Growing up in a Chinese household meant that we ate Chinese food practically every day. My mom cooked each meal fresh and never used a cook book because the recipes were in her head. When I grew up and was on my own, I ate out more and longed for my mom’s cooking. I remember looking at a Chinese restaurant’s menu and thinking, “What’s Chop Suey? Crab Rangoon?” I had never eaten these dishes, and when my family ate at Chinese restaurants my parents never ordered them.
There’s a reason – these are examples of Chinese foods that are not really Chinese. They’ve been created or adapted in America to appeal to American palates. In general, Americanized-Chinese food is sweeter and saucier than traditional Chinese cuisine. It doesn’t mean these Americanized versions taste bad; it just means they’re not dishes authentic to China.
Did you know these Chinese foods below are not really Chinese? Read on to find out why.
Beef with Broccoli
Beef with Broccoli is a popular stir fry dish in Chinese American restaurants. While menus in China list Beef with Broccoli, the dish uses Chinese broccoli, not the floret version that originates from Italy. Chinese broccoli, or “gai lan,” is a leafy vegetable with thick stems and stalks that tastes slightly more bitter than the broccoli commonly used in Chinese American dishes. The China version of Beef and Broccoli typically features a light sauce, nothing like the heavier and darker version found in America.
The unglamorous description of Chop Suey is a bunch of scraps thrown together to make an edible dish. The story goes that in the 1840s in San Francisco a group of drunken miners wandered into a Chinese restaurant late one night and demanded food. The exhausted and fearful owner used what he could to throw a dish together: leftovers from other customers’ plates, scraps of food found in the kitchen, and then doused it in soy sauce. The miners loved the dish which in Cantonese is called “shap sui” and in Mandarin called “za sui” meaning “mixed odds and ends.” Today’s more palatable description of Chop Suey is a dish made with vegetables (often celery, cabbage, and bean sprouts), meat, eggs, and a thick sauce.
One ingredient in Crab Rangoons – also known as Crab Wontons or Crab Puffs – gives away that this appetizer did not originate in China. The culprit? Cream cheese. Survey your Chinese friends and ask them if they’re lactose intolerant, and most likely they are. In fact, a study of Chinese adults indicates that 92.3% suffer from lactose intolerance or some version of it. In other words, they can’t eat this fried wonton wrapped appetizer filled with cream cheese and scallions without suffering digestive consequences. Rumor has it this dish was created at a Trader Vic’s restaurant in1950’s San Francisco and is an adaptation of a Burmese dish. As a side note, many Chinese restaurants don’t even use crab in their Rangoons. Your best bet for a crab-filled cheesy version is to make your own.
Chinese delivery takeout inevitably includes of a thin, translucent condiment called Duck Sauce. Similar to Asian plum sauce, the slightly sweet and sour flavored Duck Sauce is used as a dip for deep fried foods such as egg rolls and spring rolls. Contrary to its name, it does not contain duck. In The Everything Chinese Cookbook, food writer Rhonda Lauret Parkinson surmises, “Plum sauce was nicknamed ‘duck sauce’ after Western Chinese restaurants began serving it with Peking Duck, under the mistaken impression that this was an authentic practice. In reality, Peking Duck is traditionally served with hoisin sauce.” Can’t get enough of those little duck sauce packets? You can purchase your very own 40 oz. jar of duck sauce online and in the Asian section of many grocery stores.
Egg Foo Young
Egg foo young is a dish that falls in between an omelet, pancake, and fritter. Doused in a brown gravy, egg foo young consists of vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage, and peas mixed with diced meats. This American dish from the mid-1800’s derives from “Fu Yung” egg slices, a Shanghai dish made with egg whites and finely chopped ham.
How are egg rolls not authentically Chinese when it seems every Chinese American restaurant serves them? Egg Rolls are a version of Spring Rolls found in traditional Chinese cuisine. Spring Roll are small, light and wrapped in translucent wrappers. The Americanized Egg Roll version is larger, heavier, wrapped in a thicker wrapper and deep fried. Filled with meats and shredded vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and bean sprouts, author Andrew Coe of the book “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States” states the egg roll was likely invented in New York circa the early 1930s.
It would be quite a feat if the Chinese had the ability to predict the future and channel these insights through fortune cookies. But alas, the crunchy cookie is believed to originate from San Francisco circa 1918. Nevertheless, the secret messages found in fortune cookies still bring hope to the masses even though they were likely created by a guy tucked away in the back office of a fortune cookie manufacturer.
General Tso’s Chicken
A dish with a name like this conjures up images of an ancient revered Chinese general riding a horse through battlefields and returning to his base camp to eat his favorite chicken meal. Though it is confirmed General Tso was a real person – a war hero in the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) — he had nothing to do with this sweet and spicy deep fried chicken dish. Chef Peng Chang-kuei, while working in Taiwan, stated that at some point in the 1950s he created the dish and named it after General Tso, the second-most-famous military man from his home region of Hunan. In the 1970’s, two Chinese chefs from New York traveled to Taiwan, ate General Tso’s Chicken at Chef Peng’s restaurant, came back to American and adapted the dish by adding a crispier batter and a sweet sauce. The rest, as they say, is history.
Similar to General Tso’s chicken, Orange Chicken is battered, deep fried, sweet, with a touch of chili pepper. The main difference between the two is the orange flavor. In China, a similar dish originated in Hunan Province that uses orange zest. The Americanized version is sweeter with a thicker sauce, and often uses sugar with orange juice to add flavor instead of through orange peels. The Chinese fast food chain Panda Express, influenced by the popularity of chicken nuggets in American fast food restaurants, credits itself with inventing Orange Chicken in the 1980’s.
Pu Pu Platter
For appetizer lovers, the Pu Pu Platter found in Chinese American restaurants offers a smorgasbord of items such as fried wontons, chicken wings, egg rolls, skewered beef, Crab Rangoon, and more. The dish’s name originates from the Hawaiian word pū-pū, which means hors d’oeuvre, relish or small bite. It is believed the Pu Pu Platter came to mainland America in the early 1930’s, but didn’t become a menu staple until much later. The earliest known menu listing of the Pu Pu Platter at a Chinese American restaurant is in 1969.
Sweet and Sour Dishes
Sometimes bright orange, other times neon red, Sweet and Sour sauce is a mainstay in Chinese American restaurants. Whether poured onto battered and deep fried pork, chicken, or beef, this thick, super sweet sauce typically comes out of a can and includes hard-to-say ingredients like Xanthan Gum, Sodium Benzoate, and Succinic Acid. Sweet and Sour sauce spread to the United States in the early 20th century via Chinese migrant workers, but in China the sauce is quite different. It’s not orange or red; it’s more clear made of a light mixture of sugar, rice vinegar, soy sauces, and spices. In China this sauce is often used with fish and is served on the side for dipping.
Now that you know which Chinese foods are not really Chinese, you can impress your dinner companions with the history of the Crab Rangoon or Chop Suey they just ordered. By the way, if you see sweet desserts like chocolate cake and fried ice cream on the menu, those aren’t really Chinese, too. The Chinese usually eat fruit such as oranges as a sweet treat.
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