Chinese Food In the US

There’s no doubt that most expats didn’t understand the differences between authentic Chinese food and Chinese food overseas until coming to China. Westernized Chinese food is certainly its own entity.

Chinese cuisine is without a doubt, popular all over the world. There are roughly 550,000 Chinese restaurants around the globe and according to Asian American Restaurant Association, there are three times as many Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s in the U.S. with over 50,000 establishments across the country.

However, although these restaurants are usually run by Chinese, what they serve may not be authentic Chinese food. Chinese Mainlanders have never heard of fortune cookies, and beef broccoli stir fry is not so common back in China because broccoli is not really native. What some Americans don’t know is that until they came to China, they were gorging on “fake” Chinese food.

They’d be surprised to find no fortune cookies, General Tso’s chicken or simply a glass of iced water in China. The familiar Kong Pao Chicken tastes differently and what on earth is that blackened egg and pig’s brain which they have never seen in their favorite Chinese restaurant back home? But it doesn’t take much for them to discover the diversity and richness of Chinese cuisine once they open their minds and explore the specialties from different provinces.

The familiar Kong Pao Chicken tastes differently and what on earth is that blackened egg and pig’s brain which they have never seen in their favorite Chinese restaurant back home?

Why is American Chinese food so much different from the real thing?
When the first generation of Chinese immigrants (most were miners and railroad builders) from California’s Gold Rush in the 1840s opened restaurants, they had no or extremely limited access to traditional Chinese ingredients. So, they used what they could find in their new homes. Chop Suey was one of the first Chinese dishes created in the States and an example of exploiting local ingredients to recreate a familiar concept and taste.

Considering the xenophobic atmosphere around that period, Chinese food was merely eaten by the fellow countrymen. It had to be cheap and convenient. It wasn’t until after World War II that the mainstream Americans started to eat and enjoy Chinese food in large numbers. By then the Chinese menu had been greatly extended and formed its own characteristics, which continued to develop and cater local taste buds and eating habits even though they could get everything imported from China if they wanted to.

It was these early immigrants that laid the foundations for overseas Chinese cuisine that is not found in Mainland China. Serving a pig’s brain is simply not an option in the U.S. Also, hot pot is rarely seen because it doesn’t quite match hygiene standards outside of China.

One thing in common though, is the usage of MSG and soy sauce. Many people outside of Asia are afraid of MSG, seeing it as some sort of food additive. It’s really not. MSG is nothing but salt. And the fact is that no matter how a restaurant advertises “no MSG added,” it technically is because all of the Chinese condiments including soy sauce contain MSG.

In recent years, a new trend has appeared. Expats who have lived or studied in China and tried real Chinese food, end up opening shops dedicated to their favorite Chinese dish when they return back to their home countries. An example is “jianbing,” a street food dish and salty version of a crepe, from Northern China. Now it has swept across America and appeared in Paris. It was so popular overseas that a Tianjin trade association saw it as a threat and imposed a standard for the jianbing making, in an attempt to preserve its heritage.

On the other hand, as China’s soft power strengthens and the number of outbound travelers increases, domestic food chains are expanding their business overseas, such as Hai Di Lao hot pot and Yang’s Braised Chicken and Rice, bringing some original flavors to places outside of China. They serve local markets, as well as Chinese tourists by giving them a taste of home and a break from exotic flavors.