Usually, the Chinese food that people eat in America bears little resemblance to the real thing. That 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 a unique palate. When planning a trip to China, it’s useful to study the area 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 in 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 entirely different vegetables than that 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, which explains the taste uniformity of many Chinese dishes across the US.
People who are interested in a more authentic Chinese dining experience should consider switching the following meals:
• 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 essential Chinese 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. 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, prepare for cooking by adding a half-ounce of salt to every 20 ounces of water to keep the noodles from clumping. Place dry noodles in the pan as soon as the water starts boiling and cover 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.