Chinese Restaurants

Posted on May 9, 2009

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I just finished up a book by Chinese-American author Jennifer Lee entitled “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”. In the book she attempted to find the roots of the success of Chinese cooking in the United States. There are more Chinese restaurants than McDonalds, and you can find one in nearly every town. It is always a joy to me to pull off the highway in the middle of nowhere and to see the familiar neon lights of the local Chinese restaurant.

I am passionate about Chinese food. It is my favorite food, especially since I started eating vegan a year and a half ago. Dairy is very uncommon in Chinese cuisine and tofu is a popular meat substitute. The disappointing things is that most Chinese restaurants have strikingly similar menus and mediocre food. I gave up Chinese buffets a couple years ago and I hesitate to go in most of the little shops along the highway. I wondered how is it that the food in these places is so different from the noodles and delicious meals I had in New York’s, Philadelphia’s, and San Francisco’s Chinatown. The short answer is because the local Chinese restaurants sell American Chinese food based on a common menu that has evolved towards what Americans like. This means lots of meat, fat, salt, sugar, and oil.

General Tso’s chicken is a great example of this. Jennifer Lee traveled to China to see if she could find General Tso’s chicken there, perhaps find the root dish. She was unsuccessful. The Chinese apparently are much more vegetable focused and do not favor thick sugar syrups on their meat. Besides the fact that meat is expensive and tends to be used as a spice, not the main ingredient.

There is a chapter on fortune cookies that highlights just how non-Chinese our “Chinese” food is. Fortune cookies are based on a cookie invented by a Japanese immigrant living in San Francisco. There is nothing even remotely Chinese about them. When they are sold in Asia, they are referred to as American Fortune Cookies.

Most American Chinese restaurants are owned by individual families. The father manages the kitchen while the mother keeps the front of the house in order. The kids fill in where they are needed. All work seven days a week and do not take vacations. There is a thriving market for Chinese restaurants in the recent immigrant community. Working a few years in a place like New York City provides the capital to purchase a restaurant in Georgia, Texas, or Ohio. The purchasers generally do not care where the restaurant is located as their view of the United States is limited to either New York or not New York. The goal of all this hard work is to give the kids a good education and perhaps a much better life, one not spent working sixteen hour days in front of a hot wok.

(pictures in this post come from the internet, not original)

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Posted in: Cooking, Quotes