American Chinese cuisine

American Chinese cuisine is a style of Chinese cuisine developed by Americans of Chinese descent. The dishes served in many North American Chinese restaurants are adapted to American tastes and differ significantly from those found in China. Of the various regional cuisines in China, Cantonese cuisine has been the most influential in the development of American Chinese food, especially that of Toisan, the origin of most early immigrants.[1][2]


Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States to work as miners and railroad workers. As the large groups of Chinese immigrants arrived, laws were put in place preventing them from owning land. They mostly lived together in ghettos, individually referred to as a Chinatown. Here the immigrants started their own small businesses, including restaurants and laundry services.[3] By the 19th century, the Chinese community in San Francisco operated sophisticated and sometimes luxurious restaurants patronised mainly by Chinese. The restaurants in smaller towns (mostly owned by Chinese immigrants) served food based on what their customers requested, anything ranging from pork chop sandwiches and apple pie, to beans and eggs. Many of these small-town restaurant owners were self-taught family cooks who improvised on different cooking methods and ingredients.[3] These smaller restaurants were responsible for developing American Chinese cuisine, where the food was modified to suit a more American palate. First catering to miners and railroad workers, they established new eateries in towns where Chinese food was completely unknown, adapting local ingredients and catering to their customers' tastes.[4] Even though the new flavors and dishes meant they were not strictly Chinese cuisine, these Chinese restaurants have been cultural ambassadors to Americans.[5]

Along the way, cooks adapted southern Chinese dishes such as chop suey and developed a style of Chinese food not found in China. Restaurants (along with Chinese laundries) provided an ethnic niche for small businesses at a time when the Chinese people were excluded from most jobs in the wage economy by ethnic discrimination or lack of language fluency.[6] By the 1920s, this cuisine, particularly chop suey, became popular among middle-class Americans, however after World War II, it began to be dismissed for not being "authentic." Late 20th century tastes have been more accommodating. [7] Take away food became popular amongst Americans, Chinese food becoming a favourite "take out" option. By this time it became evident that Chinese restaurants no longer catered mainly for Chinese customers.[8]

With the continuing success of American Chinese cuisine, including its portrayal to mainland Chinese audiences through the medium of American television sitcoms, American Chinese restaurants have opened in China itself. Products and ingredients needed to recreate these adapted dishes are imported into China. They include "Philadelphia cream cheese, Skippy peanut butter, cornflakes and English mustard powder".[9]

In 2011, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History displayed some of the historical background and cultural artefacts of American Chinese cuisine in its exhibit entitled, Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States.[10]

Differences from mainland Chinese cuisines

American Chinese food builds from styles and food habits brought from from the southern province of Guangdong, typically the Toisan district of Toisan, the origin of most Chinese immigration before the closure of legal immigration in 1924. These Chinese families developed new styles and used readily available ingredients, especially in California. The types of Chinese American cooking served in restaurants was different from the foods eaten in Chinese American homes. [11][7]

Among the common differences is to treat vegetables as a side dish or garnish, while traditional cuisines of China emphasize vegetables. This can be seen in the use of carrots and tomatoes. Cuisine in China makes frequent use of Asian leaf vegetables like bok choy and kai-lan and puts a greater emphasis on fresh meat and seafood.[12]

A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United States

Stir frying, pan frying, and deep frying tend to be the most common Chinese cooking techniques used in American Chinese cuisine, which are all easily done using a wok (a Chinese frying pan with bowl-like features). The food also has a reputation for high levels of MSG to enhance the flavor. Market forces and customer demand have encouraged many restaurants to offer "MSG Free" or "No MSG" menus, or to omit this ingredient on request.[12]

Carryout Chinese food is commonly served in a paper carton with a wire bail.

American Chinese cuisine takes advantage of ingredients not native to and very rarely used in China. One such example is the common use of western broccoli (Chinese: 西蘭; pinyin: xīlán) instead of Chinese broccoli (Kai-lan, Chinese: 芥蘭; pinyin: gàilán) in American Chinese cuisine. Occasionally, western broccoli is also referred to as sai lan fa in Cantonese (Chinese: 西蘭花; pinyin: xīlánhuā) in order not to confuse the two styles of broccoli. Among Chinese speakers, however, it is typically understood that one is referring to the leafy vegetable unless otherwise specified.

This is also the case with the words for carrot (luo buo or lo bac, or hong luo buo, hong meaning "red") and onion (cong). Lo bac, in Cantonese, refers to the daikon, a large, pungent white radish. The orange western carrot is known in some areas of China as "foreign Daikon" (or more properly hung lo bac in Cantonese, hung meaning "red"). When the word for onion, cong, is used, it is understood that one is referring to "green onions" (otherwise known to English-speakers as "scallions" or "spring onions"). The larger many-layered onion bulb common in the United States is called yang cong. This translates as "western onion". These names make it evident that the American broccoli, carrot, and onion are not indigenous to China, and therefore are less common in the traditional cuisines of China.

Egg fried rice in American Chinese cuisine is also prepared differently, with more soy sauce added for more flavor whereas the traditional egg fried rice uses less soy sauce. Some food styles such as Dim sum were also modified to fit American palates, such as added batter for fried dishes and extra soy sauce.[12]

Salads containing raw or uncooked ingredients are rare in traditional Chinese cuisine, as are Japanese style sushi or sashimi. However, an increasing number of American Chinese restaurants, including some upscale establishments, have started to offer these items in response to customer demand.

Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts and host of PBS culinary show Simply Ming, said that American Chinese restaurants typically try to have food representing 3-5 regions of China at one time, have chop suey, or have "fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce", "eight different sweet and sour dishes", or "a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes". Tsai said "Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food. It’s adapted... to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public".[13]

Most American Chinese establishments cater to non-Chinese customers with menus written in English or containing pictures. If separate Chinese-language menus are available, they typically feature items such as liver, chicken feet, or other meat dishes that might deter American customers. In Chinatown, New York, the restaurants were known for having a "phantom" menu with food preferred by ethnic Chinese, but believed to be disliked by non-Chinese Americans.[14]


American Chinese restaurant menu items

Chop suey, made with garlic chicken and peapods, on fried rice

Dishes that often appear on American Chinese restaurant menus include:

An unopened fortune cookie
Wonton strips are commonly served complimentary along with duck sauce and hot mustard

Regional American Chinese dishes

North American versions found in China

Egg foo young
Beef with broccoli

Regional variations

San Francisco

Since the early 1990s, many American Chinese restaurants influenced by California cuisine have opened in San Francisco and the Bay Area. The trademark dishes of American Chinese cuisine remain on the menu, but there is more emphasis on fresh vegetables, and the selection is vegetarian-friendly.

This new cuisine has exotic ingredients like mangos and portobello mushrooms. Brown rice is often offered as an optional alternative to white rice. Some restaurants substitute grilled wheat flour tortillas for the rice pancakes in mu shu dishes. This occurs even in some restaurants that would not otherwise be identified as California Chinese, both the more Westernized places and the more authentic places. There is a Mexican bakery that sells some restaurants thinner tortillas made for use with mu shu. Mu shu purists do not always react positively to this trend.[26]

In addition, many restaurants serving more native-style Chinese cuisines exist, due to the high numbers and proportion of ethnic Chinese in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Restaurants specializing in Cantonese, Sichuanese, Hunanese, Northern Chinese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong traditions are widely available, as are more specialized restaurants such as seafood restaurants, Hong Kong-style diners and cafes, also known as Cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; chácāntīng), dim sum teahouses, and hot pot restaurants. Many Chinatown areas also feature Chinese bakeries, boba milk tea shops, roasted meat, vegetarian cuisine, and specialized dessert shops. Chop suey is not widely available in San Francisco, and the city's chow mein is different from Midwestern chow mein.

Authentic restaurants with Chinese-language menus may offer "yellow-hair chicken" (Chinese: 黃毛雞; pinyin: huángmáo jī; Cantonese Yale: wòhng mouh gāai; literally: "yellow-feather chicken"), essentially a free-range chicken, as opposed to typical American mass-farmed chicken. Yellow-hair chicken is valued for its flavor, but needs to be cooked properly to be tender due to its lower fat and higher muscle content. This dish usually does not appear on the English-language menu.

Dau Miu (豆苗; dòumiáo) is a Chinese vegetable that has become popular since the early 1990s, and now not only appears on English-language menus, usually as "pea shoots", but is often served by upscale non-Asian restaurants as well. Originally it was only available during a few months of the year, but it is now grown in greenhouses and is available year-round.


Hawaiian-Chinese food developed a bit differently from the continental United States. Owing to the diversity of ethnicities in Hawaii and the history of the Chinese influence in Hawaii, resident Chinese cuisine forms a component of the cuisine of Hawaii, which is a fusion of different culinary traditions. Some Chinese dishes are typically served as part of plate lunches in Hawaii. The names of foods are different as well, such as Manapua, from Hawaiian meaning "chewed up pork" for dim sum bao, though the meat is not necessarily pork.

Chinese restaurants and American Jews

The perception that American Jews eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day is documented in media as a common stereotype with a basis in fact.[27][28][29] The tradition may have arisen from the lack of other open restaurants on Christmas Day, as well as the close proximity of Jewish and Chinese immigrants to each other in New York City. It has been portrayed in film and television.

American Chinese chain restaurants

See also


  1. Solomon, Charmaine (April 15, 2006). The Complete Asian Cookbook. p. 281. ISBN 9780804837576.
  2. Parkinson, Rhonda. "Regional Chinese Cuisine". Retrieved July 8, 2014.
  3. 1 2 Wu, David Y. H.; Cheung, Sidney C. H. (2002). The Globalization of Chinese Food. Great Britain: Curzon Press. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-8248-2582-9.
  4. Ch Six, "The Globalization of Chinese Food: The Early Stages," in J. A. G. Roberts. China to Chinatown: Chinese Food in the West (London: Reaktion, 2002) ISBN 1-86189-133-4.
  5. Liu, Yinghua; Jang, SooCheong (Shawn) (2009-09-01). "Perceptions of Chinese restaurants in the U.S.: What affects customer satisfaction and behavioral intentions?". International Journal of Hospitality Management. 28 (3): 338–348. doi:10.1016/j.ijhm.2008.10.008.
  6. Andrew Coe Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  7. 1 2 Hayford (2011), p. 11-12.
  8. "China to Chinatown". University of Chicago Press. Retrieved 2015-12-10.
  9. News, Celia Hatton BBC. "Why Shanghai's first American Chinese restaurant is taking off". BBC News. Retrieved 2016-01-08.
  10. "Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States". Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Retrieved March 20, 2013.
  11. Hom (1997).
  12. 1 2 3 Andrew F. Smith (2007). The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press. pp. 119–122. ISBN 9780199885763. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
  13. "Chef Ming Tsai wants you to have a Chinese friend." CNN. January 19, 2011. Retrieved on January 19, 2011.
  14. Anthony Bourdain Plays It Safe at Hop Kee, Shuns ‘Phantom Menu’ - Grub Street New York
  15. Jung (2010), p. 197 etc..
  16. "Solving a Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside a Cookie". The New York Times. January 16, 2008.
  17. Fried Wonton,
  18. Fried Wontons Recipe,
  19. Fried Wontons Recipe,
  20. Fried Wontons (Zhá Yúntūn),
  21. Chinese New Year: Fried Wontons,
  22. Fried Wontons Recipe,
  23. History and Culture: Chinese Food : New University
  24. Beef and Broccoli | Can You Stay For Dinner?
  25. The Best Easy Beef And Broccoli Stir-Fry Recipe - - 99476
  26. "Mu Shu Tortilla Flats: Chinese restaurant needs better mu shu wraps". AsianWeek. February 27, 2004. Archived from the original on October 7, 2007. Everything was well and good with one huge exception: The mu shu wrappers were flour tortillas!
  27. Why Do American Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas? — The Atlantic
  28. 'Tis the season: Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas? - Jewish World Features - Israel News | Haaretz
  29. Movies and Chinese Food: The Jewish Christmas Tradition | Isaac Zablocki

References and further reading



External links

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