The Chinese food that people eat in America often bears little resemblance to the real thing. This can be a disappointing surprise for Westerners who travel to China expecting to replicate some of the dishes they enjoy back home. What many don’t realize is that each region of China has its own unique palate. When planning a trip to China, it’s useful to study the region and understand the types of food likely to be found there.
How Chinese Food Came to Be Americanized
Chinese food first widely appeared in the United States in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1950s. Traveling to China was not easy, so people assumed the cuisine they enjoyed at Chinatown was the real thing. However, it was prepared with local ingredients and contained completely different vegetables than could be found in authentic Chinese dishes. Another big difference is that Americans prefer white boneless chicken while the Chinese are more apt to eat dark meat, small bones, connective tissues, and organs.
Westerners are not accustomed to eating highly spicy meals. Because of this, restaurants serving Chinese food here tend to add sugar or soy sauce to offset it. Sauces and soups served in the United States come from powder packs that Asian manufacturers sell in bulk. This explains the taste uniformity of many Chinese dishes across the United States. People who are interested in a more authentic Chinese dining experience should consider switching the following dishes:
- Zha jiang mian instead of lo mein: The Chinese version is much more flavorful and includes soybean paste and stir-fried pork.
- Oranges instead of fortune cookies: Fortune cookies are a uniquely American invention. In China, people end their meal by eating sliced oranges instead.
- Shrimp dumpling soup instead of wonton soup: The authentic version contains shrimp in a delicate shell, fresh noodles, and a much stronger flavor than the Americanized pork and noodle soup.
Tips to Prepare Authentic Chinese Food at Home
Those who enjoy cooking and wish to have a more authentic dining experience should keep five basic ingredients on hand. These include:
- Fermented bean paste: This sticky brown paste produces an extremely salty flavor.
- Five spice powder: Although it may contain a variety of ingredients, it should produce bitter, salty, sour, spicy, and sweet flavors.
- Lard: This clear pork fat looks like coconut oil and is white in color. It’s a must to add flavor and richness to a braised meal or stir-fry, but typically is only sold at ethnic grocery stores.
- Red chili oil: Home cooks can prepare this by combining dried red peppers and peanut oil.
- Sesame oil: Just a small drizzle provides intense flavor.
Americans and Chinese cook noodles in different ways. For an authentic Chinese dish such as Dan Dan Noodles, prepare for cooking by adding half an ounce of salt to every 20 ounces of water. This prevents clumping of the noodles. Place dry noodles in the pan as soon as the water starts boiling and place a lid on top of pan immediately. Cooks will need to remove the lid to stir periodically.
Next, place a small amount of cold water in the pan and allow it to sit for approximately five minutes. Heat should remain at medium during this time. If the noodles are still stuck together, spraying them with rice wine will separate them. It’s now time to serve the meal.