When someone eats Chinese food in a Chinese restaurant around Boston, is it authentic cuisine? Is it a food that might be served in Szechuan or Hunan? Maybe. But probably not.
If it’s General’s Tso’s chicken, the answer is most definitely “no.” Ditto for Moo Shu pork with pancakes and Szechuan Spicy Dumpling served with spicy soup. All of these local Chinese food favorites were invented in the U.S.
On the other hand, if you eat spicy crayfish, the question gets a little trickier. Crayfish never used to be served in China until they were brought from the U.S. to China in the 1930s. Now they are very popular both here and in China. So does that make spicy crayfish authentic Chinese cuisine, or something else entirely?
The question of what is authentic is a debate that should is best argued over a plate of Peking duck, a dish as authentic in Beijing as a hamburger is in the U.S.
If you ask the staff of local Chinese restaurants, it turns out that authenticity is decidedly not the most important ingredient in their offerings. In interviews at 10 restaurants, mostly in Boston’s Chinatown, chefs and owners said the priority is creating food that is popular and will sell. After all, if Americans don’t eat their food, they will go out of business.
In fact, Chinese restaurants could get complaints by making dishes in the same way as in China, said Xiang Chan, whose family owns Chinese Gourmet in Chinatown. Born in China, he is far from accepting the eating habits of Americans.
“They don’t want little bones in meals, probably because they are afraid to be choked to death,” said Chan of Americans. As a result of different food expectations, some restaurants prepare food in two ways to serve both American and Chinese customers, said Chan. If it’s a Chinese customer, customary ingredients like bones, chicken skin, and extra layers of fat on the meat will be included.
Actually, the majority of their customers are Chinese, such as local Chinese-American families, international students, and Chinese tourists, said Chan and others in Chinatown. On Yelp, the popular online reviewing platform for restaurants, stores, and attractions, most of the reviews of Chinatown restaurants are from people with an Asian last name.
The owners of Chinese Gourmet would prefer to serve food only from China’s Fujian province, where they are from, but they must also serve food from the Szechuan and Hunan provinces because those foods are so popular.
Xiaoxiong Su, owner of Hot Eastern in Chinatown, thinks the popularity of Szechuan and Hunan provinces is due to its spiciness, which makes the food stand out from other Chinese cuisines. “It’s easier for Americans to remember,” said Su. The popularity of Szechuan cuisine among Chinese international students is also an important reason.
“The purpose of people starting restaurant businesses is to earn a living,” said Su about his restaurant’s offerings before adding, “Americans know nothing about Chinese cuisines.”
OTHER CHINESE FOODS BY AMERICAN
Virtually every cook and owner of Chinese restaurants in the U.S. have adjusted their cooking somehow, according to people interviewed for this article.
Weiquan Luo, the owner, and chef of The Little Kitchen in Chinatown, has been making “Hong Kong style” dishes in New England for more than 20 years.
He is used to making sweeter and lighter food to customers, even though Hong Kong cuisine is already relatively sweet and lighter among all the Chinese cuisines. He also makes spring rolls — a food from Shanghai — for customers.
The history of immigration law helped spur the spread of Chinese-American restaurants in the late 19th century according to Heather R. Lee, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT. She said that after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which pretty much banned Chinese immigrants from coming to the U.S., Chinese restaurant owners could still gain legal status if they ran a restaurant enterprise for at least one year.
“When a new food appears with low price, people wanted to try [it],” said Su, Hot Eastern’s owner. Since most famous Chinese-American foods don’t require advanced culinary skill and the ingredients are usually cheap, it’s not hard to see why Chinese restaurants have flourished, said Su.
Restaurants provide an avenue for immigrants that wouldn’t be available otherwise, said Su. For Chinese immigrants whose English is not good, restaurant work, especially as a cook, is often the only choice, she added.
Allan Tow, a professor at Suffolk University, wrote about the implications of this. “To me, the take-out counter itself represented the racial divide; and I feared that I, as a Chinese American, would—for that reason alone—be relegated to restaurant work forever,” he wrote in 2011 in the annual newsletter of the Chinese Historical Society of New England.
Throughout these years, more and more Americans have started eating Chinese food as meals, as Chinese media proudly reported, but what they are enjoying is “actually American-Chinese food”, said Story Hinckley, a Virginia-native Chinese food lover who is studying in Boston. Some of her favorite Chinese restaurant dishes include cilantro flounder, fish rolls, and Szechuan bang bang shrimp, none of which are traditional Chinese meals.
Several Chinese dishes that are never served in native-Chinese restaurants are still essential on the menu of Chinese restaurants in the U.S., said Su.
“It’s suicidal if someone runs a Chinese restaurant here without serving General Tso’s Chicken,” a deep-fried chicken that is never served in China, “because Americans will definitely have questions about this, like: Is this a Chinese restaurant or not?”
In Su’s opinion, the only feasible way of letting Westerners experience authentic Chinese dishes is making the restaurant fancy and serving real Chinese food.
In China, people made Triple Delight Vegetable, an iconic Northeast dish, by stewing the ingredients together for a long time until they all blend with each other, but America people prefer to see clearly what’s in their dish, said Su, who is from the Northeast region of China.
But just because a dish has been altered for American tastes, does not mean it is not genuine Chinese cuisine.
“The dumpling made by your mother and your neighbor taste different, but you can’t say either of them is not authentic,” Su said.
In various travel guides, one of the “can’t-miss” experiences in Boston is eating lobster. Some Chinese restaurants serve Chinese-style dishes made with lobster, including Joy Luck Hot Pot, a restaurant well-liked by Chinese tourists.
Jennifer 8 Lee, the author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicle,” said in a TED talk that Chinese food is like Linux, the computer language, since both are so customizable. When talking about why dishes like General Tso’s Chicken became so popular, she said “It’s sweet. It’s fried. It’s chicken. Americans would love this.”
The barrier of taste between Chinese and Americans may not really need to be bridged. After all, in China, new culinary dishes consistently arise. For instance, sliced fish in hot chili oil was not heard of by most Chinese people until the 1980s, and spicy crayfish, which is the critical ingredient of a featured dish in China, was brought to the country from North America via the Japanese in the 1930s. Both dishes are among the most popular recipes in China.
“Panda Express is the most profitable chain Chinese restaurant in the U.S., and how many of their dishes have you seen in an average restaurant in China? But that’s not the point,” said Su, the owner of Hot Eastern. “If I can make a dish that becomes popular as General Tso’s chicken, that would be great because the dish [would] make me very rich.”