Growing up in the San Gabriel Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, land of sprawling Chinese “ethnoburbs,” American Chinese food was probably more exotic to me than to your average American. I had never had General Tso’s chicken or moo goo gai pan, and the wontons I was used to weren’t doughy and certainly never deep-fried. American Chinese cuisine, developed for mainstream American consumers, simply isn’t available in the SGV, where restaurants compete fiercely to serve up “authentic” regional Chinese delicacies for a large, concentrated population of discerning Chinese American foodies.
I finally got a taste of this exotic American cuisine when I left for college in small-town Pennsylvania. The college dining hall served up insipid piles of mush, as institutional dining halls the world over are wont to do, so I was a regular patron of the town’s two Chinese restaurants. I kept take-out menus for both of these establishments in my desk and called them up whenever I felt like skipping out on the dining hall’s dizzying array of mystery meat and gray vegetable products. I was unusually fascinated by this type of cuisine, which I thought was so uniquely American in its emphasis on deep-frying and sugary sauces.
It turns out, however, that this cuisine really isn’t all that unique to the United States. Parallel localized Chinese cuisines exist in every region where Chinese people have settled; that is to say, pretty much everywhere. Wikipedia’s article on Canadian Chinese cuisine looks quite a bit like the one on American Chinese cuisine. When I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the local Chinese restaurants served up chop suey and orange chicken just like their American counterparts. At a Peruvian restaurant I frequented there, the Chinese influence was undeniable. The menu had fried rice and stir-fries, and if you were questioning the possible indigenous roots of this type of Peruvian cuisine, the dishes were seasoned with a sauce called sillao (see-YAO), which comes from the Cantonese word for soy sauce (豉油).
Upon the recommendation of Tseen Khoo at the Asian Australian Studies Research Network I tracked down a copy of Annette Shun Wah and Greg Aitkin’s Banquet, a narrative history of Chinese food in Australia. This book is out of print and apparently hard to come by, even in Australia, so I was very lucky to have access to a university library with free interlibrary loan services. The book is part illustrated oral history and part cookbook, with recipes for dishes like microwave sticky rice and Ding Khumb duck serving as small interruptions in a very readable and approachable narrative about the arrival and settlement of Australia’s first waves of Chinese immigrants. Being embarrassingly ignorant of Australian history, I was most intrigued by the encounters between Chinese Australian and white/British Australian food cultures. Chinese restaurants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries apparently served both Chinese dishes and British dishes, to accommodate less adventurous palates. The history of the Chiko Roll was particularly interesting; though it was inspired by Chinese egg rolls, Chiko Rolls (which seem to be similar in concept to convenience store microwave burritos in the US) are a white Australian invention.
Banquet reminded me of Jennifer 8. Lee‘s history of Chinese American food, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a similar mix of research and personal anecdotes, though owing to Lee’s background in print journalism it reads much more like a newspaper feature and less like Shun Wah and Aitkin’s free-flowing illustrated narrative. Her most memorable chapters include her investigation into the origins of the fortune cookie and her trip to General Tso’s hometown to see if anyone had heard of his eponymous chicken dish (they hadn’t).
Image credit: UsedTravelBooks.com.au.
Shun Wah, Annette and Greg Aitkin. 1999. Banquet: Ten Courses to Harmony. Sydney: Doubleday.
Lee, Jennifer 8. 2009. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve.