There’s a new Chinese buffet in town, which means that my wife and I had no choice but to go, indulge, and thoroughly enjoy in all that authentic Asian cuisine. Those spreads are always so delicious, even if they do sit like a brick in your stomach and you always end up eating way more than you probably should.
The problem, as I later learned when delving into the origins of who exactly General Tso actually was and why there’s a chicken named after him, is that we weren’t eating authentic Chinese food at all. Many of the dishes laid out on those fabulous buffets don’t even exist in Asia. Immigrants in the 1800s made most of that that stuff up and sold it to us because they knew we’d find it delicious. And we did, of course. It makes sense—fry something and smother it in enough salt, and Americans will eat almost anything.
Yes, dishes like General Tso chicken and chop suey are distinctly Asian is ambiance, and truth be told some foods, like chow mein and egg rolls, are even based on traditional Chinese dishes. For the most part, however, what you know as Chinese food is technically considered Asian-American cuisine, and here’s why:
Chop Suey – Invented by Cantonese immigrants in the mid-1800s, chop suey—like everything else on this list—was devised to create an Asian-tasting meal that we Westerners could actually stomach. The phrase literally means “leftovers,” and the dish itself reflects that sort of haphazard smashing together of ingredients—usually a meat with noodles and veggies all stir-fried together in a collage of deliciousness.
"Chop Suey" by System of a Down--also an American invention.
Chow Mein – While the name of this dish really is Chinese for “fried noodles,” what we know as chow mein isn’t really very Chinese at all. Well, the Chinese did (and do) have a noodle dish called chow mein, but it’s different from our version of it. Both have stir-fried noodles as the main bit with some kind of meat (usually beef), onions, and celery mixed in. Ours tends to be significantly meatier, while the emphasis in China is more on the vegetables.
General Tso Chicken – Nobody has any idea why this fried chicken dish is named after Zuo Zongtang, a Qing Dynasty general from Hunan, but there’s practically zero chance that Zuo—who died in 1885—ever tasted it. That’s because it was introduced to the world via Peng’s Restaurant in New York back in the 1970s. Others have made claims to the invention of this tasty, tasty dish, and an Asian-American restaurant is always tied to the origin story, but one thing’s for sure; this isn’t a traditional Asian dish brought over to us. It’s fried chicken in a spicy-sweet sauce.
That's a good-looking man right there. I can't decide which picture looks more delicious.
Sesame Chicken – Exact same thing as General Tso. We’re looking at battered, boneless chicken nuggets covered in a delightful Asian-tasting sauce then covered in sesame seeds. Like the General, it’s derivative of Asian cuisine, but not actually Asian.
Egg Roll – The spring roll, which has a very thin crispy skin with vegetables stuffed inside, is the sort of egg roll that originated in China. The one you see at your local Ming’s Buffet is much more heavily breaded and is stuffed with cabbage and some sort of meat or seafood. Interestingly enough, there’s no egg, though.
Upon closer inspection, Asia's version does, in fact, look considerably healthier.
Crab Rangoon – How could something stuffed mostly with cream cheese and then deep fried be anything but American? The imitation crab meet adds a bit of a seafood flavor to these crispy little wontons, but for the most part they’re only a sprinkle of powdered sugar away from being a dessert. They first popped up in Trader Vic’s restaurant in San Francisco back in 1957 and obviously are still on the menu there today.
Fortune Cookies – The fortune cookie existed in Japan long before it existed here in America, but just like everything else on this list what is called a fortune cookie today was something very different back in the motherland. Both cookies are shaped and folded the same way, with the little message tucked inside, but in Asia the recipe calls for sesame and miso while in America they’re baked with vanilla and butter. In other words, we Paula Deened the Japanese fortune cookie.
It's so true.
Now that you know that your favorite Chinese dishes are more American than Chinese, do you feel a little less cultured? I do. Especially when I started thinking about how gross real Chinese food must be. Too many veggies and fish, not enough meat and breading. That, I suppose, is why those Asian immigrants made things the way they did, though—to get us silly Americans to eat their food. We did, and do, and will continue to do so until it stops being delicious. Since that will obviously never happen, let me just be the first to say, “Long live General Tso!” who I now know is a famous general from the Qing Dynasty.
And man, do I love that guy’s chicken.