Friday, December 20, 2013


The other day my apartment mate and I were discussing the dishes that white people eat. On which, as you might suspect, I am an expert. What with being white and all. The person I share my apartment with is an old friend who is not white.

She understands Chinese food solely and entirely in Cantonese terms. Anything that is not from Lingnaam is, by definition, not really Chinese. Especially not that weird stuff sold to white people in Hunanese and Szechuanese restaurants.

In a way, she is right.

General Tso's Chicken (左宗棠雞 'jo jung tong kai', 左公雞 'jo gung kai') was invented in New York sometime in the seventies.

Sesame Chicken (芝麻雞丁 'ji maa kai ting') has an indistinct gloop sauce inspired, more or less, by sweet and sour pork and almond shrimp.
Both of which are typically American.

Kung Pao Beef (宮保牛肉 'gung pou ngau yiuk') is far more a fascinating immigrant adaptation of Szechuanese ideas than derived from any actual Szechuan recipe. And, without a healthy does of fagara pepper (花椒 'faa chiu'), it cannot be really called 'kung pao'. It's a great vehicle for garlic and ginger in a sweet dark sauce, though.

There are several other "Chinese" dishes widely served throughout the United States that would baffle and amuse immigrants from the Central Kingdom, and I do not even have to mention chop suey sandwiches or egg foo yong casserole to make that point.

Nevertheless, she is also wrong. Many of the ghastliest most popular Chinese dishes in America were invented by her people, and a very Cantonese slapdash culinary cynicism is evident in the composition.
Sweet-tangy sauce, simply cooked main ingredient, crunchy substances added for excitement, and something salty. Cover all the bases and even the woolly tribals in the hills will like it. In very many cases, Hunanese and Szechuanese "cuisine" is cooked by Cantonese folks catering strictly to Anglos. Without them, American Szechuan and Hunan food would not exist.
Both of those terms on a signboard usually are admissions that perhaps they can't cook exceptionally well, and dare not pretend to serve decent Cantonese fare.
"Let some other group get the blame, I'm just trying to pay my rent."

It's good honest food, usually simple and well-made, but it just isn't anything many Cantonese would choose if there was a real Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood.

A restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown that is staggeringly popular with tourists serves only "Szechuan-Hunan" food, has far higher prices than anything nearby, offers nothing the locals would eat, and employs only Cantonese-speakers.
No, I shan't mention which one it is, because I like the cooks. They've got a sense of humour.
Which, indeed, they need to work there.

A sense of humour is an essential personality trait for Chinese restaurateurs.

That, and quick thinking.


At some point in the life of every Chinese eatery in a remote part of the world (Mississippi or Oregon, for instance) a Cantonese family will come in, and once they realize that is NOT a real restaurant despite the brightly lit sign outside, their depression and despair will be utterly heartrending.
There is massive disconsolation.

"I thought that we were going to have food! Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? They serve kung pao! Oh woe, the universe is a cold and heartless place! I wanna go home!"

The smallest members of the party start looking like their puppy died.

They were SO much looking forward to a fun social event!

Pitiable indeed, but please do not worry.

The proprietors will quickly quiet everyone down, reassure them that no matter what they will get something good to eat, and yes they do have a variety of ingredients that can be prepared in several tasty ways that aren't listed on the menu.
All of them will be pleasantly surprised and leave full of good cheer, and the staff will feel more connected with their own people. Happy diners will come again, perhaps calling ahead to ask of any fresh fish can be had.

Eventually several families will go there regularly.
In a small way, a community is formed.

But the Kung Pao Beef, Sesame Chicken, and Sweet'n Sour Whatever-it-is stay on the menu. It's American food, it pays the rent, and it's helping all of them learn better English.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That article reminds me of my childhood. You see every Christmas evening we would venture from our purch on top of Portola Valley and venture down to the city to have our Christmas dinner. It was a family tradition to have roasted chineese duck. The Chineese it seems are always open on that day. It seems the Budist and the Jews have something in common. I maintain the tradition to this day. One gereation to the next. Happy Festivas everbody lol


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