American-Chinese food is real Chinese food (Opinion)

CNN  — 

Is American-Chinese food “real” Chinese food?

That’s a topic CNN staff and readers have debated – with a lot of heat – in the past.

As American-Chinese restaurant Fortune Cookie closes shop in Shanghai this week, after successfully selling U.S.-style Chinese food to locals since opening in 2013 (despite a good run its American owners have said they want to return to the United States), we’ve decided to revisit journalist Clarissa Wei’s previously published impassioned defense of orange chicken and all-American Chinese food.

Yes, I’m actually going to defend orange chicken.

Fundamentally fried chicken with sauce – the perfect late-night snack – orange chicken is beloved by millions of people of all ethnic groups (including many Chinese) in the United States.

As with most American-Chinese food, however, there’s a stigma attached to orange chicken.

Chinese food snobs call the dish, as well as the restaurants that serve it, “fake” or “not authentic.”

Superior foodies love nothing more than bashing the chefs and restaurant owners for their alleged perversion of the sacred culinary genre – as if only they know what real Chinese food is, as if someone died and made them arbiter of all Chinese cuisine.

How sad.

Orange chicken, egg foo young and General Tso’s chicken have fallen victim to a lot of hatemongers since their introduction to the U.S. culinary scene back in the 19th century.

Those who unapologetically enjoy orange chicken – and many other American-Chinese dishes – and who actually know a little bit about the history of Chinese people outside of China are left to ponder a simple question: What is authenticity?

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There’s nothing inauthentic about American-Chinese dishes. The bulk of them were created by Chinese people for Chinese people.

These Chinese people just happened to be living outside of the mother country.

According to the “Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America,” during the 1840s Gold Rush in California, early Chinese immigrants (most were railroad builders) had no or extremely limited access to traditional Chinese ingredients.

So they used what they could find in their new homes to create then-contemporary Chinese dishes, such as the now much-derided chop suey, one of the first Chinese dishes invented in the United States.

And who was eating this “fake” Chinese food?

It sure wasn’t white Americans, who at the time, with few exceptions, wanted almost nothing to do with the social and culinary customs of Chinese immigrants. Chop suey and many of the other American-Chinese basics that we know today weren’t created to satisfy the supposedly inferior palates of white Americans.

They were made to satisfy the cravings of “real” Chinese people. When railroad work was no longer available, many Chinese laborers resorted to opening restaurants.

But it wasn’t until after World War II in 1945 that mainstream Americans began eating and appreciating Chinese food in large numbers.

By that time, the extensive American-Chinese menu was well established. Some 165 years on from the Gold Rush, not much has changed.

Chinese restaurant owners and chefs are still primarily Chinese. Many come to the United States from China, and almost always for economic reasons.

No matter how they end up in the States, however, food is the totem of their culture.

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Not real? Tell that to a Chinese chef in New York

“American-Chinese food is Chinese food,” says Julie Lau, owner of Suzie’s on Bleecker Street in New York City. (The locally beloved Suzie’s has closed since this story originally appeared on CNN.)

“We take different flavors from Chinese cuisine, combine them and create an original flavor.”

Daughter of restaurant founder, Susie Ying, Lau was born in Taiwan and came to the United States at age 13.

Her family opened Suzie’s in 1973 and has been operating it ever since.

Lau says all of her chefs come from China.

General Tso is the most popular dish at Suzie’s, followed by orange chicken and kung pao chicken.

The saucier the dish, the more popular it is, Lau says.

American-Chinese dishes have evolutionarily similarities with Chinese staples.

“Kung pao chicken comes from gong bao ji ding in Sichuan,” says Alex Woo, a member of the Chinese American Food Society and managing director of boutique service firm W20 Food Innovation. “The version [in the United States] tends to be a lot less spicy and sweeter.”

“It’s just the American take on ethnic food.”

So why all the fuss? Why not consider American-Chinese food just another style of Chinese cooking?

Within China there are vast differences in cuisines, tastes and cooking styles.

Sichuan chefs use a lot of spice; people in western China prefer lamb over pork; northern Chinese go heavy on the dough; Shanghai cuisine uses plenty of sugar; you can barely get through a meal of any sort in Hong Kong without some seafood.

American-Chinese food just happens to be meaty, deep-fried and saucy.

American-Chinese food is made by Chinese people and more and more often these days is prepared with “authentic” Chinese ingredients, which are now easier to get abroad than they were in the 1800s.

Its fascinating history evokes the experiences, struggles and triumphs of people from Hong Kong, southern China, Taiwan and other parts of mainland China.

The chefs who prepare it for Americans aren’t any less gifted or dedicated to Chinese cuisine than those who stick strictly to traditional mainland styles of cooking.

In fact, it’s their historic ability to adapt and innovate that has made Chinese food hugely popular across the Pacific.

Woo sums it up best: “It’s just another type of cuisine. Why deny the people their food?”

Clarissa Wei is a freelance journalist in China.