I could spend an awful lot of time blogging on the subject of Chinese food. Since the heyday of chop suey in America, successive waves of immigrants have introduced myriad variations on the theme: Mandarin food, Szechwan food, and so on and so on. Nearly all of it has been adopted and assimilated to a greater or lesser extent, carrying on the grand tradition of the great American melting pot (in its edible form).

Today virtually everyone in America eats Chinese food at least occasionally. As of last year there were over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the States. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of them serve what one might call a “classic” American-Chinese menu…egg rolls, wontons, General Tsao’s Chicken, you know the drill. You might have trouble turning up a chow mein or chop suey nowadays, but the go-to repertoire of dishes that Americans have put their stamp of approval on is everywhere. Indeed it’s estimated that a mere 20% of Chinese restaurants in America serve dishes that are considered in the least “authentic” (whatever that means).

This is as it should be. As Stanley Tucci’s character Segundo observed in the classic foodie film, The Big Night, restaurants aren’t schools, they’re businesses. As such they must and do sell the foods their customers want to eat. So in that sense nothing’s really changed since the first Chinese restauranteurs started serving up hash on the muddy streets of proto-San Francisco. And I love that.

I also love the fact that even now, some 150 years later, the whitey-menu/Chinese-menu food delivery system still holds. Head out to your average Chinese-owned sit-down restaurant and you’ll probably notice a stack of menus on the counter printed in Chinese, for folks who want something that tastes a little more like home. It’s that way at our favorite family Chinese restaurant here in Kentucky where, should one decide that lemon chicken is just a little too safe tonight, the kitchen staff will be only too happy to show a lo fan what a . And oh my brothers and sisters, do they ever.

8 thoughts on “Wrap-Up”

  1. Strangely enough Chinese food in Sweden is nothing like I have had in the States. Chinese food here is disappointing to me. :/ Now I’ve had some authentic Thai home cooking and man that is good stuff.

    1. When in Rome, as they say. Sounds good to me! But I’d be curious as to what the Chinese immigrant experience was in Scandinavia. That’d a whole new series of posts…

      – Joe

      1. Well I know for one thing, when I have a job and can afford to try different places on my own, I’m going to try all I can at least once, there has got to be better food 😛 But my love is allergic to peanuts and is not a fan of chinese food so…

        1. Oh well, girls’ night out can be Chinese food night, right? No sweat. 😉

          – Joe

  2. I loved this series of posts too! I worked part of my way through college on the line at a Chinese takeout joint. The history is really fascinating!

    One of the things Chinese restaurants do that I think is worth checking out at home is meat prep. A lot of time we’ll use cheap, cheap cuts of beef and deal with the toughness through “velvetting”. That is, a marinade with egg white, corn starch, flavoring (soy sauce, ginger, garlic, rice wine, etc) and, most importantly, baking soda! A very small amount of baking soda, maybe 2 tsp per pound of beef, is used but it really softens tough cuts of meat and gives it a distinctive texture.

    The baking soda was usually omitted for chicken but used with the big cuts of pork that we’d shave down.

    I’d be interested in knowing the chemistry behind this if you ever get bored, Joe 🙂 Or maybe I’ll look into it myself…

    1. Hey Erin!

      Meat preparation in Chinese cuisine is a fascinating topic. As I mentioned very briefly last week, Chinese cooks (and diners) were appalled when they first saw how Westerners treated meat. They ate it in big, disgusting hunks for starters. Worse, they liked it aged…nearly spoiled…then cooked it rare. What’s with these people? Of course the Eastern and Western approaches to meat cookery were just different approaches to the same end: tender, flavorful meat.

      In the West we carefully select our steers for age and body fat (marbled meat is both more tender and more flavorful), then we hang the carcass for an extended period (up to a month) both to concentrate flavor through evaporation and give tenderizing natural enzymes time to work. Then we cook it only to the pink stage to ensure the protein doesn’t turn to rubber. If all goes well the result is a $90 t-bone at Ruth’s Chris.

      Classically the Chinese took a different approach. Steer age, breed and marbling were not as critical for them since most of the manipulation of the protein happened after slaughter. They didn’t age their meat either. Rather, to create tenderness, they sliced it extremely thin and against the grain so the meat fibers were short and chewable. The small pieces were them marinated and cooked quickly all the way through…there are no pink middles in Chinese cooking. If all went well, the result was, as you say: “velvet.”

      But to your question about tenderizers. The whole function of a tenderizer is to break down the tough connective tissues in beef (or pork). Chicken has very little connective tissue so it is already very tender…applying a chemical tenderizer just turns the meat to mush. But a variety of common kitchen compounds will tenderize: salt, fruit juice, vinegar, alcohol, and baking soda. All of them go to work on protein molecules in their own way, breaking down the meat fibers, but more importantly the tough, rope-like collagens that are such a big part of connective tissue. Fruit juices and vinegars are acids, baking soda is an alkaline, not so much so that it’s a “caustic” of course, but enough that will dissolve the bonds that hold some proteins together.

      The reason Chinese rubs and marinades work so well is because the meat is usually sliced so thin. American barbecue buffs bemoan the fact that marinades only penetrate a quarter of an inch into a slab of brisket. However if your slice of meat is only half an inch thick, you get complete saturation and that lovely velvet-y texture.

      This was fun, Erin, thanks for the great question!

      – Joe

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *