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    So what is ‘authentic’ Chinese food anyway?

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | February 10, 2008

    Fred Ferretti, a food writer, has a critical piece in The New York Times op-ed page about the authenticity of Chinese food in America. (Ripping on Chinese food in America seems to be a resonant topic for The New York Times op-ed page/NYT Mag this year, see previous pieces by the Zagats, Nicole Mones and Fucshia Dunlop)

    As Ferretti writes, “Virtually all of today’s so-called Chinese cooking in the United States can best be described as undistinguished, served in restaurants generally indistinguishable one from another.”

    True. His points about how Chinese food is misunderstood in the United States are pretty salient. Examples he cites:

    The “spring roll is similar to a typical egg roll”; “Chinese black tea is difficult to find” in America; “yum cha” is Australian for “dim sum”; Italian prosciutto is virtually identical to, and may be substituted for, the hard salted hams of western China.

    (The yum cha line made me wince in particular…could that really be true?)

    But where I do disagree with him is this:

    “What is one to make of an authoritative Chinese cookbook that suggests “chopped California dates” as a substitute for red bean paste; opines that string beans will stand in nicely for bamboo shoots; sweet potatoes for taro; almonds for ginkgo nuts; a bouillon cube for soy sauce; salt for fermented black beans?”

    What is great about Chinese food is that it is flexible and adapts to the ingredients at hand. Broccoli in America, frog legs in France, lamb (but not pork) in the Middle East. If you don’t have taro, why not use sweet potatoes? If you don’t have bok choy, why not use lettuce. If you don’t have rice vinegar, why not use apple vinegar? Yes, it’s not what you might get in China itself, but sometimes the adaptations solidify and become their own authentic thing.

    American Chinese food, as indistinguished as it is on the global scale, has become its own recognizable cuisine. Both the Dominican Republic and South Korea have American-style Chinese restaurants. In South Korea, the restaurant is Ho Lee Chow (호리차우), where they serve “General Tso’s chicken” and “Beef with Broccoli.” It is different from Korean Chinese food, which features Korean comfort dishes like noodles in black bean sauce (jajiangmyun) and sweet and sour pork (tangsiyuk). And in the Dominican Republic, there is a chain of Chinese restaurants that look like the takeouts in New York (complete with the dishes against lavender background with baby’s breath). The idea there is it’s New York-style Chinese food since so many people travel between the DR and New York City. In both South Korea and the DR, it’s considered slightly upscale.

    Topics: Chinese Food, Chinese Restaurants | No Comments »

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