When Zhu Ling, a parent at my child’s kindergarten, invited my wife and me out to lunch one day, we suggested her own Chinese restaurant as a good choice. She balked, and told us her place served Chinese food for foreigners and wasn’t suitable.
My wife, who is also Chinese, nodded and we chose a different restaurant, known in the Chinese community for serving more authentic food — dishes immigrants from mainland China might recognize. Even then, the food served was a shade of what I was able to enjoy during my 15-year stay in China.
The Americanization of Chinese cuisine started almost as soon as Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in the late 1800s. Those first arrivals, mostly from the southern coastal provinces of Canton and Fujian, faced a series of struggles, not least of which was the search for ingredients for home cooking.
Adapting to local ingredients — like broccoli — led to innovative new dishes that served a market with an entirely different palate. Over the years, Chinese restaurateurs developed a template that has spread across the country. Menus in Chinese restaurants from New York to Los Angeles feature a familiar list of Sino-American dishes, such as Orange Chicken, General Tso’s Chicken, chop suey and broccoli with beef — all served as entrees, the way Americans like them.
But most Chinese restaurants also carry a second menu with dishes from mainland China, served in the communal style Chinese patrons prefer.
“We do change the dishes around, depending on who is ordering,” said Patrick Chen, general manager of Little Szechuan in St. Paul. “Things that are supposed to be spicy we might tone down, or dishes that normally include bones, we might take those out if the customer is American.
It’s not just the market dictating what’s on the menu, however. Many Chinese restaurateurs in America open their shops to make money, not necessarily to introduce the best of their native cuisine to a foreign audience. It’s common for Fujianese immigrants to open Szechuanese or Cantonese-style restaurants, for example, which is the rough equivalent of Minnesotans opening a Texas barbecue joint in the Chinese city of Chengdu.
It’s not easy to attract great Chinese chefs to mid-tier American cities, either. Many would rather head to Hong Kong, Malaysia or Japan, where they can replicate their best dishes for an appreciative crowd. Those who do wind up in the U.S. are in the bigger, higher-paying markets, particularly New York City and Los Angeles. Visa issues also play a role: Restaurants must sponsor employees in order to bring them over, or a chef has to apply for an expert visa, which is difficult to obtain.
But Americanized Chinese food might not be such a bad thing. In her book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” Jennifer 8. Lee traces the history of Chinese food in America and discovers that Chinese cuisine has been transformed and adapted to the palates of people all over the world.
“Authenticity is a function of time and place,” said Lee. “The question really is, ‘Is it hitting what it aspires to be?’ ”
More recent waves of Chinese immigrants hail from all over China, not just the southernmost coastal provinces. This demographic change is also having an effect on Chinese restaurants in the Twin Cities. Chinese students encouraged the owners of Little Szechuan to offer the traditional dish of hot pot, which they did by opening a new restaurant focused on that. The owners also sponsored a chef, Wang Wen Chun, from Sichuan, to run both their Minneapolis and St. Paul restaurants.
Sascha Matuszak traveled to China in August 2000, one year after graduating from the University of Minnesota. What was supposed to be a yearlong sojourn turned into almost 15 years of traveling, writing and a lot of eating. He returned to Minneapolis in 2014.