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Changes in Chinese Restaurant Foods

by Netta Davis

Chinese Restaurant General Information

Fall Volume: 1997 Issue: 4(3) page(s): 9 and 22

Most urban Americans older than thirty can recall the recent metamorphosis of the Chinese restuarant business in this country. The pseudo-Chinese Chop Sueys of their youth have given way to Chinese food that is somehow more foreign. One restauranteur said of foods that used to pass: We do not serve Chop Suey; we do not serve Egg Foo Yung; but some people still think these are Chinese food.

Often the dishes served these days are spicy, made with what many consider more excotic ingredients. They are altogether unlike the bland bean sprout and chow mein noodle dishes to which Americans were accustomed. Sichuan and other regional fare have entered Chinese restaurant menus and are, for most Americans, standard Chinese food. The evolution represents, in part, a regional shift in Chinese immigartion. No longer are Chinese immigrants primarily from regions in and around Guangzhou (Canton). In additon, from 1965 to 1984, the Chinese community transformed itself from sixty-one precent American-born to sixty-three percent foreign-born, and is still changing.

Restaurants, a crucial tourist draw in the Chinatowns where many early immigrants settled, provided visitors and Chinese clientele alike with Cantonese-style cuisine. As Chinese restuarants have increasingly attracted non-Chinese diners, and proliferated outside the bounderies of Chinatowns, menus have accommodated to the American palate and marketplace. The process of negotiation and transformation largely carried out by newer Chinese immigrant retauranteurs, entails creating and offering a product recognizably and exotically Chinese, and yet acceptable to their non-Chinese customers. Their dishes are symbolically loaded with multi-faceted connotations of ethnicity and authenticity.

Two resturanteurs I interviewed were brothers who immigrated from Hong Kong in the 1970's, although the family was originally from Nanjing. One bother managed the family restaurant, saw himself primarily as a businessman, and the food as a kind of mutable commodity. He developed his own pragmatic philosophy of culinary acculturation; if the customer likes Kung Pao Chicken with cashew nuts instead of peanuts, he has no objections. His brother, who managed the front-of-house operations, was more culturally offended by such alterations and would have chosen to be less accomadating.

This type of culinary transformation in ethnic restaurants seems inevitable. Chinese food in the suburbs needs to be prepared and served differently to American customers if businesses are to survive. In Chinatown, where greater numbers of Chinese diners are expected, a separate Chinese-language menu is often featured, and often with ingredients not offered to non-Chnese clientele. For most Americans, snake or fish lips would be considered unacceptable food. (There has been a recent trend toward greater experimentation and a certain authentic cachet is awarded the non-Chinese diner who adventures on the Chinese side of the menu.)

In the larger social context such culinary transactions are not only unacceptable, they can create a cultural gulf between the two groups. Countless ethnic slurs invoke foreign eating habits; early Chinese immigrants were often denigrated as rat-eaters. If a menu is too intimidating, the result is a loss of business. This is true even with ordinary food items such as fish. Americans want the filet, no bones, heads, nor the sense of eating a whole animal. The Chinese, on the other hand, want to see the whole fish and do eat every part of it, especially the head.

In Chinese culture, whether Taoist, Buddhist, or Confucianist, food is inextricably entwined in almost every aspect of their life. Food marks cultural change, family events and social transactions. They do not eat simply for nourishment or pleasure. To them, foods have an intricate netwoork of meanings, particularly medical significance. Some beliefs are shared with American culture; spinach is good for blood, carrots for the eyes. Others are more specific to the Asian culture, such as the definition of foods as hot (jeh or cold liang, or Yin or Yang. Persimmon, for instance, is not to be eaten with crab because crab is a 'cold' food. Food balancing is central to Chinese cuisine. Fundamental to this philosphy is the precepot that fan (the rice or starch staple) is the center of the meal, linguistically synonymous with 'food.' Tsai (the vegetables, meat and sauce), are accompaniments. Noted Chinese culinatry food scholar, E.N. Anderson defines tsai as that which faciltiates the digestion of fan. Americans tend to reverse this balance, eating in what the Chinese would refer to as banquet or festival-style dining.

Alterations in the composition of the dishes and configuration of meals are not the only accomodations restauranteurs make. When serving their foods, the manner of eating is also transformed from Chinese style to Chinese-esque American style. One restauranteur referred to that saying that individual Americans prefer individual plates while Chinese diners traditionally share from a common bowl and do not think: This is yours, this is mine; they just think this is ours!

Duck sauce and fortune cookies were among American inventions and appear on restaurant menus to appeal to American customers. Restauranteurs are finding themselves responding to an increasing array of special requests. One related her belief that every dish can be modified but that some people go too far. For example, Chicken with Broccoli is a white sauce dish. She does not object if Garlic Sauce is substituted, but feels that Black Bean Sauce is inappropriate and distasteful. Some of these entreaties concern taste preferences and some respond to the intense concern with health and diet.

One recent event which dramatized the effect of culinary misapprehensions on the restaurant business was the reseale of a report by the 'Center for Science in the Public Interest.' It revealed putative dangers in eating Chinese food, especially sweet-and-sour and batter-fried dishes and recommended that diners eat more rice and less of the oily, salty, sweet entrees, essentially counseling Americans to eat exactly the way Chinese diners would. In appearing to demonize the cuisine instead of the behavioral choices of the consumer, the report offended many Chinese restauranteurs. There was also a marked increase in such special requests as: 'No oil, no soy sauce, no sugar, no MSG. But I want it to be tasty.' Customers want foods steamed, sauce on the side, but expect gustatory experience to be unaltered.

One restauranteur says he can tell from what is ordered if there is knowledge of Chinese food or not. If the order Sweet and Sour Chicken, he knows that they do not have the hang of real Chinese cuisine. He commented that if they order traditional Chinese dishes and eat them in traditional Chinese configurations and combinations, the result would be far from unhealthy. He said: “Look at Chinese people, on average, they are skinny and they are healthy.”

Perhaps American audiences feel the need to modify Chinese cuisine more than foods of other, less exotically intimidating cultures. Dishes have been invented, altered, and recombined in an ongoing process of negotiation with the sometimes voracious, sometimes apprehensive dominant culture. Chinese restauranteurs continue to market a cusine which is both highly structured and fairly adaptable, a diet which is alternatively vilified and canonized, and dishes which strive for authenticity, platability and profitability in serving the eclectic American palate.
Netta Davis is a PhD candidate at Boston Unversity researching and studying about the hisotry and sociology of foods.

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