Silver Threads: Chinese
My daughter told me the other day that her friend Mary and her family — who were immigrants to the U.S. from Hong Kong some 40 years ago — never ate the food prepared in the small restaurant they opened on the West Bank.
“They fixed their own dinner separately,” she said. “They don’t like the Chinese food that we do.”
That fit in with something I’d just read online on Wikipedia: Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., and host of the PBS culinary show “Simply Ming,” said that "Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food. It’s adapted to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public.”
And that fit in with why I’d googled “Chinese food in America” in the first place: a recent T-P business page story headed “City makes a play for Chinese tourists” reported that China’s outbound travel market is expected to reach 200 million people over the next five years, with an estimate of 5 million visitors to the U.S. alone by 2020. Our convention and visitors bureau wants some of them.
I hope we get plenty of those Chinese travelers. But are they going to flock to our renowned Creole/Cajun restaurants or opt for Five Happiness? Will they even like our New Orleans Chinese food?
American Chinese restaurants that typically try to have food representing three to five 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,” Tsai said.
“It’s for sure that you’re not going to be served chicken feet or liver or other ‘unpalatable’ meats in a local Chinese restaurant, and in New York City’s Chinatown, the restaurants are known for having a 'phantom’ menu with food preferred by ethnic Chinese, but believed to be disliked by non-Chinese Americans.”
The American broccoli and onion, which you see plenty of in our popular Chinese cuisine, are not indigenous to China, and therefore are less common in the traditional cuisines served there.
Egg fried rice in America is also prepared differently, with more soy sauce added for more flavor whereas the traditional egg fried rice uses less soy sauce. Some food styles such as Dim sum were also modified to fit American palates, like added batter for fried dishes and extra soy sauce.
On trips across the U.S. and even to foreign shores I sometimes encountered restaurants proudly offering New Orleans cuisine. Forty-something years ago they were to be avoided. But now I’m pretty sure that a moderately good shrimp etouffee or jambalaya might be served in, say, Juno, Alaska.
Since my own travels began, two younger generations of Americans have also hit the road, and both their appetites for and the preparation of “exotic” foods have become more sophisticated. More “foreigners” cook the dishes well now, and our kids and theirs routinely enjoy varied cuisines. My grandsons were loving octopus at ages two and four.
I’ve watched the population of local Asian restaurants grow from about three in 1958 to whatever hundreds it is now, and sampled many of the middle Eastern cuisines even on dining forays confined to the West Bank. And things have changed all over the world: On recent trips to London, my friends and I enjoyed the current availability of Italian, Indian and Chinese foods unserved regularly there in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even early ‘90s.
But I’m not certain that the current sophistication in eating habits has reached the Chinese nation yet; it has only been a few years since the country began to issue passports.
After they once sample the “Chinese” food served in the United States, they may feel like I did in Alaska.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at email@example.com.