In this country, we often categorize different regional cuisines into different foods. When I say “pineapple”, many instinctively relate to Hawaiian food while “avocados” are Californian cuisines. While that clearly isn’t wholly accurate, that’s how we view different types of foods. Certainly ingredients represent cuisines such as Italian [pastas and tomatoes], French [fish and duck], and Chinese [rice and soy sauce]. Even though those ingredients certainly represent those cuisines, the stereotypes break down quickly when you think of Peking Duck and chow mein as purely Chinese and not a hint of Italian or French in them. And really, do we really think that ham and pineapple pizza is somehow truly Hawaiian?
Here in the US, when we think of Chinese food, we are really thinking of the Cantonese style dishes. Over time, we’ve incorporated some Sichuan regional dishes [kung pao] into our taste palates, but really, we’ve limited ourselves to one regional Chinese food. One can argue the same for Italian and French cooking, where different regions produce raw ingredients that are local to those areas, making dishes unique in styles and flavors. Chinese food, it seems, have been reduced to chow mein, fried rice, sweet and sour anything, and orange flavored anything. Let me just say, for the record, that PF Chang’s is not Chinese food. It’s not even localized foods. It’s just really bad food.
In many Chinatowns in the States, the majority of the immigrants are from the region of Guangzhou, or Canton. Thus, the plethora of Cantonese dishes have become the symbol of Chinese food. But there are others, many others in fact, that we haven’t even tapped into as a country here. Shanghai cuisine tend to be about braises, stews, sauces, pickles, rich and deep flavors that ought to be embraced by the Western palates, but it’s often not found in the US. Mandarin cuisine, or Beijing cuisine, in home to the famous Peking duck. Instead of the bun, however, it is traditionally eaten with a flour-y crepe like pancake. But it’s also home to such things as soup noodles, hot pots and because it’s closer to Mongolia, the influence of Mongolian Beef and pot stickers are also made famous by that region. Hunan and Sichuan dishes are very similar, both focus on the chili, garlic, ginger stir fries that we’ve come to love as kung pao chicken and orange flavored chicken. Additionally though, Sichuan is also about salt curing, stir fry vegetables, and tofu dishes.
Each of these regions, unfortunately, have fused into one in this country. We identify all of these regional foods as Chinese food. While that’s true, when you visit Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing, you will never hear someone say, “Let’s have Chinese food for lunch”. One will most likely hear, “Let’s have Shanghai-nese food” or “Hunan food” because these regional fairs are important to the country that borne these dishes. Like Italian and French regional dishes, we’re missing a big part of the Chinese cuisines in this country. We’re missing local dishes called “Chiu Chow”, which also has a distinct use of acid, such as vinegar. One of the famous desserts of Chiu Chow is pan fried noodles with a coating of caster sugar glazed with vinegar. While that might sound weird, it’s actually a perfect way to end a meal because the acid and sugar temper the oily dishes that one would eat. And you would wash it down with some typical Chiu Chow tea, coming in a small teacup that is intense in flavor as it is suppose to help with digestion.
Next time you get a craving for Panda’s Orange Chicken, try to find a local Chinese restaurant that’s serving something a little different. Try braised tofu or seafood hotpot. See if they have oxtails, whole steam fish, and spiced dried tofu with sliced pork. While still in the Cantonese style of cooking, it provides us with different tastes from a country so vast, you can travel for a week and not have the same style Chinese food. And even though many of the dishes can only be found in China, we really should be ashamed of ourselves if we only go to PF Chang’s or Chin Chins of all places. Chin Chin’s “world famous” Chinese Chicken salad is just ghastly. It’s truly an awful way of saying that one “likes” Chinese food. It’s like saying your favorite Italian food is the endless salad and breadsticks at your local Olive Garden, where the only Italian thing about it is that it contains bread and olives. It’s really a hideous way of representing cuisines that have been perfecting for thousands of years. So try something new, something weird maybe, because you never know when you’ll be surprised. And that’s what experiencing food is all about. We don’t have to be Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats, but we can start by trying something slightly different that will bring new experiences to our lives. It’s worth it.