There are many videos out there on YouTube of North American Chinese folks turning their nose up to the western iteration of Chinese Food. “Ugh, we don’t eat beef and broccoli”. . .”There is no real General Tao”. . . “Fortune cookies aren’t even Chinese”. And I get it, Chinese folks feel misrepresented in the larger aspect of the North American diaspora and want to be represented as who they truly are. However, I want to say that North American Chinese food is Chinese food. No, it’s not “traditional” but it’s not “fake” or “bad” – it’s just a different iteration of Chinese food. Much like Chinese food from Shanghai, is different from Chinese food in Guangzhou. I believe that American Chinese food is so Chinese that it embodies the essence of the Chinese people. Which is hardworking, tough, and resourceful.
The history of Chinese restaurants in America dates back to San Francisco during the gold rush. In the 19th century, Chinese immigrants moved to SF in order to make a living as laborers but once all the gold was gone and they couldn’t go back to China because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, they were stranded in a foreign country. Because those immigrants lacked resources and the authority to own land, they lived in the ghettos that were dubbed “Chinatown” and created their own take on Chinese food. And over the years, these chefs would evolve their menus to include staples like egg rolls, chop suey, and chicken balls.
American Chinese food was created out of the will of the disenfranchised trying to survive. Those chefs were resourceful in their dishes in creating a product that would best suit their surroundings. So when I see other Chinese people turn their nose up at these dishes I get a little upset. They’re turning their noses up to years of racism, struggle, and self improvement. We, as Asians in North America complain about how we’re treated from the other cultures in North America, and a lot of it is fair, but we stand on the shoulders of builders. Builders that helped so many of us immigrants get into this country in the first place. Builders that created a culture of being able to earn your way up to the top even as an immigrant with few resources. A culture that delivers on weekends, holidays, and during this unfortunate pandemic time – Chinese restaurants will always deliver!
So next time you see sweet and sour sauce on your menu, just know that it’s a lot deeper than a sauce that’s rich in sugar, it’s a deep sauce that’s rich in history.