American Chinese cuisine

This article is part of the series:

Cuisine of China

Eight Great Traditions
American Chinese
Chinese Buddhist
Historical Chinese
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American Chinese cuisine (什碎館 or 雜碎館) is a style of cooking served by many Chinese restaurants in the United States and Canada. However, it is considered to be not authentic Chinese cuisine by ethnic Chinese but instead a cuisine geared towards Westerners. Some American Chinese restaurants have gone so far as to use the Chinese characters for "Western food" on their signs and advertising (of course the English translation uses different language entirely) (see McCawley, The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters.) This cuisine is often perceived as 'real' Chinese food. American Chinese cuisine has sometimes been used in derogatory jokes and common stereotypes to label the Chinese and Chinese Americans in general.

Restaurants serving American Chinese cuisine are mainly run by the descendants of early Chinese immigrants (dating back to the 19th century) and cater to the taste of non-Chinese Americans. With more and more new immigrants arriving from China, more diverse selections of authentic Chinese cuisines are available in major cities such as San Francisco and New York, especially in the older and newer Chinatowns. However, so-called 'mom and pop' restaurants and diners in tourist areas and smaller towns still offer dishes not found in China. Some dishes are indeed Chinese dishes, but the American versions are quite different and not considered very authentic. The menu typically includes:

  • chop suey — in Chinese connotes leftovers, is usually a mix of vegetables and meat in a brown sauce
  • chow mein — in the American variant, is fried or boiled cabbage, with bits of fried noodles sprinkled on top
  • egg foo young
  • Batter-fried meat — meat that has been deep fried in bread or flour, such as sesame chicken or sweet and sour pork, is often overemphasized in American-style Chinese dishes. Battered meat occasionally appears in Hunanese dishes, but it is not widely found in other styles of Chinese cuisine.
    • The ubiquitous chicken ball deserves special mention as a special type of batter-fried meat. The amount of leavening and flour used in its preparation and battering process causes chicken balls to be more similar to doughy "hush puppies" than actual batter-fried meat. The amount of chicken in each chicken ball can also be considered negligible. These edible objects are crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and served liberally with a red colored lemon sauce.
  • fortune cookie — first used in Japanese tea gardens, fortune cookies became sweetened and found their way to these restaurants. However, fortune cookies are so popular in the US that even authentic Chinese restaurants serve them as end of the meal snacks. Fortune cookies are not real Chinese inventions like gunpowder but an American idea. On the other hand, most but not all authentic Chinese restaurants tend to serve free oranges, almond cookies, or red bean soup as dessert to Chinese-speaking patrons. Non-Chinese patrons are served either fruit or fortune cookies.
  • egg roll — while Chinese spring rolls have a thin crispy skin with mushrooms, bamboo, and other vegetables inside, the version with a thick, fried skin and cabbage inside is an American invention
  • lo mein — American versions don't use the same types of noodles or flavorings
  • sweet and sour pork or chicken — the Chinese version has a lighter, more subtle flavor while Americanized versions typically use bright red food coloring and lots of sugar or corn syrup.
  • moo shu pork — the Chinese version uses more authentic ingredients (mushrooms and other fungi) and thin flour pancakes while American one may use more common vegetables and a thicker pancake
  • crab rangoon — fried wonton skins stuffed with artificial crab meat and cream cheese, originally served at Trader Vic's restaurant in the 1950s.
  • wonton soup — virtually non-existent in American Chinese cuisine is the soup noodle which is ubiquious in many authentic styles. The closest popular example would be ramen. The true Cantonese Wonton Soup is a full meal in itself consisting of thin egg noodles and a few wontons in a pork soup broth.

American Chinese food also does not include some foods which many Chinese consider delicacies, such as liver and pig or chicken feet.

American Chinese food tends to use western vegetables such as broccoli and carrots whereas more authentic Chinese cuisine would tend to use Asian leafy vegetables like bok choy and Gai-lan. Authentic Chinese cuisine places more emphasis on vegetables in general while American Chinese food treats vegetables almost as garnish.

Missing image
A Chinese buffet restaurant in the U.S.

American Chinese food tends to be cooked very quickly with large amounts of oil and salt, and it has a reputation for containing high levels of MSG (monosodium glutamate) which is used as a flavor enhancer. Because of this, the symptoms of MSG sensitivity have been dubbed "Chinese restaurant syndrome" or "Chinese food syndrome". While there is no conclusive evidence that MSG is harmful, many restaurants have taken the initiative for "MSG Free" or "No MSG" menus.

In addition to full-service restaurants, American Chinese food is also available in mom-and-pop Chinese buffets. Fast food joints (usually located in shopping or strip malls) such as Panda Express and Manchu WOK are also quite popular. They are often found in areas with a lower or even non-existent population of Asian-Americans. In areas of the southwestern United States, it is common for the cooks within American Chinese restaurants to be from Mexico.

As most American Chinese cuisine establishments cater to non-Chinese customers, menus are usually written in English and only some may be in Chinese, however the part written in Chinese may be an entirely different menu from the English version (see McCawley). Such establishments are often patronized by way of take-out or delivery.


Variations on American Chinese cuisine

San Francisco

In San Francisco since the early 1990's, more than a few American Chinese restaurants influenced by the Cuisine of California have opened. While many of the trademark dishes of American Chinese cuisine remain on the menu, there is more emphasis on the use of fresh vegetables. Exotic ingredients such as mangoes, portabello mushrooms, or asparagus may appear. Menus tend to be vegetarian-friendly. Other cuisines may exert their influence: a common substitution is grilled flour tortillas in place of rice pancakes in mu shu dishes, and brown rice is readily available as an alternative to white rice.

Even in restaurants which do not follow this new formula, chop suey is generally not available, and chow mein is reportedly different from that served in the midwestern US.

See also

American Chinese fast food chains

  • Ho-Lee-Chow ( — Locations in the Toronto area of Ontario, Canada.
  • Leeann Chin ( — Locations in Minnesota.
  • Manchu WOK ( — Nationwide in Canada and some in the USA.
  • Mark Pi's Express ( — Located in Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, and Ohio.
  • Mr. Chau's Chinese Fast Food ( — Locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley.
  • Panda Express ( — Nationwide in the USA.
  • Pei Wei ( — Southwest USA — From the creators of P.F. Chang's.
  • Pick Up Stix ( — Located throughout California, Arizona, and Nevada.
  • Tasty Goody ( — Locations in Southern California.

Museum exhibits

Other Web sites

  • Chinese Restaurant Project ( — Indigo Som's project to document Chinese-American restaurants

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