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What is Real Chinese Food

by Joanne Lee

Chinese Restaurant General Information

Fall Volume: 1995 Issue: 2(3) page(s): 17 and 21

I recently took two executives of a Fortune 500 company to a restaurant in New York City's Chinatown to eat. They wanted to understand differences between Chinese-American food and what I consider Chinese food. I asked the proprietor to bring us three different dishes: Chicken Chow Mein, Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, and Egg Foo Yung. The only stipulation was that each of these dishes be prepared two ways, one for the American palate, and one for the Chinese. The overwhelming majority at many Chinatown restaurants are westerners, and such was the case at the place I had chosen. The owner of this restaurant knew exactly what I was talking about when I ordered the dishes made these ways.

My guests were astounded when the Egg Foo Yung American Style came out as a solid mound with brown gravy on top; whereas the Chinese version resembled scrambled eggs, omelet style. The two dishes didn't taste that different--eggs, are eggs. But they certainly looked very different.

As for the Shrimp with Lobster Sauce--the quality of the ingredients were the same in both dishes. The shrimps were large, fresh, and cooked just right. The one made for my western guests was in a bland white sauce, while mine had been made with black bean sauce and garlic. My guests preferred my dish.

Their strongest reaction came from the Chicken Chow Mein. The western version was everything you'd expect--vegetables with shredded chicken sprinkled on top. I loved it, thought it was a real treat, since I am generally too embarrassed to order it in this form. The Chinese version, was a wonderful combination of chicken, vegetables, and gravy, all poured over Chinese fried noodles.

So there is still a gap--though shrinking--between what some perceive as Chinese food for Chinese consumption, and Chinese food for western consumption. This is not true for all dishes--just for the more popular Cantonese dishes--such as the items mentioned above. The question is, how do you know what you will get when you order?

For me it is simple. I order in Chinese, and automatically the waiter understands that I want everything made Chinese-style. For most people, the best way around this is to understand that items such as Chow Mein, Egg Foo Yung, Shrimp in Lobster Sauce, Lobster Cantonese, even Chop Suey are prepared differently for the Chinese palate.

Cantonese Chow Mein has noodles, Egg Foo Yung is an omelet, Shrimp and Lobster Sauce has black beans and garlic, and Chop Suey is a combination of different sauteed ingredients. Tell the waiter you want it a certain style--the way Chinese people like it, and if the restaurant can make it that way, it generally will be happy to do so. Not all Chinese dishes have a counterpart for the American palate--generally this only exists with the more popular and familiar Cantonese dishes.

According to one restaurant chef, who has spent the best part of twenty-five years cooking in what he called the "most expensive chop suey house," differences in the two styles of cooking evolved because of customer preferences. "Americans thought black beans looked dirty," he said, "so we took them out of the shrimp and lobster sauce, and made it in a white gravy."

Gravy is perhaps the greatest difference between 'American' and 'Chinese-style' Chinese food. "Americans like lots of gravy," he continued, "and it has to match the ingredient. Take lobster: Americans like a white gravy, whereas Chinese prefer a drier sauce with black beans."

That same chef advised that he prepares a darker gravy for beef to match the coloring of the meat, and a lighter colored gravy for chicken. He also said that it was common for waiters to specify whether the dish is for an American or a Chinese customer. This he advised would determine how he prepares the dish.

Differences in the way foods are prepared tend to be more common in Chinatown, where there is, on balance, a large community of Chinese patrons. Outside of Chinatown, restaurants tend to prepare their dishes for western tastes unless otherwise specified.

Certain restaurants have built a reputation on serving a predominantly western crowd, others cater mostly to Chinese taste. Neither is necessarily better than the other, it is more a question of the kind of food the customers want to eat. Those serving mostly western tastes would probably make better Chicken Chow Mein, Egg Rolls, or Spare Ribs. Those with more Chinese patrons tend to offer different types of dishes, such as tripe in clay pot. How you figure out which kind of restaurant is which, is not always easy.

Nowadays, newer eateries are springing up in most Chinatowns--especially places that specialize in nouveau Hong Kong cooking. As a matter of fact, these restaurant types have spread to all major cities because of the influx of immigrants in the last twenty-five years.

20 Mott Street is a reasonably new restaurant in New York's Chinatown. Even its name implies that it wants to be a different breed of restaurant. It caters to a Chinese crowd for the most part, that is, two-thirds of the patrons are Chinese, one-third westerners, according to its owner. The emphasis here, he told me, is on Chinese items--delicacies such as duck's feet, steamed duck's blood, and tripe cooked in various forms.

"Americans enjoy Chinese food, but they appreciate items they find pleasing to the palate that are familiar to them," the owner went on, "but it is different from what we eat. For instance, Cantonese people love white meat chicken--but it has to be cooked just right, so the meat is silky, but the inside of the bone still hints of blood. But if you serve chicken that way to American customers, most would feel it undercooked." This gentleman also advised that "anyone coming in and saying that he knows Chinese food who then proceeds to order Sweet and Sour Fish, obviously does not. The Cantonese like their fish steamed, so the flavor can be savored, rather than deep fried. It takes six minutes to steam fish--the meat should be smooth, and easily removed from the bone. Fish, too, can be overcooked, and one of the first things cooks learn, is how to properly steam fish."

Whether it is New York, San Francisco, or any other major city, the possibility of getting the kind of food Chinese people are accustomed to is far greater in the Chinatowns of those cities than outside of them. The point is, the Cantonese dishes--which most Americans eat, and think of as Chinese food--very often are prepared differently for Chinese customers than for the Americans; even though the names of the dishes are the same. It is not a question of restaurants not wanting to serve the authentic stuff. Rather what is served to western patrons, has evolved though the years because of customer preference.

Take heart! Things are changing. As western patrons learn more about good Chinese cooking, they have become more demanding, willing to experiment, and willing and wanting real Chinese food. The rise in popularity of Sichuan and Hunan cooking over the last fifteen years is evidence of this.

Furthermore, the two-tier styles of cooking--for western versus Chinese tastes--does not exist for these two regional styles of Chinese cooking. That is because they were popularized overnight, and unlike Cantonese cooking, have yet to be 'Americanized.

Perhaps Sichuan and Hunan cuisine won't undergo the same evolution as Cantonese did in this country. Today, American tastes and understandings about Chinese food are much more sophisticated than they were eighty years ago. Americans are eating more Chinese food than ever before, and many want to try something different. They are and they find that they are enjoying it. Of course they are, because real Chinese food is absolutely wonderful!

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