goes.
The Dish: The draw in this dish comes from the balance between the marinated flank steak and the broccoli, stir-fried together in a fragrant sauce.
The Origin: Jielan niurou (芥兰牛肉) — also “beef and broccoli” — is in fact a real dish in China. Here’s the catch, though: it’s a totally different broccoli.
In China, the word “jielan” (芥兰) refers to a leafy vegetable which in English is often translated as “Chinese broccoli.” That explains why the American Chinese dish uses the broccoli that Americans are more familiar with, which originally comes from the Mediterranean.
Similar moments of culinary-linguistic confusion have occurred with “carrot” — which in Chinese can denote plenty of other root vegetables — and “onion” which usually refers to spring onions, not the bulbous white kind that Shrek compared to ogres.
The Dish: Ah, Mongolian beef — sliced steak, onions, and mixed vegetables cooked in a tangy brown sauce. Is this dish from Mongolia, mainland China, or the United States?
The Origin: Surprise, the answer is: none of them. Though beef is a staple meat in Mongolian cuisine, this recipe was actually one of the first dishes created in Taiwan’s “Chinese barbecue” style restaurants, which were inspired by Cantonese cooking techniques.
So in truth, nothing about Mongolian Beef comes from Mongolia. Sorry, Genghis Khan.
The Dish: We’ve arrived at the Holy Grail, the icon, the symbol, the mythos of American Chinese food. What’s a meal of Chinese takeout without popping one of these open and sharing your fortune with the table? Centuries of Chinese wisdom, distilled into a crunchy palette-cleanser for the modern day.
The Origin: If you think fortune cookies really come from China, you’ve got some catching up to do. If you think they were invented in California, you’re almost right. But if we want to go back to the source, we find that fortune cookies were actually invented in Japan.
The Japanese tsujiura senbei cookie existed as far back as the 19th century. These cookies were served at temples, and were made with miso and sesame instead of vanilla and butter. The fortune cookies that we know today were most likely invented by Japanese immigrants in California, but the association switched over to the Chinese community sometime around World War II.
Many Japanese immigrants owned American Chinese “chop suey” restaurants in the 1920s and ’30s, and one theory suggests that the United States’ imprisonment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II created a business opportunity for Chinese manufacturers.
The fortune cookie — with a heritage rooted in Japanese, American, and Chinese culture — is a perfect example of the cross-cultural dissonance that characterizes American Chinese food.
If you’re in the US and have never tried authentic Chinese cuisine, don’t hesitate to ask a Chinese friend, or track down a restaurant in your neighborhood that serves one of the country’s many regional cuisines — you might find something you love.
And if you’re a die-hard fan of authentic food, think twice before turning your nose up at those busy little American Chinese food joints. Born out of the labor and hardship of the country’s earliest Chinese immigrants, these restaurants laid the foundation for widespread enjoyment of Asian food in the country, and are an essential part of the Chinese diaspora’s long and nuanced global history.
Special thanks to Mei Mei House
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