American Chinese cuisine is a style of Chinese cuisine developed by Americans of Chinese descent. The dishes served in many North American Chinese restaurants are adapted to American tastes and often differ significantly from those found in China.
Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States to work as miners and railroad workers. As the large groups of Chinese immigrants arrived, laws were put in place preventing them from owning land. They mostly lived together in ghettos, individually referred to as "Chinatown". Here the immigrants started their own small businesses, including restaurants and laundry services. By the 19th century, the Chinese community in San Francisco operated sophisticated and sometimes luxurious restaurants patronized mainly by Chinese. The restaurants in smaller towns (mostly owned by Chinese immigrants) served food based on what their customers requested, anything ranging from pork chop sandwiches and apple pie, to beans and eggs. Many of these small-town restaurant owners were self-taught family cooks who improvised on different cooking methods and ingredients. These smaller restaurants were responsible for developing American Chinese cuisine, where the food was modified to suit a more American palate. First catering to miners and railroad workers, they established new eateries in towns where Chinese food was completely unknown, adapting local ingredients and catering to their customers' tastes. Even though the new flavors and dishes meant they were not strictly Chinese cuisine, these Chinese restaurants have been cultural ambassadors to Americans.
Chinese restaurants in the United States began during the California gold rush, which brought twenty to thirty thousand immigrants across from the Canton (Guangdong) region of China. By 1850, there were five restaurants in San Francisco. Soon after, significant amounts of food were being imported from China to America's west coast. The trend spread eastward with the growth of the American railways, particularly to New York City. The Chinese Exclusion Act allowed merchants to enter the country, and in 1915 restaurant owners became eligible for merchant visas. This fueled the opening of Chinese restaurants as an immigration vehicle. As of 2015[update], the United States had 46,700 Chinese restaurants.
Along the way, cooks adapted southern Chinese dishes such as chop suey and developed a style of Chinese food not found in China. Restaurants (along with Chinese laundries) provided an ethnic niche for small businesses at a time when the Chinese people were excluded from most jobs in the wage economy by ethnic discrimination or lack of language fluency. By the 1920s, this cuisine, particularly chop suey, became popular among middle-class Americans. However, after World War II it began to be dismissed for not being "authentic." Late 20th century tastes have been more accommodating.  Take away food became popular amongst Americans, Chinese food becoming a favourite "take out" option. By this time it became evident that Chinese restaurants no longer catered mainly for Chinese customers.
There has been a consequential component of Chinese emigration of illegal origin, most notably Fuzhou people from Fujian Province and Wenzhounese from Zhejiang Province in Mainland China, specifically destined to work in Chinese restaurants in New York City, beginning in the 1980s. Adapting Chinese cooking techniques to local produce and tastes has led to the development of American Chinese cuisine. Many of the Chinese restaurant menus in the U.S. are printed in Chinatown, Manhattan, which has a strong Chinese American demographic.
With the continuing success of American Chinese cuisine, including its portrayal to mainland Chinese audiences through the medium of American television sitcoms, American Chinese restaurants have opened in China itself. Products and ingredients needed to recreate these adapted dishes are imported into China. They include "Philadelphia cream cheese, Skippy peanut butter, cornflakes and English mustard powder".
In 2011, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History displayed some of the historical background and cultural artefacts of American Chinese cuisine in its exhibit entitled, Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States.
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American Chinese food builds from styles and food habits brought from the southern province of Guangdong, often from the Toisan district of Toisan, the origin of most Chinese immigration before the closure of immigration from China in 1924. These Chinese families developed new styles and used readily available ingredients, especially in California. The types of Chinese American cooking served in restaurants was different from the foods eaten in Chinese American homes.  Of the various regional cuisines in China, Cantonese cuisine has been the most influential in the development of American Chinese food, especially that of Toisan, the origin of most early immigrants.
Among the common differences is to treat vegetables as a side dish or garnish, while traditional cuisines of China emphasize vegetables. This can be seen in the use of carrots and tomatoes. Cuisine in China makes frequent use of Asian leaf vegetables like bok choy and kai-lan and puts a greater emphasis on fresh meat and seafood.
Stir frying, pan frying, and deep frying tend to be the most common Chinese cooking techniques used in American Chinese cuisine, which are all easily done using a wok (a Chinese frying pan with bowl-like features and which accommodates very high temperatures). The food also has a reputation for high levels of MSG to enhance the flavor. Market forces and customer demand have encouraged many restaurants to offer "MSG Free" or "No MSG" menus, or to omit this ingredient on request.
American Chinese cuisine makes use of ingredients not native to and very rarely used in China. One such example is the common use of western broccoli (Chinese: 西蘭; pinyin: xīlán) instead of Chinese broccoli (Gai-lan, 芥蘭; jièlán) in American Chinese cuisine. Occasionally, western broccoli is also referred to as sai1 laan4 fa1 in Cantonese (西蘭花) in order not to confuse the two styles of broccoli. Among Chinese speakers, however, it is typically understood that one is referring to the leafy vegetable unless otherwise specified.
This is also the case with the words for carrot (luo buo or lo bac, or hong luo buo, hong meaning "red") and onion (yang cong). Lo bac, in Cantonese, refers to a large, pungent white radish. The orange western carrot is known in some areas of China as "foreign radish" (or more properly hung lo bac in Cantonese, hung meaning "red"). When the word for onion, yang cong, is used, it is understood that one is referring to "green onions" (otherwise known to English-speakers as "scallions" or "spring onions"). The larger, many-layered onion bulb common in the United States is called yang cong. This translates as "western onion". These names make it evident that the American broccoli, carrot, and onion are not indigenous to China, and therefore are less common in the traditional cuisines of China.
Egg fried rice in American Chinese cuisine 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, such as added batter for fried dishes and extra soy sauce.
Salads containing raw or uncooked ingredients are rare in traditional Chinese cuisine, as are Japanese style sushi or sashimi. However, an increasing number of American Chinese restaurants, including some upscale establishments, have started to offer these items in response to customer demand.
Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts and host of PBS culinary show Simply Ming, said that American Chinese restaurants typically try to have food representing 3-5 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 "Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food. It’s adapted... to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public".
Most American Chinese establishments cater to non-Chinese customers with menus written in English or containing pictures. If separate Chinese-language menus are available, they typically feature items such as liver, chicken feet, or other meat dishes that might deter American customers. In Chinatown, Manhattan, the restaurants were known for having a "phantom" menu with food preferred by ethnic Chinese, but believed to be disliked by non-Chinese Americans.
Dishes that often appear on American Chinese restaurant menus include:
Authentic restaurants with Chinese-language menus may offer "yellow-hair chicken" (Chinese: 黃毛雞; pinyin: huángmáo jī; Cantonese Yale: wòhng mouh gāai; literally: "yellow-feather chicken"), essentially a free-range chicken, as opposed to typical American mass-farmed chicken. Yellow-hair chicken is valued for its flavor, but needs to be cooked properly to be tender due to its lower fat and higher muscle content. This dish usually does not appear on the English-language menu.
Dau Miu (豆苗; dòumiáo) is a Chinese vegetable that has become popular since the early 1990s, and now not only appears on English-language menus, usually as "pea shoots", but is often served by upscale non-Asian restaurants as well. Originally it was only available during a few months of the year, but it is now grown in greenhouses and is available year-round.
Given that the New York City metropolitan area has become home to the largest overseas Chinese population outside of Asia, all popular styles of regional Chinese cuisine have commensurately become ubiquitously accessible in New York City, including Hakka, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Hunanese, Szechuan, Cantonese, Fujianese, Xinjiang, Zhejiang, and Korean Chinese cuisine. Even the relatively obscure Dongbei style of cuisine indigenous to Northeast China is now available in Flushing, Queens, as well as Mongolian cuisine. The availability of the regional variations of Chinese cuisine originating from throughout the different Provinces of China is most apparent in the city's Chinatowns in Queens, particularly the Flushing Chinatown (法拉盛華埠), but is also notable in the city's Chinatowns in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Kosher preparation of Chinese food is also widely available in New York City, given the metropolitan area's large Jewish and particularly Orthodox Jewish populations.The perception that American Jews eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day is documented in media as a common stereotype with a basis in fact. The tradition may have arisen from the lack of other open restaurants on Christmas Day, as well as the close proximity of Jewish and Chinese immigrants to each other in New York City. Kosher Chinese food is usually prepared in New York City, as well as in other large cities with Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, under strict Rabbinical supervision as a prerequisite for Kosher certification.
Since the early 1990s, many American Chinese restaurants influenced by California cuisine have opened in the San Francisco Bay Area. The trademark dishes of American Chinese cuisine remain on the menu, but there is more emphasis on fresh vegetables, and the selection is vegetarian-friendly. This new cuisine has exotic ingredients like mangos and portobello mushrooms. Brown rice is often offered as an alternative to white rice. Some restaurants substitute grilled wheat flour tortillas for the rice pancakes in mu shu dishes. This occurs even in some restaurants that would not otherwise be identified as California Chinese, both the more Westernized places and the more authentic places. There is a Mexican bakery that sells some restaurants thinner tortillas made for use with mu shu. Mu shu purists do not always react positively to this trend.
In addition, many restaurants serving more native-style Chinese cuisines exist, due to the high numbers and proportion of ethnic Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area. Restaurants specializing in Cantonese, Sichuanese, Hunanese, Northern Chinese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong traditions are widely available, as are more specialized restaurants such as seafood restaurants, Hong Kong-style diners and cafes, also known as Cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; chácāntīng), dim sum teahouses, and hot pot restaurants. Many Chinatown areas also feature Chinese bakeries, boba milk tea shops, roasted meat, vegetarian cuisine, and specialized dessert shops. Chop suey is not widely available in San Francisco, and the area's chow mein is different from Midwestern chow mein.
Chinese American cuisine in the Greater Los Angeles area is generally characterized by suburban settings. Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley tend to have cuisines from every region of China.
Chinese cuisine in Boston reflects a mélange of multiple influential factors. The growing Boston Chinatown accommodates Chinese-owned bus lines shuttling an increasing number of passengers to and from the numerous Chinatowns in New York City, and this has led to some commonalities in the local Chinese cuisine derived from Chinese food in New York. A large immigrant Fujianese immigrant population has made a home in Boston, leading to Fuzhou cuisine being readily available in Boston. An increasing Vietnamese population has also been exerting an influence on Chinese cuisine in Greater Boston. Finally, innovative dishes incorporating chow mein and chop suey as well as locally farmed produce and regionally procured seafood ingredients are found in Chinese as well as non-Chinese food in and around Boston.
The evolving American Chinese scene in Philadelphia exhibits commonalities with the Chinese cuisine scenes in both New York City and Boston. There is a growing Fujianese community in Philadelphia as well, and Fuzhou cuisine is readily available in the Philadelphia Chinatown. Like Boston, the emerging Vietnamese cuisine scene in Philadelphia is contributing to the milieu of Chinese cuisine.
Hawaiian-Chinese food developed somewhat differently from Chinese cuisine in the continental United States. Owing to the diversity of ethnicities in Hawaii and the history of the Chinese influence in Hawaii, resident Chinese cuisine forms a component of the cuisine of Hawaii, which is a fusion of different culinary traditions. Some Chinese dishes are typically served as part of plate lunches in Hawaii. The names of foods are different as well, such as Manapua, from the Hawaiian contraction of "Mea ono pua'a" or "delicious pork item" from the dim sum bao, though the meat is not necessarily pork.
Everything was well and good with one huge exception: The mu shu wrappers were flour tortillas!
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