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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Phone:240-895-4795
Anne Arundel 100

Food Adapts to the Country

Written by Yujia Dong ’12

Fortune Cookies Are not Chinese!

Even though you barely have any idea how to properly hold a pair of chopsticks, you probably love Chinese food. General Tso's chicken, chop suey, moo shu pork and egg foo yung are just a few of your favorites. And then, after cracking open the fortune cookie at the end of your meal, you leave with your leftovers in a traditional takeout box with its drawing of a Chinese temple. You feel you've eaten some authentic Asian cuisine. You, however, have been fooled. No one who has grown up in China recognizes a fortune cookie. You will not find General Tso's chicken anywhere in China. In addition, Asian cuisine uses Oriental broccoli for the famous broccoli with beef dish, not the popular Western broccoli introduced to Americans in the 1800s from Italy.

So what is going on?

Let us first acknowledge the worldwide recognition of Chinese food. It is sold in all seven continents, even Antarctica. Scientists in the frozen Antarctica research station have their sweet and sour pork every Monday. As it traveled, however, Chinese food has adapted to local palates. What you are eating in your neighborhood Chinese restaurant is American-style Chinese food, reinvented to please the taste buds of the Americans.

Same for other countries. In a typical Chinese restaurant in France, you will find salt and pepper frog legs. In an Italian Chinese restaurant, you can order fried gelato. And in Mexican Chinese restaurants, the dishes simply adopt the handsome fajita bowl look. There also is Jamaican Chinese food, Indian Chinese food, Peruvian Chinese food, Korean Chinese food, and so on. None of these dishes are to be found in China, however.

So what is authentic Chinese food? To my surprise, not many owners of American Chinese restaurants even know. The owner of one local eatery who graciously allowed me to visit remembers well the smell of the delicious noodles he had in his childhood in Fuzhou, China, but it has been almost 14 years since he has had any. He did not start cooking until he came here. "It was my father's idea," he says. "He told my relatives and me that running a Chinese restaurant in America is good business." 

His kitchen is fair sized. Silver and black pots, pans, and woks lie neatly on the kitchen counter. As the chef opens one of two giant deep freezers, clouds of cold air rush by frozen poultry imported from Chinatowns in Washington and New York. There are, he explains, four simple steps to win the hearts of American eaters. "Cooking American Chinese food is as easy as baking pizza," he says. "It is all about the sauce."

The general rule is to soak raw material in boiling hot water for several minutes to blanche it, heat oil in the wok, stir fry the ingredients on high heat, and finally pour the premixed Chinese sauce over it. A "traditional Chinese dish" is then ready to be served.

Sweet and sour is the basic taste. From that comes Kung Bao sauce and garlic sauce. Each chef improvises the sauces to his liking. "For example," our chef told us, "by adding more sugar or vinegar you can turn the original sauce into the well-known General Tso's chicken sauce." He flipped through a book full of notes. It was passed on to him from his father. Careful not to reveal some secrets, he explains he marinates and coats meat for two to three days before it goes into the wok.

A final ingredient you will find in most Chinese food is MSG, or monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer. MSG can cause headaches in some people, but Liu says Americans like the taste.

As we talk, a couple waits at a table for their food. They already have taken the chopsticks out of the packages. Effortlessly, they slide the two pieces of thin polished wood between their fingers and start to pick up things on the table. "They like the rice noodle dish," our chef tells me, adding "Americans like strong tastes, so you need to add more salt."

As the food arrives, it is not difficult to discern the winning secrets to their rice noodle dish after listening to the chef's short lesson: fried noodles with salted carrots, broccoli, and marinated beef topped with his special sauce and MSG. The customers have satisfied looks on their faces.

Chinese food culture has always been highly valued and appreciated by the people of China. Its philosophy has been studied for generations. Regarded as an art, its wisdom can be found in the writings of Daoism and Confucianism, where the principles of color, aroma, and taste are evaluated in relation to the quality of the food, the pursuit of pleasure, and the wellbeing of a person.

The concept of yin yang is another central philosophy governing the food culture, where the perfection of balance in composition is the key. Yin represents a category of food that is considered cold, for example: spinach, green beans, and eggplant. Yang, on the other hand, represents a category of food that is considered warm, such as garlic, ginger, and other Oriental spices. With a sense of balance, the Chinese practitioners consider the healthiest food to be selected and prepared from the two categories. Numerous authentic Chinese dishes apply this theory. Turnip with lamb and Oriental garlic with tofu are good examples. Also, much attention is paid to style and color. Decent Chinese restaurants always add carved carrot roses to the dish for that purpose.

The food is freshly prepared and cooked in special instruments. Dumpling and buns are made fresh in handmade bamboo steamers. Stir fry is done in woks. Chefs learn to cut, chop, and slice with the same speed professional journalists type. They are required to acquire exquisite knife skills that allow them to slice a potato as thin as a human hair.

As I researched this paper, I was looking forward to some mouthwatering Chinese food, so I headed for Chinatown in D.C. It was hard to tell the customers' expressions but it was easy to tell how the food was prepared: Soak material in boiling hot water, stir fry in a heated wok, pour sauce and MSG, and lightly stir fry again.

I heard the waitress shout to the kitchen, "Two more General Tso's chicken!" So, I still have not found the food of my birthplace here, but the good news is there always is a fortune cookie telling me, "Be patient, your wish will be granted soon."

SMCM student Yujia Dong was born in Zhengzhou in northern China and raised in Shanghai.