- Historic Sites
Lets Eat Chinese Tonight
Americans have been doing just that since the days of the California gold rush—and we’re still not full
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
“The menu is very much like that in other Cantonese restaurants, which means most of those in New York, with the difference that the egg rolls contain less dough and more shrimp, the pork is rather like that described by Charles Lamb, and the vegetables younger and sprightlier. Whatever else you order, include a dish of chicken with walnuts and the shrimp with Chinese vegetables.”
Thus the standard Chinese menu of the era. But a revolution was coming. Kate Simon hinted at its approach when she wrote, “In recent years, however, northern Chinese cooking (also called ‘Peking,’ ‘Shanghai,’ ‘Mandarin’) has become increasingly popular.” It came on with a vengeance in the early 1970s, about the time President Richard Nixon’s visit to China spurred interest in the country. Almost overnight eating chop suey became a faux pas, and people were full of authoritative chatter about the lamb dishes of Hunan Province. American tastes became more cosmopolitan, and the ever-adaptable Chinese restaurateurs moved to serve them.
Quite a few Americans harbored the suspicion that Chinese restaurants in this country had been, well, putting one over on them, that they had been deliberately hiding the range, variety, and quality of regional Chinese cuisine. Despite appearances, it was not some vast conspiracy to deny Americans the best that Chinese kitchens had to offer. Not only had virtually all the pre-1940 Chinese immigrants to the United States come from one place, but most of them had been farmers, laborers, and small businessmen. Cooking was an honored profession in China, and a qualified chef would neither need nor want to travel to the Golden Mountain. In any event the balance was redressed in less than a decade, and although the storm of fashionable interest in regional Chinese cuisine died down after a few years, it is apparent that genuine appreciation has remained. Small wonder: the diversity of offerings mirrors American tastes.
The southern regional style, of which Cantonese is a part, does not emphasize sweet and sour dishes as much as many Americans have come to believe. Like many classic Chinese styles, southern dishes do make use of contrasting flavors, textures, and colors, but the sweet and sour dishes known to us are usually applied only to certain types of fish and pork dishes.
The Cantonese are credited with perfecting the art of stirfrying, and they are also known for their love of rice. If this latter seems too obvious for mention, it should be remembered that rice is not universally eaten in China; much of the country is too cold or too dry for its cultivation. But the semitropical south yields up two and even three crops per year, and the southern Chinese emphasize it so much that their common greeting “Ch’ih fan la mei yu? (“Have you eaten?”) can more literally be translated as “Have you eaten rice?”
Finally, the southern Chinese are famous for their dim sum, small, delicate buns, dumplings, and pastries that have been a traditional afternoon snack since the tenth century. Restaurants in New York and San Francisco’s Chinatowns are the scenes of large-scale dim sum feasting on weekend afternoons, when waiters push around carts stacked with little plates, each with a few of the steamed, pan-fried, or deep-fried delicacies on it. “Some are fish patties,” says Kate Simon, “some are little hobo-bags of shining dough which enfold shrimps and vegetables, some are frilled dough cases holding chopped pork or beef mixtures; some are square, some round, and others oblong.” The carts keep circulating, and customers keep pointing out what they want until the table is stacked with small, empty plates; then the waiter figures the bill through the simple expedient of counting the number of dishes and multiplying by the price per dim sum serving.
Other regions of China have their own styles and specialties. The east, which includes Shanghai and Nanking, is famous for its duck, seafood, and fish, and the people there, unlike the Cantonese, prefer slow-cooked dishes. Between Canton and Nanking the mountainous province of Fukien is known for its soups and for dishes eaten with a thin pancake of bean curd bread into which a portion of the food is rolled.
In the dry, cooler north, where rice will not grow, wheat is used as the base for noodles, dumplings, buns, pancakes, breads, and cakes. Roasted and barbecued dishes, among them the world-famous Peking duck, are a specialty here, and the food is less spicy and oily than in the western provinces and contains fewer fruits than in the southern ones. Northerners like their food light and mild, often using vinegar as a seasoning. Sweet and sour sauce had its origins here, as a mixture of vinegar and sugar; the Cantonese adopted it, adding fruit or tomato sauce to suit their taste.
In the west the hot, tropical inland provinces of Szechwan and Hunan produce red and green peppers, which are used fresh or dried, and the famous Szechwan peppercorns. The cooks from the region believe that the spicy peppers stimulate the palate, thereby sensitizing it to the subtle range of flavors that follows.