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ABC – American Born Chinese (Food)

December 8th, 2009

Like many of my foodie friends, I’ve been guilty of a degree of food self-righteousness. For instance, I don’t believe you can get good Mexican food North of Los Angeles. I believe you can tell the quality of a beer by how little light passes through it (Guinness is opaque, it is therefore the best. Coor’s Light actually magnifies light, therefore it sucks!)

So it took a bit of self-examination to come to the conclusion that ABC, American Born Chinese food, is as authentic as it is in China.

As a kid, my family used to go to this great hole-in-the-wall Chinese place called The Chinese Kitchen. It was literally a hole-in-the-wall. The owner had converted an old Dry Cleaner into a takeout counter. You opened the door, stood at the counter, and when your food was ready, they handed you a collection of white cardboard boxes through a hole behind the counter.

I loved this stuff!

Sweet and sour pork, pot stickers, and Kung Pao chicken. I was soon as adept with chopsticks as I was with a fork and knife. (They made it easier to reach the stuff at the bottom of the box!)

Of course, being a kid I didn’t actually ask what “real” Chinese food was, I tried to learn from observation. I started to watch what Chinese families ordered at my favorite places. They always seemed to order the really, REALLY spicy things on the menu.

My friend Eric apparently believed the same thing, and ordered spicier and spicier dishes, until he glowed bright red and perspired like he was seated in a sauna.

One of the most amazing things about moving to the Bay Area was Chinatown. The only problem is that if you find a restaurant you really like, you’ll never find it again. You see, with dozens (I suspect hundreds) of Chinese restaurants in 12 square blocks, virtually none with English writing, it’s hard to identify any one place. Still, I had found REAL Chinese food!

This impression was further reinforced the first time friends took me to Dim Sum in San Francisco. I’m somewhat of a nocturne, so I was a bit surprised when they told me that we had to be at the restaurant at 8:00am.

Eight in the morning? For Chinese food? Are they pulling my leg?

For those of you who haven’t had Dim Sum, it’s like Chinese tapas. You order lots of little plates, usually steamed dumplings made with shrimp, pork, mushrooms and eggplant. The rows are filled with ladies pushing steam carts with bamboo boxes full of yummy steamed treats.

I’m getting hungry just writing this!

Surely I had found authentic Chinese food. Well, so I thought.

After traveling the world, I’ve had many things that are “Chinese food”. And this is where I learned the most brilliant part about Chinese cuisine. It’s a style and process that adapts to wherever it lives.

For instance, in Asia, Chinese food is a lot more vegetables, heavier on seafood, and is more savory. In America, it’s not a meal without meat, we love fried food, and we like our food a bit more sweet.

I read a great book called “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles”, where the writer went in search of the origin of the fortune cookie. Turns out this “most Chinese” of desserts was actually Japanese. The Chinese and Japanese communities in Los Angeles were side-by-side. When American’s complained about the lack of dessert, the immigrants went to their neighbors and borrowed one of theirs.

The writer also discovered that General Tso’s chicken was almost completely American. Of course, this hasn’t stopped the actual General Tso’s village from welcoming the American tourists who show up in droves.

You see, the wonderful thing about Chinese food isn’t what it isn’t, but what it is. That we recognize sweet and sour pork and Kung Pao as Chinese is a testament to the people who prepare it.

It seems the Chinese are gifted in adapting to the ingredients and tastes of their host country. No wonder it’s one of the most popular cuisines in the world. It fits in everywhere!

4 Responses to “ABC – American Born Chinese (Food)”

  1. steph Says:

    You must try the more-traditional Sweet-and-Sour Pork at Jing-Jing in Palo Alto. They have two versions of Sweet-and-Sour Pork: the one you grew up with and the one that is… more traditional. I think you’ll like it.

  2. karthurs Says:

    To my surprise some of the most delicious Chinese food I have eaten was in Paris.

  3. sirrozmus Says:

    When you all get a chance, do have Daniel Yu take you for Chinese. The man knows pan fried noodles better than anyone I have ever met. I guess I have been lucky — I have had such good American Chinese that it is hard for me to pick the best. As for the worst, that’s easy — Peter you should remember it, too — the Chinese food we had in Ireland. La Choy heated up would be one way to describe it if one were kind. I guess we all should have known better when the waitress asked if we would be having it with with rice or chips… Edwin’s beard seemed to curl in disbelief.

  4. Peter Kevin Reeves Says:

    Steve, I completely forgot about that horrible place in Ireland. Or perhaps suppressed the memory until now…

    Talk about both sides regarding the adaptability of Chinese Food to fit into its environs. Apparently the Irish didn’t like the idea of any meal without potatoes, so they had to serve chips. And the corn chowder? Egg drop corn chowder is an invention I wish they could undo.

    I wonder if we were actually in a Chinese restaurant? 😉

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