En español | Growing up in New York City as the daughter of immigrants from China, it didn't occur to New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee that the Chinese food she loved might not be "authentic." She discovered the cultural gap when she traveled to China after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in applied mathematics and economics.
"The food we were eating there in some ways resembled what my mom cooked, but in no way resembled what we ate in American Chinese restaurants," says the author of 2008's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, an engaging history of Chinese food in America.
Her biggest surprise during research for the book was discovering that fortune cookies were actually of Japanese origin.
Lee left journalism after her book was published and now is cofounder of Rooster, a mobile app that serializes books into chunks designed to be read on smartphones and fit busy readers' lives. She also coproduced a documentary that screened at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, The Search for General Tso, which focuses on the most popular Chinese takeout dish in America.
Neither the book nor the documentary has dampened Lee's appetite for American Chinese food, though.
"It's full of fat and sugar. What's not to like?" she asks, laughing. "It's like a taste of home. These are all very American and comforting."
Here are five familiar "Chinese" menu items in America — and the truth about their origins.
"In America, they're a symbol of China, but in China people are really confused by them," recalls Lee, who handed out fortune cookies during a trip to the country. "They take a bite, and they're surprised that there's a piece of paper inside." Lee learned that cookies with paper inside them can be traced back to Kyoto, Japan, and were first made in the United States by Japanese bakers. During World War II, when people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned in internment camps, the Chinese took over manufacturing them. They then became a fixture in Chinese restaurants here as a postmeal treat.
General Tso's Chicken
This dish of fried chicken pieces coated with a sweet and savory sauce is among the most familiar of Chinese menu items. There really was a General Tso, a Qing Dynasty leader in the 1800s, but "it's not a dish that the general ever ate," Lee says. "It was introduced about 1974 and popularized in the 1980s." Like many dishes served up for American tastes, sugar was added to sweeten the dish.
Beef and Broccoli
Another popular dish, beef with broccoli, is a wok-fried combination of those two ingredients. It became popular in the 1920s. While China is one of the largest growers of broccoli today, "it is not a Chinese vegetable," Lee says. The dish was an adaptation that used ingredients available in America, in this case brought by other immigrants. "Broccoli was an Italian vegetable," she adds.
All Asian cultures seem to serve a form of egg rolls --— small tubes of meat or vegetables rolled in a wrapper. Chinese spring rolls are light and small and come in translucent wrappers. The concept of bigger egg rolls deep-fried in a thicker skin was invented in America.
One of the earliest popular Chinese dishes in America, chop suey translates to "odds and ends" or "leftovers." Lee found evidence that the dish fueled the Chinese restaurant craze in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. She tracked down news accounts of the dish served to a Chinese diplomat in a New York hotel, then found articles about a chef who tried to sue for copyright infringement when chop suey became ubiquitous. No matter its pedigree, it's basically a variety of ingredients tossed together. "It was a very consciously developed dish popularized out of New York City," Lee says. "It was very deliberate."
Gil Asakawa is a freelance writer for the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community page.
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