Thursday, September 22, 2011

Behind Chinese Take-out in America

Inspired by my two recent blogs, I Say Tomato and ...Awesome Chinese Food, and having been told all of my life that what we eat here is totally not what they eat there, I decided to investigate Chinese food in America. 

It turns out that a lot of what we generally think of as Chinese cuisine is based on Southern, or Cantonese, cooking. Chunks of meat and vegetables, rich sauces, fried rice, even dim sum come to us from this region of China where stir frying is quite popular. However, being in a foreign region with different ingredients available (fresh is key, here), some substitutions are made. Broccoli, carrots, and layered onions are not native to Chinese cuisine. In China, they use so-called Chinese broccoli, a leafy cousin of Western broccoli that has a more bitter flavor, daikon, a large radish, and green onions, respectively.

The northern, colder, drier regions of China (including Beijing), where wheat is the staple rather than rice, give us the familiar wheat noodles, "pancakes," and dumplings. Lots of onion, garlic, soy sauce, and oyster sauce (which I need to add back to my repertoire). 

The eastern, or Shanghai, region of China uses both rice and wheat and a lot of seafood due to its proximity to the ocean. They also grow sugar in this region, so the food is often sweeter than elsewhere and includes pastries that I desperately want to try now. 

The new popular trend in American Chinese restaurants is Szechuan, the western region of China, which offers up some heavy spices introduced to China via the Silk Road from India. I immediately think of Szechuan chicken, which I cannot eat, and which the internet tells me is not nearly as spicy as it would be in its native home. 

While reading through Wikipedia's entry on American Chinese cuisine, I found a quote from a Chinese restaurant owner in Massachusetts that Chinese food in America is "dumbed-down" for the blander American palette, and does not constitute a cuisine all on its own. He also says, "American Chinese restaurants typically try to have food representing 3-5 regions of China at one time, have chop suey, or have 'fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce,' 'eight different sweet and sour dishes,' or 'a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes.'"

I feel better educated going into a Chinese restaurant in America now. Hopefully knowing the basics of the four main regions of Chinese cuisine will help me make tastier choices. (Szechuan is right out.) 

For further quick reading, check out Four Regions of Chinese Cuisine and Chinese Regional Cooking Styles.

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