Dinner in Chinatown
Sweet and Sour Smacked Cucumber
At its most basic (and as part of countless food cultures), sweet and sour sauce is a combination of sugar and vinegar. The sweet and sour sauce that likely comes to mind when thinking about American Chinese food, though, is the reddish-orange glaze that coats your chicken (or your McNuggets - you do you, boo!); the sweet glaze is a Chinese American adaptation that often combines vinegar and ketchup, with cornstarch as a thickener. (Fun fact: ketchup itself has its origins in ancient China - more fermented fish, zero sugar and tomatoes) There are countless regional sweet and sour sauce variations within China (with the Cantonese version being the most familiar in the US), but our sweet and sour sauce is reminiscent of what is typical in Henan Province - it’s thin and made with a sweet aromatic soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar (black rice vinegar), and Sichuan peppercorns for a little bit of má là (numbing and spicy). (Contains soy, gluten; vegan).
Cold Sesame Noodles
Noodles are decidedly of Chinese origin - the oldest evidence of noodles is a 4000-year-old bowl of them found in northwestern China. These spicy, peanutty noodles are a Chinese American classic. Sesame-dressed cold noodles are a common sight at Chinese banquets in China, especially in the Sichuan Province known as Mala Noodles or in Shanghai / Taiwan known as Ma Jiang Mian. These are usually drenched in chili oil, Sichuan peppercorn, and Chinese toasted sesame paste. The peanut butter addition came about in America, where toasted sesame paste was hard to find (although now is readily available in most Asian markets). This sauce is generally attributed to Yun Fa (“Shorty”) Tang, a Chinese chef who fled China during the Communist Revolution. Tang eventually landed in New York’s Chinatown in 1965, and opened one of its most popular restaurants (Hwa Yuan), where he introduced these delicious noodles to hungry New Yorkers. This dish is perfectly balanced, with chili oil, vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and both sesame paste and peanut butter. (Contains soy, gluten, peanuts; vegan).
General Tso’s Chicken
Oh, the impossibly delightful combination of sweet, salty, spicy, and crispy that is General Tso’s chicken! It’s not Chinese, though, and there are competing claims as to its invention and history. So many Chinese American dishes have roots in traditional Chinese cuisine, but were adapted quickly to suit diners' tastes - it’s very much like tracing a very complex (and tasty!) family tree. The two prevailing claims are as follows… In the first, the Hunanese chef Peng Chang-Kuei invented the dish after he was exiled from China to Taiwan during the Communist Revolution. Eventually, he brought the dish to New York and introduced it in his restaurant in 1975; this original dish wasn’t sweet - focusing instead on the traditional salty / spicy / sour combination typical of Hunan Province - and he added sugar in the hopes that it would appeal to diners accustomed to sweeter Chinese American fare. The competing claim is that of a different New York restaurant, which claims that one of their chefs (T.T. Wang) invented the dish in 1972. Given the geographic and temporal proximity of these two claims, it’s likely that there is some overlap and common truth in the stories. This history is explained in highly entertaining detail in the fantastic documentary The Search for General Tso. Origin disputes aside, this dish is ubiquitous in Chinese American menus all over the country. The crispy fried chicken is tossed in a ginger, garlic, soy, and vinegar sauce resulting in a dish that Americans have loved since its introduction. (Contains soy, gluten, egg; no dairy).
Snap Peas with Black Beans
For this dish sweet sugar snap peas are quickly stir-fried with the aromatics of the Hunanese kitchen - garlic, ginger, and chiles. The sauce is made with Chinese fermented black soybeans (douchi), a savory staple of Chinese cuisine for over 2000 years. People often think of Sichuan cooking as the spiciest of Chinese regional cuisines (because of the mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn), but Hunanese food is also typically spicy, though more often with sour or salt as a counterpoint (where Sichuan food is often spicy-sweet). After the Chinese Exclusion Act was overturned in 1943, a new wave of Chinese immigrants from Hunan Province (and Sichuan Province) came to the United States, introducing diners to new types of regional Chinese cooking beyond the already-established Cantonese staples. (Contains soy, gluten; vegan).
Red Braised Ribs
Red braising is the classic Chinese technique of slow-cooking meat (typically pork belly in Chinese cuisine, often spare ribs in Chinese American cuisine) in a glossy, sticky mixture of caramelized sugar, soy sauce, and Shaoxing rice wine. The result is sweet, tangy, and tender pork. Red braising is thought to have originated along the eastern coast of China around Shanghai, but is one of the most common dishes throughout China, with plenty of regional variations. This version, with its added aromatic complexity (cinnamon, cloves, ginger, star anise, and Sichuan pepper), is a typical Hunanese version, and was a favorite of Chairman Mao (there’s a whole subset of restaurants centered around Mao-style cuisine). (Contains soy, gluten; no dairy).
Salt Pork & Scallion Fried Rice
Many people, especially in rural areas of China, still live mainly on rice and noodles, and fried rice originated in southern China over a thousand years ago, likely as a way to use up leftover rice, meat and vegetables. In Chinese American cuisine, though, fried rice is a much-loved dish in its own right. Rice is the cornerstone of southern Chinese cuisine, though contrary to popular belief, it is not so in all of China - in northern China, wheat, millet and corn are as common as rice. In the southern regions, though, it is part of every meal, and until recently, meat was considered something of a luxury. Even as meat has become more inexpensive and readily available, restraint and moderation are considered virtuous, and meat is often used to flavor a dish mainly composed of rice and vegetables. Such is the case in this stir fry - a little bit of salt pork brings a ton of flavor to this savory stir fry with fragrant jasmine rice, eggs, and green onions. (Contains soy, gluten, egg; no dairy).
Hot and Sour Soup
This soup is all of the following: traditional Chinese, Chinese American, and the more contemporary take of a rising celebrity Chinese American chef - Brandon Jew of Mister Jiu’s restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The sour-hot combination is distinctly of Chinese origin, and this soup shows up on virtually all Chinese American restaurant menus. It typically contains a variety of mushrooms, tofu, and day lily buds, which have been used in Chinese cooking for over 2000 years, and bring a woody, earthy flavor to the soup. The “hot” comes from white pepper, and the “sour” from Chinese black vinegar. The broth is typically pork- or chicken-based, but this version from Chef Jew is lighter - made with a fish stock, and without the usual cornstarch thickener. Additionally, this soup features crab, celery, and fennel, all of which combine to make this a fresh and summery version of the traditional soup. (Contains fish, gluten, soy; no dairy).
Dessert is not traditionally part of Chinese food culture, but American diners generally expect some sort of dessert to finish a meal (a decidedly western European notion), and this was true as far back as the Gold Rush, when the first Chinese immigrants were opening their restaurants. The origins of the fortune cookie are murky, with many claims and accusations; no matter the true origin, the fortune cookie was popularized by Chinese American restaurants from the very beginning, and are an integral component of these restaurants’ legacy. The most recent (and most scholarly, for whatever that’s worth!) research into the cookie’s origins is that of Yasuko Nakamachi, and we’ve linked a story about her research below - it’s very convoluted, but the gist is that today’s fortune cookies are the offspring of savory Japanese fortune crackers (tsujiura senbei), originally made outside of a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. The fortune crackers (not a widespread food in Japan, though paper fortunes certainly were) came to San Francisco with Japanese immigrants, and were integrated into Chinese American restaurants. Just remember this: a feather in the hand is better than a bird in the air! (Contains gluten, egg; no dairy).
In most Chinese American restaurants, you’ll get a pot of tea with your meal. Tea holds an important place in Chinese culture, with thousands of years of history, and its service and sharing can be a sign of respect, hospitality, and gratitude, depending on the occasion. Most often, restaurants serve oolong or jasmine tea, or a blend of jasmine, oolong, and green teas. If you want to find the perfect tea for your meal, we recommend Ann Arbor’s Arbor Teas or TeaHaus - both of whom have an incredible selection and a wealth of knowledge about tea.
China is one of the oldest alcohol producing regions in the world, with evidence of beer-like drinks going back 9000 years (the Chinese were also the first to ferment grapes into wine, although they didn’t use vitis vinifera grapes). Modern beer culture, however, didn’t begin until the end of the eighteenth century when Polish, German, and Czech style breweries set up shop in Harbin. Any Chinese (or Asian-style) beer would pair exceptionally with this spicy / savory food such as Tsingtao and Lucky Buddha.
Baijiu is a clear, fairly strong (30-60% ABV) spirit typically distilled from sorghum, rice, wheat, or barley depending on the region. Modern, systematic distillation likely began in the Han Dynasty in 200 BC. Typically it is served neat at room temperature for ceremonies, special occasions, and business events. It forms part of ritualistic (or otherwise) toasts made by the host in which everyone must drink to show respect. A version from Sichuan is available at A&L Wine Castle.
General Tso’s chicken, crab rangoon, egg rolls, sesame chicken, wonton soup, fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, orange chicken, hot and sour soup, potstickers - unless you live under a rock, you have at least heard of these foods, and likely have also eaten them. Chinese American food is familiar and beloved by Americans - dumplings and General Tso’s chicken are among the top foods ordered for delivery. Chinese American restaurants number greater than Burger King, KFC, and McDonald’s restaurants combined! The arrival and integration of Chinese food into American culture mirrors the story of many immigrants and their food - with alternating periods of esteem and scorn, some serendipity, and a great deal of persistence and ingenuity.
Chinese immigrants flocked to the San Francisco Bay area in 1849 at the start of the California Gold Rush. While these miners and workers were recognized for their diligence and work ethic, they also endured racism and suspicion - their unfamiliar traditions, clothing, and food were scorned, and new immigrants often suffered exploitation and abuse due to their own unfamiliarity with language and customs. Anti-Chinese sentiment increased as the immigrant population grew; in 1852 a Chinese crop failure sent 20,000 immigrants to California, and American miners started agitating against what they perceived to be a threat to their chances at striking it rich. Local and federal legislation began to limit the rights of and levy taxes on Chinese immigrants. Eventually, in 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first law to significantly suppress immigration, and remains the only law to expressly forbid the immigration of people of one specific nationality. Chinese immigrants and their children remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943. During this time, though, Chinese American food became increasingly popular, though it bore little resemblance to the food that immigrants ate in their homeland, or even in their own homes.
The initial offerings at Chinese restaurants were adapted, sometimes intentionally to accommodate the American palate, sometimes because of ingredient availability, and sometimes via total misunderstanding - much like in the game of “telephone”, but at a much larger scale, and with the effect of transforming a food culture. The purportedly Chinese food that took America by storm was chop suey, and while there are several myths around its origin, there is no doubt that it helped spur the spread and success of Chinese American restaurants across the country. While it is not totally unrelated to southern Chinese cuisine, it is so heavily transformed as to be an entirely different dish from the Chinese version. This is a common thread among the most popular dishes at Chinese American restaurants. Americans preferred thicker sauces, sweeter flavors, and lots of soy sauce - none of which was a component of traditional Chinese cuisine. Historically, Americans also preferred meat that didn’t remind them too much of the animal from which it came, so many restaurateurs swapped out the traditional snouts, feet, and intestines for ground pork, white chicken meat, and sliced beef. The beloved General Tso’s chicken is a more contemporary example of misconceptions around Chinese and Chinese American food; the fantastic documentary The Search for General Tso features bemused (and some highly amused) Chinese people considering the dish and its origins. Additionally, the perception among most Chinese-food-loving-Americans has been that Chinese food is one uniform cuisine, when in fact, of course that can’t be true! There is Mongolian hot pot from the northern reaches of China, spicy Sichuan dishes from the southwest, Hunanese hot and sour dishes, and sweeter Cantonese food from southern China (to name just a few!). Since the 1970s, Chinese American restaurants have begun to differentiate more and more, and young chefs are looking to the recipes of their parents and grandparents to incorporate more traditional Chinese ingredients and techniques.
Chinatowns across the country are vibrant and vital communities - often tightly woven and providing support and refuge for immigrants and their families. However, they are also often densely populated, and the pandemic has exacted an enormous toll on the people of Chinatowns (and on Chinese Americans) all over the country - the virus itself has hit especially hard, as there was substantial travel between China and Chinese immigrant communities prior to travel restrictions, but rising xenophobia and racism associated with the virus’ origin in China have dealt an equally strong blow. Hate crimes against Asian Americans increased by over 160% in the first quarter of 2021 (compared to the first quarter of 2020), and the sharpest increase was in New York City, where crimes increased by an appalling 223%. Asian Americans - both young and old - are afraid to leave their homes. As we wrap up our month of Asian cuisine honoring Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and in an effort to support the Asian American community, we will be donating $10 of all ticket sales to Heart of Dinner, a non-profit organization in NYC delivering hot food and fresh produce to elderly Asian Americans. We urge you to read some of the articles linked below, and find ways to quash hatred and racism in our communities.
Featured Recipe: Cold Sesame Noodles
Makes 6 servings
1 pound Chinese wheat noodles (we used Da Xi Bei Gungun noodles)
2 tablespoons sesame oil, plus a splash
2 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1 tablespoons Chinkiang vinegar
2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste
1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon ginger paste
2 teaspoons garlic paste
2 tbsp chili oil with sediment
Pinch of roasted sichuan pepper
2 tbsp finely chopped spring onion greens
¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add noodles and cook until barely tender, about 8 minutes (or check the cooking instruction on whichever noodle you buy). They should retain a hint of chewiness. Drain and rinse with cold water and toss with a splash of sesame oil to prevent sticking.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil, the soy sauces, vinegar, sesame paste, peanut butter, sugar, ginger, garlic and chili oil.
Pour the sauce over the noodles and toss well to coat. Taste and adjust as needed, adding more sugar, vinegar, chili, and sesame paste as desired.
Garnish with sichuan peppers, spring onions and peanuts. Enjoy at room temperature
Recipes Inspired By:
Fuchsia Dunlop is one of the foremost authorities on Chinese cuisine and recipes in English (she was the first westerner to train as a chef at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu). Her book Every Grain of Rice is how we first learned the staples of Chinese home cooking
Mr. Jiu’s in Chinatown is a great resource for higher end Chinese-American cooking and is based on the recipe’s from Brandon Jew’s restaurant in San Francisco, the only Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in the city
One of my all-time favorite Chinese restaurants in NYC, Xian Famous Foods has popularized Western Chinese cuisine in the US. Although this food isn’t what Chinese-American cuisine is based upon, Jason Wang’s cookbook has an amazing section on Chinese-American food his mother would make while living in Michigan!
Shout out to Joshua Weissman who’s series “But Better” is a great resource for making American fast food / takeout staples at home, but better
I was fortunate enough to have the privilege of taking a class taught by Professor Paul Freedman in college - his amazing class “The History of Food” fundamentally changed how I thought about cuisine and has become the basis for many of these write ups. His understanding of food history is unmatched and his chapter in Ten Restaurants that Changed America about the Cecilia Chang’s (RIP) The Mandarin explains the rise of America’s love affair with Chinese food and how Chinese-American food developed into a complex cuisine in its own right
Check out chef Lucas Sin, who’s an evangelist for Chinese-American cuisine and who’s restaurants Junzi Kitchen, Nice Day, and Distance Dining series has redefined the boundaries for Chinese cooking in America
Elderly Asian Americans are the second most vulnerable demographic to food insecurity in the US and have been particularly hard hit due to the pandemic and Asian hate crimes. Founded by Yin Chang and Moonlynn Tsai, Heart of Dinner exists to combat food insecurity and isolation within NYC’s elderly Asian American community by delivering care packages of hot lunches and fresh produce every Wednesday, paired with a handwritten and illustrated letter in Chinese or Korean. Having lived in NYC’s Chinatown for 2 years, this cause is close to our hearts.
This article provides more information on the exponential increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders over the last year. StopAAPIHate is an organization working to shine a light on these numbers, and to provide information and resources to support the fight against racism and hatred.
This article describes Yasuko Nakamachi’s quest to find the origin of the fortune cookie.
A great documentary on the origins of General Tso’s chicken and Chinese American food