Chinese restaurants have laid deep roots in the fabric of American culture — in fact, there are more Chinese restaurants spread across America than all other types of fast-food chain combined! The rich history of Chinese food in America has resulted in the creation of a very different cuisine on this side of the Pacific, and the difference between the traditional Chinese dishes and some now American-influenced specialties is like night and day.
You won’t find sesame chicken in China, the battered chicken coated in sweet sauce and tossed in sesame seeds. Instead, you’ll find another dish with similar flavor profiles called la zi ji. La zi ji is an authentic Sichuan dish that has fried chicken breasts with peppercorns, toasted sesame oil, and chiles.
Among other things that you won’t find on the traditional Chinese menu are beef lo mein and beef with broccoli. Beef is generally eaten in very small amounts throughout the country and broccoli (at least the Western kind) isn’t typically found in Asia. And those cream cheese dumplings you devour at your local lunch buffet might be harder to find in Shenzhen, for a very practical reason: Many East Asian people are lactose intolerant. (The only real cheese traditionally found in Asia is yak cheese, and even that is scarce.)
Americans tend to go for a lot more sweet flavors with an emphasis on beef, whereas Asian culture is more vegetable focused, with dishes developing from produce they had on hand or — as in the case of fried rice — to use up old ingredients. Now if you order fried rice in a restaurant, you are given the option of your choice of protein, whereas traditionally that dish was created to incorporate whatever leftovers were lying around.
So the next time you get a hankering for sesame chicken, or those delightful little fortune cookies, perhaps you’ll challenge your palette a bit by asking the waiter for something a little more authentic. Couldn’t hurt!