Lunar Chinese New Year is coming around. As a tradition for most Chinese people, having a reunion dinner on 除夕 (chú xī, New Year's Eve) is a must-do. When you think of the reunion dinner that Chinese people may have on their table, do dishes like beef and broccoli, orange chicken, egg rolls, and fortune cookies come to mind? If so, what I’m about to share may surprise you!
Visiting Chinese Restaurants in America
About 15 years ago, I joined a program sponsored by the Office of Chinese Language Council International to promote Mandarin Chinese in the LA Unified School District. As a first-time visitor to Los Angeles, everything was new to me, even the old Chinatown - a place my program supervisor thoughtfully arranged for me to live in to ease my homesickness. Interestingly, it turned out that Chinatown seemed even more foreign to me. The Chinese food I had in Chinatown made me even question if I was really Chinese myself!
The restaurant I visited wasn't very big, but quite busy. Almost all seats were taken. I looked around and waited to be seated. A few minutes later, a waiter came over and greeted me in Cantonese. I responded 你好 (nǐ hǎo) in Mandarin and asked if he could speak Mandarin. He said: "可以，但我说得不太好" (kě yǐ, dàn wǒ shuō de bú tài hǎo) - meaning "yes, but I don’t speak it very well." (I could tell right away from his Cantonese accent). When I heard his response in Mandarin I thought of all the Chinese food I hadn’t had for a long time, and I got very excited to finally get the chance to eat some again. The waiter soon brought the menu to me and left with a smile. I opened the menu and read it carefully line by line, but soon I felt lost. I was 100% sure I could read all the Chinese on the menu, but had never heard of most of the dishes before. I looked around and considered asking for help from someone. But that would be awkward since I was native Chinese and should know Chinese food better than the other restaurant guests! So I decided to just figure it out myself, and for the first time in my life I ordered "beef and broccoli" and "orange chicken.” My spoiled stomach wasn't quite cooperative that day, and I left with the leftovers wrapped up in a cute little box, which later on has become another symbolic icon of Chinese food today.
A few weeks later, I was invited to have lunch with one of my American friends. He asked me what I’d like to eat, and I said "maybe Chinese food?" He excitedly told me that he would take me to a "pretty good" Chinese restaurant called Panda Express. I won’t make any comments on their food except that “express” is spot-on. I began to realize that Chinese food as I knew it might only be found in my home country of China. Many years later, when I checked the website of Panda Express for their online menu, their slogan grabbed my attention right away. It reads "Chinese inspired, American made," to which I couldn't agree more.
Whether it was at that greasy spoon or Panda Express, the Chinese food I've had in America may have roots in Chinese cuisine, but it has been adapted and popularized by Chinese immigrants in the Western world. After living in North America for a total of about 13 years, my spoiled stomach has already adapted to the "Panda Express flavor.” I used to draw a clear line against such food, but Now I even proactively recommend some of those dishes to other native Chinese visitors I’ve met. Over the years, my arrogance of insisting on only eating “authentic” Chinese food has faded away.
The Story of General Tso's Chicken
Three years ago, I revisited LA for a business trip and visited that first Chinatown restaurant again. Except for the waiters, everything remained the same, even the old restaurant sign. It was busy inside at lunchtime. After I was seated, the waiter brought the menu to me. The menu was as simple as before, and the signature dishes were almost all the same. Sometimes, we may not need so much change in our lives. Keeping some things the same for many years can help preserve old memories for us. We can revisit these timeless places, just like that small restaurant, and feel like no time has passed by at all.
I ordered my food and as I waited another customer came in. Due to the busy lunchtime, the waiter came over and asked if I could share the table with that person. I agreed and he was led to my table and seated. I smiled at him and he greeted me and started checking the menu. He seemed to be getting lost with too many choices, as I experienced the first time, though I’m sure the feeling might have been even more intense for a non-Chinese speaker. He carefully read the menu. As a Chinese teacher, my instinct, or maybe my work habit, pushed me to break the ice. I said, "They've got too many choices, and it's hard to pick, right?" He said, "Oh, it is. And actually, this is my first time trying Chinese food!" He continued, "I am traveling in LA and wanted to try something different." His reply piqued my interest, and I started offering my "help" to introduce some dishes to him. He finally picked egg rolls as the appetizer and the signature dish "General Tso's Chicken" as his main course.
Our conversation continued while we waited for our meals. He asked me if the food here is authentic. I thought for a second and told him, "There’s actually a very interesting story about the dish you ordered." He showed me his great interest in that, so I started telling the story about "General Tso's chicken."
“One popular theory about the origin of General Tso’s Chicken is that the dish was invented in the 1950s by a Hunanese chef named 彭长贵 (Péng Chángguì), who later immigrated to Taiwan and then to New York City. Peng, who claimed to have created the dish, named it "General Tso's Chicken" in memory of a very famous Hunanese military leader in the Qing dynasty called General 左宗堂 (Zuǒ Zōngtáng) - also Romanized as "Tso Tsung-tang."
He cocked his ear and listened to me, like one of my students sitting in a classroom. He seemed to be afraid of missing something in the noisy restaurant and kept nodding his head to show me that he didn't miss anything. Someone from the table next to ours also turned her head to me. I continued the story.
"In 1973, Peng opened a restaurant on 44th Street East in Manhattan, New York. Ieoh Ming Pei - a very famous Chinese American architect known for his iconic and modern designs such as the Louvre Pyramid in Paris - invited Henry Kissinger to have a meal at that restaurant, who loved it and visited often. Kissinger particularly loved the dish "General Tso’s Chicken" and the American Broadcasting Company produced a special program about it, receiving about 1,000 letters asking for the recipe within a few days. After that, Chinese restaurants across America added the dish to their own menus."
"Wow, that's so interesting!" he said excitedly and his facial expression told me he really enjoyed my "class" about his first Chinese food. The lady from the next table also praised me for the great story about the dish. She said she had it quite a few times, but this was the first time for her to know the story.
"Right, there is also a documentary you guys might be interested in about the dish" I said to both of them.
"That's great! Would you let me know the name?" he asked.
"The Search for General Tso". It’s a very good documentary and I'm sure the story is way better than what I just told you all, haha!"
Right after I finished my story about "左宗堂鸡" (Zuǒ Zōngtáng jī), the waiter brought my food over. He might also have heard a part of the story and added, "I like your story," and turned to my new friend, "your General Tso's Chicken will be ready in a minute." After hearing the story, even one minute seemed to be a long time to him. I could tell he couldn’t wait to reveal the veil of this mysterious dish. I guess what he really enjoyed might not be the dish itself, but the cultural perspective I brought to him. He might have forgotten the question he asked me: “Is the food here authentic?” I reminded him of the question and said to him: “Right, I’d like to share my two cents about the authenticity, I would say, maybe the food materials they used were not directly from China, but the way Chinese immigrants live and eat is tied closely to their cultural roots. Something may not be authentic in its physical appearance, but inside their hearts.”
His food was also ready and we started enjoying our food, continued our conversation and more importantly, we became good friends.
Authentic? Who Cares?!
So, what’s the deal about being authentic? Whether you're enjoying a plate of General Tso's chicken or a mouth-firing and tongue-tingling authentic Sichuan hotpot, it's all Chinese cuisine and it's all delicious. Chinese-American food is an interesting part of the history and culture of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. and it should be appreciated for what it is. It's a unique blend of flavors, cultures, and history that makes it special.
This year, I may not have plans to let these Chinese-American dishes dominate our table on New Year's Eve, but I did prepare some fortune cookies for my kids and also leave two "seats" for these not very "authentic" dishes. As they're not just dishes, they're also the spreading vines that connect their cultural roots. This is a way of embracing both the traditional and the adapted culture that becomes a part of our lives and memories.
Next time you're at a Chinese restaurant, you might not care that much about the authenticity anymore but the atmosphere of being immersed in a welcoming, traditional, busy and bustling place. I believe when you crack the fortunate cookie after the meal, you’ll always get something you enjoy and believe.