Picture this: it’s a Saturday night in early November. The days have started to get cold, there’s an icy wind outside, carrying with it the promise of colder nights to come. It sounds like a night to sit down, put on some Netflix, and reach for your phone. Who are you going to call? How about some Chinese food?
Chinese might just be the ultimate delivery food. Just picture the iconic to-go boxes, all origami folds and red brush letters, packed in a thin plastic bag with a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks tucked in a paper wrapping. It’s the complete package: convenient, aesthetic, and oh yeah—did we mention delicious? But there’s so much more to Chinese food than American-style delivery Chinese. Let’s explore recipes for some Chinese and Chinese-style dishes—get ready!
American Chinese food
The Chinese presence in the United States of America goes back much farther than most people know, dating back two entire centuries. The first recorded Chinese immigrants to North America arrived to San Francisco around 1815, and over the next decades, immigration built steadily. However, this is not a story of perfect harmony: the history of Chinese Americans is rife with discrimination and marginalization. Chinese Americans were forced into jobs on the edges of society: laborers, gold miners, laundry workers, and yes… cooks and chefs.
And that, humble reader, is where this article comes in. Chinese chefs soon recognized that American tastes and ingredients were extremely different from those of their erstwhile homeland, and they would need to make some adjustments to their cuisine to fit the American palate. Things got sweeter and less spicy, and many dishes were created out of thin air, using nothing but good old-fashioned (Chinese-) American ingenuity.
One of the most famous of these new Chinese-American recipes became known as kung pao chicken. It made use of locally available ingredients like peanuts and chicken and cooked them together quickly with some sauce. Due to the greater availability of meat in the United States, Chinese American recipes are typically much meatier than an authentic Chinese food recipe would be.
Another Chinese-American classic is the spring roll, also known as the egg roll. In this classic Chinese food recipe, a flaky pastry crust hides a tender center made up of vegetables and glass noodles. These are deep fried and typically dunked into flavorful sauces, and often served as an appetizer course at American-style Chinese restaurants.
But American Chinese food recipes are just one region of the huge world of Chinese cuisine. There’s one place we haven’t been yet—China! Let’s explore some authentic Chinese food recipes.
Chinese food in China
The first thing there is to say is that China is a huge country populated by dozens of distinct ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. Though there are popular favorites, as there are in any country, it is truly impossible—and indeed futile—to generalize the cuisine of a country this large and diverse. But let’s try, shall we?
The story of cuisine in China could be said to be dominated by the wheat-rice divide. Imagine a horizontal line going East-West across China at about the latitude of Shanghai. Below this line, rice is the dominant source of carbohydrates for the people who live there. Above it, wheat supplies most of the starchy calories. Thus, northern Chinese food tends to make use of wheat
noodles and plenty of dumplings and other bready foods, while southern Cuisine tends toward rice and rice-based noodle dishes such as fried rice.
Of course, carbs are just the blank canvas onto which chefs paint their masterpieces. And one of these masterpieces stands head and shoulders—or should we say, beak and wing—above its competition. If you want to get this at a restaurant, it’s common to find a note next to it in the menu: “Must be ordered 24 hours in advance.” I am talking, of course, about the noble Peking Duck.
Peking Duck is an ancient recipe from the Chinese capital city. Ducks bred especially for use in this dish are slaughtered at a specific age before being seasoned and roasted in an oven. Peking duck recipes usually call for plenty of tiny little pancakes, spring onions, and sauces. Diners take the small pancake, sauce, onion, and a bit of duck roll it into something that looks very much like a taco. Delicious!
Time for something sweet
Apart from the iconic fortune cookies of delivery fame, Chinese cuisine isn’t very famous for its sweets. But you must be wondering, right? Here’s a Chinese dessert recipe for a fantastic dish called Mooncake. Mooncakes are traditionally eaten in Autumn to bring luck to the new harvest. It’s a sticky-sweet dough with a sweet bean paste filling, baked in a special mold. The mold has a special image embossed on its bottom, and when the cake is removed from the inverted mold, it bears the special lucky marks on its top.
Chinese cuisine—a world of food
It should now be clear that there is much, much more to Chinese food than Panda Express. From the plains and wheatfields of Northern China to the sodden rice paddies of Guangdong, it makes as much sense to generalize “Chinese food” as it does to generalize “European food.” And this doesn’t even touch on the incredible diversity of Chinese food outside of China! Truly a worldwide cuisine.
In the past decade or so, as tastes diversify and Americans begin to seek authenticity more and more, American Chinese food has been unfairly denigrated. But this is unfair. It’s true that American Chinese food isn’t totally Chinese, but with its focus on sugar, meat, and most importantly, profits—it’s certainly 100% American.