Any run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant that caters to a North American crowd will have an impressively voluminous (yet, if you’ve seen enough of them, notably standard) menu. Tossing pleasantries aside, these unoriginal menus are messy, misleading and intimidating, if not anything else. North American “classics” like sweet and sour pork, assorted fried rice, chow mein, and chop suey, and wonton soup (the list goes on) are bound to find their way on to these easily replicable menus. All is good and authentic. NO.
While dishes such as these do bear semblance to Chinese cuisine and likely originate from that populous nation in the East, it is rather rash for us to crown these North Americanized renditions as quintessential Chinese fare. Let’s not kid ourselves. Surely we are culturally relativistic enough to know that China is a large country diverse in both regional cultures and topography. Therefore, it doesn’t take much logic to understand that Chinese cuisine is virtually an enormous jigsaw puzzle, comprised of many distinct, yet similar cooking cultures. In other words, the menu at these alleged authentic Chinese dining establishments would have to be a massive tome to accurately profile the myriad of culinary traditions in China. So,the first step in truly experiencing Chinese cuisine is, therefore, to relinquish the backwards notion that Chinese cuisine can be summarized easily under one umbrella cooking style, or worse, as a few North Americanized dishes. It’s as bad as assuming Indian cuisine revolves around curry, where curry is yellow and always spicy, or authentic Italian pizza is the shape of a circle, peppered with rounds of processed meat. I mean, let’s give ourselves a little more credit.
I will not go on, exploring Chinese cuisine, region by region, detailing the culinary idiosyncrasies of each. Not only would that be a hefty undertaking to write and read, but that is not my aim. There’s Wikipedia (which has a rather thorough discussion on Chinese cuisine as a whole) and a great many other sources out there that would prove much more informative than what I could provide here. I will, however, utilize an example to illustrate my point: General Tao (or Tso, Tzo, Tzao, Gao, Gu, To, So, Wing, Chang, Bong, Chin, Ping…whatever) chicken.
General Tao chicken is a popular “Chinese” dish all over Eastern Canada (and apparently the States, as well) – ask a Canadian from Vancouver about General Tao and not surprisingly, most of them will respond with a rather puzzled look. General Tao chicken is heavily battered chunks of nondescript chicken meat deep-fried and then drowned in a thick sweet and spicy orangey brown syrup-sauce. This mass is typically served over discoloured cabbage or lettuce that becomes soaked in this very same sauce, the eye-wincingly sugary lather suffocating what limited nutritional supplement those now soggy and orangey brown vegetables were to provide. The charm of this dish can be aptly characterized by the appetizing thickness of the batter, the degree of nondescript of the chicken, and the extreme acidity and sweetness of the frighteningly viscous sauce.
Obviously, taste is a very personal matter, but the irksome reality is how readily some people perceive this outstanding dish as perfectly Chinese. In all honesty, General Tao is hardly Chinese at all. While elements of it can be argued to be based on old Hunan recipes, what it has become today is almost purely a North American creation. A couple of Chinese restaurants in New York City claim they were the inventors, others are steadfast in asserting that General Tao is indeed from China, but whatever the claim or story a simple test can bring about much needed enlightenment: go to China and ask someone, even several someones. Easier yet, ask someone who has lived some or most of their lives in China about this alleged authentic recipe. They would be the logical authority.
Now interestingly, these Chinese restaurants are operated by genuine Chinese folk. So why would they be serving such blasphemous food? Do they think that General Tao is indeed authentically Chinese? God no. What they do know is that the demographic they serve in North America is quite different from the demographic in Asia, and they play to what North Americans expect to taste. In fact, if you take a closer look at the Chinese patrons who dine at these same restaurants, their tables usually will have dishes that are very different from other non-Chinese locals. This is because they order from a “for-Chinese-eyes-only menu” that caters specifically to them. And is General Tao on this menu? Uh…let’s see… NO. They also do not get fortune cookies.
A host of other dishes are quite similar to General Tao in the sense that they merely give off the illusion of authentic Chinese. Use your Chinese friends to your advantage: ask them to take you to dim sum (點心), tell them you want to try Shanghai food, ask them about abalone and sea cucumbers. In time, you might just realise how much more there is to Chinese cuisine than fried rice, chow mein, wonton soup, and a bottle of soy sauce.