Clarissa Wei: American-Chinese food is real Chinese food
Yes, I’m actually going to defend orange chicken (陈皮鸡).
Fundamentally fried chicken with sauce — the perfect late-night snack and, quite frankly, great drinking food — orange chicken is beloved by millions of people of all ethnic groups (including many Chinese) in the United States.
As with most American-Chinese food, however, there’s a stigma attached to orange chicken.
Chinese food snobs call the dish, as well as the restaurants that serve it, “fake” or “not authentic.”
Superior foodies love nothing more than bashing the chefs and restaurant owners for their alleged perversion of the sacred culinary genre — as if only they know what real Chinese food is, as if someone died and made them arbiter of all Chinese cuisine.
Orange chicken, egg foo young (芙蓉蛋) and General Tso’s chicken (左宗堂鸡) have fallen victim to a lot of hatemongers since their introduction to the U.S. culinary scene back in the 19th century.
Those who unapologetically enjoy orange chicken (and many other American-Chinese dishes) and who actually know a little bit about the history of Chinese people outside of China are left to ponder a simple question: What is authenticity?
There’s nothing inauthentic about American-Chinese dishes. The bulk of them were created by Chinese people for Chinese people.
These Chinese people just happened to be living outside of the mother country.
[D]uring the 1840s Gold Rush in California, early Chinese immigrants (most were railroad builders) had no or extremely limited access to traditional Chinese ingredients. So they used what they could find in their new homes to create then-contemporary Chinese dishes, such as the now much-derided chop suey (杂碎), one of the first Chinese dishes invented in the United States. They were made to satisfy the cravings of “real” Chinese people. When railroad work was no longer available, many Chinese laborers resorted to opening restaurants.
“American-Chinese food is Chinese food,” says Julie Lau, owner of Suzie’s on Bleecker Street in New York City. American-Chinese dishes have evolutionarily similarities with Chinese staples. “It’s just the American take on ethnic food.”
So why all the fuss? Why not consider American-Chinese food just another style of Chinese cooking?
— Clarissa Wei, American-Chinese food is real Chinese food
CNN Travel, 7 May 2012.
Well, of course it is real Chinese food. And of course it’s real American food, too. The only reason that it seems like it couldn’t be both is the deeply-engrained, but ultimately completely silly notion that human cultures can be fit into to the same confining borders, the same carved-up exclusivity, and the same nationalized monopolies on allegiance and social support that are currently imposed on people’s political identities in a world of bordered nation-states.
And when you add that completely silly notion to the need for superior foodies to invent new forms of carefully curated expert
knowledge, and add in the snobbish and exoticizing notion that the foods eaten by immigrants, by people on the periphery, or by people in the diaspora, somehow count as less really, authentically, or properly part of the
national cuisine as the food eaten by people in the capital or the interior, you get exactly this sad and confining sort of stigma. This is as true of immigrant Chinese food as it is of northern Mexican food and of every other kind of so-called
inauthentic borderland cuisine that is routinely ranked down by those who imagine that the food cultures of the world somehow map out like the pavillions in Epcot Center, not like the line-crossing, tradition-reworking, living, expanding, adapting, borrowing, overflowing, constantly mutating and constantly interacting and experimenting, profoundly human messes that they really are.
- GT 2008-07-05: Whiteness studies 103: Ethnic food and authenticity
- GT 2008-10-10: Whiteness studies 104: Class, cuisine, and authenticity