The pungent, deep-fried smell of crab rangoon or the salty, soy sauce-laden crunch of stir-fry vegetables summon traces of familiarity for anyone who has fallen in love with the contents of their take-out box. Growing up, I took the food served at American-Chinese restaurants for granted, naively believing that the sweet-and-sour pork in front of me was an impeccable replica of a dish whipped up in the mainland.
In reality, American-Chinese cuisine is forming an identity of its own, and as we acknowledge its growing distinction from traditional Chinese food, it's important to point out some fundamental differences between the two.
1. Broccoli v. Bok Choy
Any dish infused with tomato, broccoli, baby corn, and carrot is serving up a lie. In reality, the produce available to kitchens in America aren’t exactly aligning with the vegetables raised and used in the Chinese mainland. Dishes in Shanghai or Beijing will usually use vegetables such as bok choy, kai-lan, or Chinese water spinach.
2. Specialized Dishes
Recall the items on the menu of your favorite Chinese restaurant. It was probably somewhere along the lines of “Sweet and Sour Chicken with Broccoli” or “Spicy Pork with Bamboo Shoots.” In China, menus don’t list food in this A-and-B style. Instead, they present a dish combining a medley of ingredients and flavors.
More often, restaurants will specialize in one dish, such as fried noodles or Peking duck, rather than cover a wide range of dishes.
3. Heavy vs. Light Flavors
Take one bite of shrimp Shumai in Shanghai, and you’ll be floored by an entirely different flavor than the sweet and sour dish that you're used to. American-Chinese food tends to take on sweeter, heavier tones (sweet and sour pork, anyone?) than traditional Chinese food, such as Pào mó (otherwise known as mutton stew), which opt for lighter, more savory flavors.
This distinction in flavor can be traced back to the fact that American-Chinese food had to cater to a different audience, and as a result the flavors that we see in fusion dishes today say a lot about our food palate as a country.
4. Crab Rangoon vs. Baozi
Developed by American-established fusion restaurant Trader Vic's, crab rangoon contains an ingredient rarely found in traditional Chinese cuisine: cheese. This American produced and distributed product finds its counterpart in Baozi (aka steamed buns).
Baozi originates in northern China, and its popularity has gripped the entire country. Instead of ordering a platter of deep-fried, creamy goodness, most people in China opt for this mouthwatering morsel. I mean, who couldn't resist steamy, soft buns with a savory-meat or sweet-bean filling?
5. Where Are They From?
6. It's Not All Stir-Fry
Leaf through any Chinese takeout menu, and I can guarantee that most of the items will include "stir-fry," "pan-fried," or "steamed" in their title. While these cooking methods are trademarks of Chinese-American cuisine, traditional Chinese dishes are prepared in a variety of ways.
Ever wonder why the broth of your soup, or the sauce glazed over your red chicken is, well, red? Red cooking, or hong shao, is a method used to create lots of spicy and flavorful dishes by combining sugar, soy sauce, and hot stock to a base broth. This is just one of the many cooking techniques used in authentic Chinese food.