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Early Chinese restaurants


Dejah
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Maybe I'm too sensitive, but I wonder if we should be so adamantly critical about the kind of Chinese food served in the 60s, 70s and even today. We can rave about how wonderfully authentic a certain cuisine is today, but we shouldn't bash what it was in the past. Everything evolves.

It's wonderful that there are so many varieties of "authentic" Chinese cuisine, any cuisine, available to of us now. But, try to keep in mind, that the early dishes were based on available ingredients. The chop suey with the brown globby sauce, regardless how distasteful it may seen to some of us now, introduced a whole new way of cooking - stir-frying- to the masses. The use of brown globby sauces was to "break the foreigners" in gently, using sauces and textures most people were familiar with (at least on the prairies).

I grew up in this kind of restaurant. The day my parents decided to serve chop suey in our otherwise Canadian food restaurant was a real eye opener for the residents. They recognized most of the vegetables other than bean sprouts. They were enthralled with the "wok" and method of cooking. My Dad kept the kitchen doors opened so people could watch. When we first served chop suey, it was on a bun! THIS was our Saturday night special. :rolleyes:

We gradually introduced new items - egg rolls, chow mein, sweet and sour ribs. There are still people reluctant to try more authentic dishes, but they see these as dishes with familiar ingredients. These dishes can be delicious if cooked properly. That can be said for any cuisine. Many still serve the heavy brown sauces, but the people who order them are people who prefer that style. I find many menus still offer both authenic and bastardized Chinese food. Why? Because some people still prefer familiarity, and this helps many small town restaurant stay in business!

My Mom, from the time she was 16, cooked food for her husband's family in China, and later, for about 30 years, cooked and served a lot of chop suey, egg foo young with the brown gravy, etc in a rural community and then in the city. Today, she still enjoys a meal with chop suey - made with cabbage, celery, onions, mushrooms and bean sprouts - just the way it used to be in the 60s.

Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

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Oh, I loves me some "Westernized" Chinese food. It's a taste I grew up with from childhood. I think I may have posted about this story before somewhere on eGullet, but my very earliest childhood memory--dating from age 2 or maybe even earlier--is of being taken to an old-school Chinese restaurant near my suburban New York hometown.

Hey, when any dish is done well, it's good eating as far as I'm concerned. Westernized Chinese food is still one of my favorite forms of comfort dining. Though, like a lot of my childhood food nostalgia hits, my bod doesn't always cope with the stuff as well as it used to--just the other day, a dinner of takeout soft-noodle chicken chow mein went down really easy, but the sodium content made me retain water like a sponge for the next three days. :smile:

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For me, it's always been more an issue of accuracy than anything else. Whether someone likes what is being served to them in a restaurant has never been my concern. Even here at EG, I feel that many people don't really understand what Chinese food is because they never get to see what is actually served in Chinese homes as opposed to what they see in local restaurants. Hence I feel it is misleading to lump them all into the catchall phrase "Chinese food," which is the typical way of doing things.

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Dejah, I wholeheartedly agree with the "everything evolves" premise, but after stating that you slip right back into the false dichotomy of "authentic" and "inauthentic."

Everything does evolve. There were no capsicum peppers in China before that product migrated back from the New World. That doesn't make Sichuan cuisine inauthentic. It never did. It just means that as different ingredients become available, as tastes change, as circumstances warrant, cuisines change -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

Between America and Canada there are more than 5 million people of Chinese ancestry living in North America. Chinese cuisine is one of the most popular here: there are 3 Chinese restaurants for every McDonald's. When you have 5 million people of a given ethnicity cooking at 40,000+ restaurants, the issue of authenticity is a red herring: you're talking about a fully formed overseas extension of the parent culture.

The problem with most chop suey is not that it's inauthentic. It's an entirely legitimate adaptation of Chinese technique to available ingredients and local market demand. Rather, the problem with most chop suey is that it's badly made. That's the problem with most Chinese-North American cuisine: it isn't made well, and the ingredients are poor.

But in the hands of a skilled cook, those same dishes can be wonderful. The same is true of most every hyphenated cuisine: Italian-American, Tex-Mex, you name it. The best examples of those cuisines are actually quite superb. It's the poor-quality versions that trickle down to undiscriminating customers that give hyphenated cuisines a bad name.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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I wouldn't quite put "Chinese-American" cuisine, at least the way it is served in most restaurants in North America, into the same category as Tex-Mex or Italian-American because the latter two were actually invented and consumed within immigrant households. On the other hand, "Chinese-American" food is a more artificial creation of Chinese restauranteurs devising recipes by trial and error to produce dishes palatable to their mostly non-Chinese clientele.

Now, if we want to talk about actual Chinese-American food, which is based on combining traditional Chinese cooking techniques with local ingredients, then that is something different altogether.

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The Italian-American rendition of pizza doesn't come from the home. It's a restaurant product. It would have been unusual to see pizza made in an Italian-American immigrant home. There are plenty of other examples like that: Italian beef sandwich, muffuletta, etc. Italian-American restaurant menus include a mix of dishes made in immigrant homes and dishes that restaurants developed for success in the marketplace. I don't know as much about Tex-Mex cuisine, but my limited understanding is that it has very much been adapted to appeal to American (Texan) palates. Otherwise, why would there be a different Tex-Mex cuisine when Texas borders Mexico, you have a zillion Mexicans living and working in Texas, and you can get all the same ingredients?

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I don't think pizza is a particularly good example, because nowadays it's become a purely American food. As for Tex-Mex, considering that the Southwest US used to actually be part of Mexico, you definitely could argue that it was just a type of regional Mexican cuisine.

But it's really different with Chinese American food served in restaurants. In many cases it is very far removed from what Chinese themselves consider Chinese food. And it's not due to a scarcity of ingredients because many have separate menus for their Chinese patrons that do contain more typically Chinese dishes. In fact, when I look at photos taken by some other EG members from around the world, some of their home cooked dishes prepared halfway around the world more closely resemble what I cook in my own Chinese American household here in Indiana than what is served in the Chinese restaurant down the street.

Edited by sheetz (log)
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But my understanding is that one reason Tex-Mex cuisine is the way it is is that many dishes have been adapted to appeal to American palates, not because Texas is a region of Mexico. And pizza is the most popular Italian-American dish in existence; the fact that it has become American simply demonstrates how effectively is has penetrated the mainstream. (Incidentally, the National Restaurant Association's studies indicate that Americans consider Mexican and Chinese food to be part of mainstream American cuisine too, just as the British now consider curry to be a traditional British food.)

I don't think it's possible to substantiate the blanket claim that Italian-American and Tex-Mex cuisines are real immigrant cuisines while Chinese-American cuisine isn't. Maybe it's possible to argue that Chinese-American cuisine is more heavily adapted to consumer preferences than Italian-American or Tex-Mex, but I'm not even sure about that. I also know Chinese-American and other Asian-American families who cook entirely recognizable versions of Chinese-American restaurant food at home: "barbecued" spare ribs, fried rice, cold noodles with sesame sauce, etc. And I know a couple of formally trained Chinese chefs who take Chinese-American cuisine very seriously and cook it at a high level.

More importantly, so what if a cuisine is adapted to please local palates? It's still either good or not good. Well-made Chinese-American food is delicious, as is well-made American pizza. The question of authenticity is a red herring that distracts from real discussion of quality.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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More importantly, so what if a cuisine is adapted to please local palates? It's still either good or not good. Well-made Chinese-American food is delicious, as is well-made American pizza. The question of authenticity is a red herring that distracts from real discussion of quality.

If you look back at my earlier posts, my concern has never been about authenticity. It's been about clarity. My contention is that Chinese and Chinese American cuisines should be considered separate cuisines, much the way that Mexican and Tex-Mex are considered different styles of cuisine.

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Now, if we want to talk about actual Chinese-American food, which is based on combining traditional Chinese cooking techniques with local ingredients, then that is something different altogether.

If that was the case, then I prefer 'Chinese-Australian' cuisine because the local ingredients here are much more fresh and likely to be free of overloaded chemicals and whatnot compared to China. Also, because of all the health freak-ness in this country, the amount of fats and oils are much more suited to my palate. So long as the cooking techniques are the same, I prefer the so called 'Westernised' version of my Chinese food.

However, if you're talking about the Western-FLAVOURED Chinese cuisine (which is the point of the original post) then hell yeah, I prefer authentic Chinese.

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More importantly, so what if a cuisine is adapted to please local palates? It's still either good or not good. Well-made Chinese-American food is delicious, as is well-made American pizza. The question of authenticity is a red herring that distracts from real discussion of quality.

If you look back at my earlier posts, my concern has never been about authenticity. It's been about clarity. My contention is that Chinese and Chinese American cuisines should be considered separate cuisines, much the way that Mexican and Tex-Mex are considered different styles of cuisine.

I don't think one should draw a line and put Chinese cuisine on one side of the line and Chinese-American cuisine on the other side. I think it's more a question of there being many types of Chinese cuisine: Shanghai, Sichuan, Hunan, Bombay Chinese, Chinese-American, etc.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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More importantly, so what if a cuisine is adapted to please local palates? It's still either good or not good. Well-made Chinese-American food is delicious, as is well-made American pizza. The question of authenticity is a red herring that distracts from real discussion of quality.

Perhaps I shouldn't have used the term "authentic" even in quotation marks.

It's not about authenticity or quality that I was posting about. It was the fact that people grip about restaurant still serving chop suey as opposed to Sechuan, Hunan, Shanghai, etc. I just wanted to remind people that it was chop suey that introduced many people to Chinese food.

As Steven said, if it's well prepared, why not? There must still be enough demand for chop suey to warrant keeping it on the menu in many Chinese restaurants. It can still be a good dish, so don't bash it! :raz:

Grrrr...am I making myself any clearer? My brain is a bit rattled from a blues jam. :blink::rolleyes:

Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

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Referring back to the original poster, I have to also extend my thanks to the almost crazy attempts to entice Americans into the restaurant. My mother worked in downtown Los Angeles in the fifties and they would go to Chinatown and eat chop suey, etc and talk about being hungry an hour later. BUT it made me want to try something different and I started making my own version and eating it with the plastic souvenir chopsticks sold at a tourist place nearby (Ports O' Call). Then in the 70's there was a slightly more adventurous place nearby but we did not understand the concept of dish sharing and would each order a dish (way too much food). It has been a process, but when I remember those CANS of bean sprouts from LaChoy and now have the ability to get bright crisp white bean sprouts at many markets I applaud the early prompts.

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I don't think one should draw a line and put Chinese cuisine on one side of the line and Chinese-American cuisine on the other side. I think it's more a question of there being many types of Chinese cuisine: Shanghai, Sichuan, Hunan, Bombay Chinese, Chinese-American, etc.

Regardless, in the end it doesn't really matter as long as people are on the same wave length and understand what is being discussed. But i guess that's primarily because most people actually know very little about Chinese food in general. Hopefully that will change in the future.

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To go back to Dejah's words: <<<< We can rave about how wonderfully authentic a certain cuisine is today, but we shouldn't bash what it was in the past. Everything evolves.>>>>> I just want to add what happened to me when I first read her post.

As soon as I read the words "chop suey", I could immediately smell the scents from Boston's Chinatown when my family went there when I was a kid. Now that was waaaay before the 60s and 70s. I was born in the 30s, so this is in the 30s and 40s of my youth. The odor of bean sprouts and celery is strong in this 'aroma memory' and it happens every time a discussion on chop suey comes up. I can't remember just what we ate, but I'm sure it was a combo of chop suey, chow mein (canned noodle type), fu yong and egg drop soup. The visual memory is of slanted narrow sidewalks and garbage cans ( trash cans? refuse containers?) and the scent of those stir/fried vegetables over it all. It is a pleasant memory and I cherish it.

There are times when I've put my nose up at the thought of chop suey, especially as Chinese food became a big part of my life. I have to say tho, that chop suey began to gather respect as I read about all the various stories on its beginning -- both here and in Southern China. The fact that it was 'tossed together' to appeal to the American taste doesn't bother me. The fact that it was done by the Chinese themselves is what is important to me. It just shows the wonderful way a chef can adapt. I smiled when I read of a sign outside a restaurant in ?Singapore? that said "Authentic American Chop Suey served here"!! LOL! So, it might be quasi Chinese food, but Chinese it is.

If an Eastern and Western person opens the refrigerator door and finds chicken, onions, carrots, and celery there, you will probably find the Western making a chicken fricasee. But the Eastern will take those same ingredients and turn out a completely different tasting dish. East meets West ---- and that is what I think of when I think of chop suey. The slice and the method of cooking makes the difference -- as well as a little soy sauce!

I am not a novice when it comes to Chinese food. Those who know me know my involvement. My cabinets and refrigerator make people who don't know me gasp. My breakfast this morning was leftover Sichuan shredded potatoes and Hui Guo Rou made with pork belly. (thanks to Chengdu 1 -- a great NJ restaurant). I love the depth and differences in the regional foods and am always willing to try the new. But I will always have a warm feeling when it comes to chop suey.

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There can be no denigration of "chop suey" by Chinese people of a certain age. That was the "currency" that brought so many Chinese immigrants to these shores, re-united untold numbers of families and put countless bright Chinese kids through university. It is sad that the biggest naysayers and deniers about chop suey are of the ensuing generations who have, somehow, forgotten how they came to enjoy the good life that has been bestowed on them by some parents who slaved over a hot wok cooking chop suey 18 hours a day.

I am speaking of the older types of immigrants, say pre-1970, and mostly Toysaanese, not the latter day "johnny-come-latelys" who come from who knows where? :raz::laugh::rolleyes:

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There can be no denigration of "chop suey" by Chinese people of a certain age. That was the "currency" that brought so many Chinese immigrants to these shores, re-united untold numbers of families and put countless bright Chinese kids through university. It is sad that the biggest naysayers and deniers about chop suey are of the ensuing generations who have, somehow, forgotten how they came to enjoy the good life that has been bestowed on them by some parents who slaved over a hot wok cooking chop suey 18 hours a day.

Well said, Xiao Ben. Your words place chop suey at the top of the "To be respected" list.

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There can be no denigration of "chop suey" by Chinese people of a certain age. That was the "currency" that brought so many Chinese immigrants to these shores, re-united untold numbers of families and put countless bright Chinese kids through university. It is sad that the biggest naysayers and deniers about chop suey are of the ensuing generations who have, somehow, forgotten how they came to enjoy the good life that has been bestowed on them by some parents who slaved over a hot wok cooking chop suey 18 hours a day.

Well said, Xiao Ben. Your words place chop suey at the top of the "To be respected" list.

Thanks, Jo-mel and Ben. I see it took people of my era to understand what I was trying to express in my original post.

Dejah

www.hillmanweb.com

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More importantly, so what if a cuisine is adapted to please local palates? It's still either good or not good. Well-made Chinese-American food is delicious, as is well-made American pizza. The question of authenticity is a red herring that distracts from real discussion of quality.

If you look back at my earlier posts, my concern has never been about authenticity. It's been about clarity. My contention is that Chinese and Chinese American cuisines should be considered separate cuisines, much the way that Mexican and Tex-Mex are considered different styles of cuisine.

I don't think one should draw a line and put Chinese cuisine on one side of the line and Chinese-American cuisine on the other side. I think it's more a question of there being many types of Chinese cuisine: Shanghai, Sichuan, Hunan, Bombay Chinese, Chinese-American, etc.

Isn't that a bit of a strange definition of a regional ethnic cuisine, something that was specifically developed to be eaten by people outwith the parent culture? Might have to think about this.

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specifically developed to be eaten by people outwith the parent culture?

You mean like the Mongols? Many cultures adopted their cuisines to Mongol/Moghul tastes. Today, we consider those cuisines (e.g., what's served in most of the world's Indian restaurants) to be "authentic" regional cuisines. In addition, cultures spread. Wherever they spread, they produce hybrids with what was there before -- that's true of just about everything, not just food. Take for example the Peranakan cuisine of Malaysia and Singapore. Chinese migrants settled in those areas, many of them intermarried, and a cuisine was born that adapted to Malay tastes and ingredients. Cuban-Chinese cuisine and a dozen other hyphenated -Chinese cuisines have developed all over the world. Most such cuisines, to the extent they developed in the modern era, were at least in part influenced by what would appeal to local restaurant customers. It seems to me it makes little difference whether you're adapting cuisine to please conquerors, subjects, intermarried spouses or local restaurant consumer demand. It's all part of culinary evolution.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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specifically developed to be eaten by people outwith the parent culture?

You mean like the Mongols? Many cultures adopted their cuisines to Mongol/Moghul tastes. Today, we consider those cuisines (e.g., what's served in most of the world's Indian restaurants) to be "authentic" regional cuisines. In addition, cultures spread. Wherever they spread, they produce hybrids with what was there before -- that's true of just about everything, not just food. Take for example the Peranakan cuisine of Malaysia and Singapore. Chinese migrants settled in those areas, many of them intermarried, and a cuisine was born that adapted to Malay tastes and ingredients. Cuban-Chinese cuisine and a dozen other hyphenated -Chinese cuisines have developed all over the world. Most such cuisines, to the extent they developed in the modern era, were at least in part influenced by what would appeal to local restaurant customers. It seems to me it makes little difference whether you're adapting cuisine to please conquerors, subjects, intermarried spouses or local restaurant consumer demand. It's all part of culinary evolution.

Mongols and Mughuls are not quite the same thing, but in any case the worlds Indian restuarants are not based on entirely on this regional Indian cuisine.

But to get back to Chinese-American cuisine. Rhetoric is fine but I don't think that speaking in such a vague way actually progresses the discussion. Just because there are numerous places where Chinese settled over hundreds of years, doesn't mean that they can all be compared meaningfully in terms of cuisine development.

Dejah introduced the topic to discuss Early Chinese restaurants, which I not sure is the same thing at all as "Chinese-American cuisine". In fact Dejah talks about the families early Chinese Restaurant in Canada, not "America". I guess you could define "American" as "North America", not just the USA but I wonder if that is what people would generally recognise as the definition of "Chinese-American"?

To my mind "Chinese-American cuisine" means either what Chinese-Americans eat, a distinctly recognisable cuisine not nessarily eaten by Chinese-Americans or a combination of the two.

What ever the case, I assume that "Chinese American Cuisine" is dynamic and as such the food is significantly different to what was served in the 50's-70's? I guess one difficulty now is defining what is "Chinese-American Cuisine" and how it differs, if at all to "Chinese food eaten in America".

The food eaten in early Chinese restaurants is obviously not dynamic, it is a fixed definition. I think that if you were to compare the food in early Chinese restaurants in the USA, Canada and Australia (A little bit of information on Chinese restaurants in Australia) then the food served probably has more similarities then differences. I think that these foods that develop when two different cultures interact are absolutely fancinating. I would be very in knowing when recognisable "Chinese-American" dishes developed and how the original dishes differ from what they have become now.

As an example I link to the Australian Dim Sim. What is really interesting about this item is how dynamic it is. By the 70's it was such a staple of mainstream Anglo-Australia fast-food that most people would not even have thought about it as a "Chinese" food and the largest producer of mainstream "Dim sims" was a Greek background business, "Marathon Food Industries".

Edited by Adam Balic (log)
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Adam, you seem to disagree with my "rhetoric," but aside from marginal details it's hard for me to discern what central aspect of it you think is wrong. Let me try to frame the question as precisely as I can, and also reply to a few of your assertions.

This particular tangent of the discussion started, I believe, in response to a distinction that was being drawn by a couple of people (yourself included). As I understand it, that distinction was between "a cuisine when adapted by and for the members of the parent culture" and "a cuisine when adapted by members of the parent culture in response to the tastes of an alien culture." I believe this is a distinction without a difference, at least insofar as questions of authenticity and legitimacy are concerned.

For most of history, cuisines did not evolve as purely intellectual exercises. They evolved in response to various forms of necessity: what crops were available, economic reality, etc. In other words, all factors other than what we might sit down and say, academically, would make food taste the best. My position is that necessity is necessity: that it doesn't matter if you adapted your cuisine because all the crops died and you needed to use another crop, or because you had to cook to satisfy invaders, or because you were so poor you had to innovate, or because you moved to some other country and found yourself with a whole new basket of ingredients, or because you opened a restaurant and the American, Canadian, British, Australian, etc., customers didn't like your food so you had to adapt. If you adapt by making cheeseburgers, then sure, that's not a form of the parent cuisine. But if you use the basic stylistic elements of the parent cuisine and apply them to new circumstances, that's culinary evolution plain and simple.

Again adaptation to necessity is basically the history of cuisine (with a few, mostly modern, exceptions). So somebody needs to explain to me why adaptation to ingredient availability is authentic while adaptation to local tastes is not.

In terms of some of your specific points:

While I understand that there's a distinction between Mongols and Moghuls, it is typical to refer to them the way I did -- in both the popular and academic literature. See, e.g., "Religious Communication in India," By John V. Vilanilam: "the Mongol (Moghul) adventurer, Babur, established a new dynasty . . ." More importantly, Babur was a descendant of both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan.

As for the provenance of Indian restaurant cuisine in the West, the historian Joel Denker, in the 2003 book "The World on a Plate," explains that the dominant Indian export cuisine (he quotes one source estimating the number at 95%) is the Bangladeshi interpretation of North Indian Moghul-derived cuisine. He talks about both the UK and the US, narrating how US Indian cuisine derives from the UK version ("As English immigration laws grew more restrictive, Bangladeshis set their sights on America . . . The inexpensive Indian restaurant in New York City would soon resemble its London relative."). Denker describes the cuisine served at these restaurants (again, the overwhelming majority of Indian restaurants in the US and UK, and probably Canada and the rest of the West too) as:

Indian cooking in America bears the distinctive imprint of the Islamic conquerors of North India. It was the royal cuisine that the Moghuls, the most important of these colonizers, brought from their Central Asian homeland. . . . The culinary style became the standard that the regions cooks and restaurateurs strove to emulate. When Indian cooking was exported to America, it was this grand Muslim tradition that held sway in North Indian restaurant dining rooms."

I think Chinese-American cuisine, with respect to Canada as a separate nation, nonetheless covers the US and Canada. I'm not aware of major differences between Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian cuisines (which I've also seen referred to as Can/Chinese), either in the in-home or restaurant-adapted forms. If you list out the 20 or so most popular dishes, the lists mostly overlap for China and the US, with just a couple of items that seem to have emerged in Canada but not the US. Whereas, I don't think one could say the same overlap exists for all hyphenated Chinese cuisines (Cuban-Chinese, Bombay-Chinese, etc.). Even the adapted Chinese cuisine in the UK is rather different from Chinese-American cuisine.

There was an article in the New York Times a couple of years ago (21 September 2005) by Julia Moskin titled "Craving Hyphenated Chinese." It mentions Chinese-Venezuelan, Chinese-Norwegian, Chinese-Mexican, Chinese-Malagasy (from Madagascar), Chinese-West Indian and Chinese-Cuban cuisines. Moskin sets up the argument thus:

The roots of these hybrid Chinese cuisines around the world are the same as those of Chinese food in America. Millions of Chinese men, most of them from the province Guangdong (formerly known in English as Canton), left China in the late 19th and early 20th century. Only men were allowed to leave the country, often by becoming indentured workers to companies in need of cheap labor in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and South America.

Professional cooks were usually not among the emigrants, so the earliest Chinese restaurants outside China were started by men with little knowledge of cooking and a desperate need to improvise with local ingredients. The dishes they came up with, like chop suey, have long since been dismissed as "not Chinese" by scholars of the culture.

She then goes on to poke some holes in that dismissiveness. She quotes documentary filmmaker Cheuk Kwan as saying that "The term Chinese food represents an area four times larger than Western Europe and the eating habits of more than a billion people . . . . You could say that there is really no such thing as Chinese food." Another of her sources, a professor of anthropology named Eugene Anderson (who has written a book on the subject) says that in general "Chinese food is defined by a flavor principle of soy sauce, ginger, garlic and green onions" and methods including stir-frying and steaming. Another points out that Chinese food is always in flux.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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This has evolved into a really fascinating discussion. Thank you to all the contributors so far for giving my brain something to chew on.

This particular tangent of the discussion started, I believe, in response to a distinction that was being drawn by a couple of people (yourself included). As I understand it, that distinction was between "a cuisine when adapted by and for the members of the parent culture" and "a cuisine when adapted by members of the parent culture in response to the tastes of an alien culture." I believe this is a distinction without a difference, at least insofar as questions of authenticity and legitimacy are concerned.

I can't agree more with this. While the cuisines resulting from those two different paths of culinary evolution may differ (maybe even significantly), they are both equally "authentic" and "legitimate".

I think Chinese-American cuisine, with respect to Canada as a separate nation, nonetheless covers the US and Canada. I'm not aware of major differences between Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian cuisines (which I've also seen referred to as Can/Chinese), either in the in-home or restaurant-adapted forms. If you list out the 20 or so most popular dishes, the lists mostly overlap for China and the US, with just a couple of items that seem to have emerged in Canada but not the US.

Without disputing anything further (or necessarily this quote), I will say that, after moving from Canada to the States, I found a number of American Chinese restaurant foods that I'd never heard of. I don't know whether this is because of where I moved from or where I moved to but, aside from some common types of dishes (e.g., chop suey, chow mein), there are a fair number of differences.

Off the top of my head: foil-wrapped chicken, General Whoever's Chicken, Orange Chicken, (can you tell I mostly eat chicken when I'm out? LOL), crystal shrimp (or whatever it's called). Things I can't get here that are readily available at any level of Chinese restaurant: twice-fried green beans, congee (hell, I can get that on BC Ferries!), breaded almond chicken, Singapore noodles, spicy squid (sometimes I can get that here as "salt and pepper" shrimp, with squid substituted).

Again, this is a fascinating topic and I thank all who have participated.

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Jensen, I'm not 100% sure of which dishes you're saying you can't get in which country, but just to pick two examples: 1- congee is not a hyphenated dish; it's part of traditional Chinese cuisine, and 2- Singapore noodles are neither Can/Chinese nor Chinese-American; they're from Hong Kong by way of Southeast Asia, brought over by Chinese and Malaysian restaurateurs -- they're now widely available in the US, but they're also a recent innovation not particularly related to early Chinese-American (and -Canadian) cuisine (I hesitate to say Chinese-North-American because Mexico is a whole 'nother thing).

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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FG - The point that I was making was that is that I don't think that Chinese-American cuisine can be considered a part of the main regional Chinese cuisines, such as Shanghai, Sichuan, Hunan etc. It isn't a question of authenticity and legitimacy, it is more a question of classification.

My thoughts are this:

1) There are a number of distinct cuisines present in China.

2) There is a huge Chinese diaspora, which have resulted in:

- the developement of distinctive new cuisines

-changes in the development of non-Chinese cuisines

-changes in the parent Chinese cuisines.

For me I guess the central question is "How distinctive is American-Chinese cuisine, and what is it?".

I have not doubt that there is a legitimate and authentic "Chinese American" cuisine, but how distinctive is it? There seems to be some minor differences between Canada and the USA, but essentially you mention that they are the same. Is it distictively different from Australian-Chinese food? Or Anglo-Chinese food? Should American-Chinese, Australian-Chinese, Anglo-Chinese be considered to be same cuisine group in that they are distinct from Chinese-Venezuelan, Chinese-Norwegian, Chinese-Mexican, Chinese-Malagasy etc? Is American-Chinese (et al.) actually distinctive or is is a variation on Guandong cuisine or even Toi Shan cuisine?

Until I can see how "Chinese-American" cuisine is actually defined in this way, I can't see how it can be grouped as part of the with main regional Chinese cuisines. It is too much of an unknown for me.

n.b. Chop Suey: As far as I know we don't have chop suey as a common item in Australian Chinese food, but I note that in my 1948 edition of the "YMCA International Cookery Book of Malaya", a recipe is given in the Chinese section. I wonder if this came to Malaysia via the USA or through another route.

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