History and Culture: Chinese Food

David Kirkby | Staff Photographer

David Kirkby | Staff Photographer
A Chinese delicacy, roast duck can be enjoyed with fresh spring onions, Asian melons and white rice.

Hamburgers, pizza, hot dogs, fried chicken and warm apple pie. You can just see the stars and stripes waving in the summer breeze. These foods symbolize “Americaness.” They did not, however, necessarily originate in America, but are Americanized versions of dishes that were created some decades or even centuries ago.
Hamburgers and hot dogs are based on traditional German dishes, and pizza is from Italy. America is home to a diverse array of cuisines from all around the world, which reflects the millions of immigrants who have brought pieces of their own cultures while making this country their new home.
The foods mentioned above have become classic American eats, but what comes to mind when you hear the words “Chinese food”? Where does it take you? Maybe it’s when you grab a bite to eat with friends at Panda Express, maybe it’s dinnertime as a child when you lived back home with the comforts of home-cooked meals, maybe it’s when you tried dim sum for the first time, maybe it’s lunch at Rice Garden in the Student Center or maybe you just hate eating Chinese food. Whatever your experience, Chinese food is a big part of American culture.
At UC Irvine, Yong Chen, a history and Asian-American studies associate professor, conducts the class “Food and Identity” and devotes his research to ethnic food in America and their impact.
“Chinese food is one of America’s cuisines. The other one is Italian. Mexican is also popular, but it is often not the entire cuisine but individual foods, such as the taco, that became extremely popular. By the same token, the enormously popular American fast food is not a cuisine—it is just what it is, fast food,” Chen said.
To Chen, cuisine is a more elaborate system of food that includes many dishes.
In a new book by Jennifer Lee entitled “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” Lee points out that there are “some 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States—more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined.” She also questioned, “Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie. But ask yourself: How often do you eat apple pie? How often do you eat Chinese food?”
The popularity of Chinese food is also reflected in the media. Characters on TV shows and movies often eat chow mein out of white fold-pak take out boxes with chopsticks in hand. Look at the long line for Rice Garden in the Student Center during lunchtime.
Students eat there for numerous reasons. Food often connects people with their cultural heritage. Dawn Tran, a fourth-year biological sciences major, eats at Rice Garden one to two times a week. “Chinese food is one of my favorite foods. I’m Chinese so I like to eat it at home and anywhere and everywhere,” Tran said.
On the other hand, James Guo, a third-year aerospace mechanical and material sciences major, said, “The main reason I eat here is because it’s a convenient choice of food since I have to stay on campus and they give good portions for the price. I prefer the traditional dishes, but having grown up here, I’m used to eating the Chinese food at restaurants. Stuff like orange chicken seems more Americanized than what I eat at home.”
So, what is this food we’re actually eating? To some, Chinese food vocabulary is limited to fried rice, chow mein, broccoli beef and orange chicken, yet Chinese cuisine is extremely diverse. There are eight main regional cuisines that vary in cooking styles, which is reflected in each region’s geography, climate, resources and lifestyles.
They consist of Guangdong or Cantonese cuisine, Shandong cuisine, Sichuan or Szechuan cuisine, Fujian cuisine, Huaiyang or Jiangsu cuisine, Zhejiang cuisine, Hunan cuisine and Anhui cuisine. From there, it can be divided further into differences between the cities. The singling out of Beijing and Shanghai cuisine also adds to the various types of Chinese cuisines. Cuisines have intermixed so you can find a Sichuan dish in the Guangdong province, but people still often refer based on specific dishes to their regional origins.
When Chinese people first started immigrating to the United States, they brought these foods along with them. Since then, these foods have taken on various forms, which leads to the term “American Chinese” food. Chinese food is the most pervasive cuisine in the United States and has made its way into swanky upscale restaurants like Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois to more affordable places like Panda Express, or even your local mom-and-pop restaurant. Restaurants in ethnic enclaves like Monterey Park and Rowland Heights may be closer to “the real thing” since they cater to picky eaters and the likes of Chinese parents and grandparents, who still claim the best is back in their homelands.
Americanized Chinese food includes variations of the original dishes from China or new creations from the United States. Take, for example, the fortune cookie. Its origins are often contested, but a general consensus concludes it was created in San Francisco.
Also, chop suey, a dish of chopped meats cooked with vegetables like cabbage, celery and bean sprouts cooked in a thick sauce, was allegedly created by Chinese immigrants who came to California to mine for gold and work on the Transcontinental Railroad.
They used whatever ingredients were available and also created dishes modified to suit a non-Chinese population. In Providence, Rhode Island, there is even such a thing as a chop suey sandwich. Moreover, broccoli beef is also Americanized since the original Chinese dish includes a Chinese broccoli, called gai lan, which is a leafy vegetable different from the Western broccoli we eat here.
Variations on dishes even differ in regions within the United States, as noted in the USA Today article, “Panda Express spreads Chinese food across USA” by Matt Krantz. Krantz interviewed Kelvin Chen, CEO of Manchu Wok, who stated, “‘In the South, people do seem to like spicy food. While in the northern U.S., if you serve something that [is] overly strong [in] flavor, it may not go.” The difference demonstrates how deeply Chinese food has been rooted in America.
Professor Chen stated, “Chinese food is the most important American cuisine, if there is one. It shows how much culture has transformed and how immigrant cultures have been incorporated into an ever-evolving American culture.” Since culture is never a fixed state, who knows, maybe a new cuisine will overcome the lead of Chinese in years to come. Right now, it really is as American as apple pie.
Are you hungry now? Visit yelp.com for a look at helpful reviews of 74 Chinese restaurants in Irvine and surrounding cities.