By this point, we’ve all ordered from Chinese restaurants enough times to know what the major dishes are: sesame chicken, Peking duck, etc. But here are a handful of dishes that, while they’re on just about every Chinese-American restaurant menu, we still aren’t really sure what they are.
Take moo goo gai pan, for example. It’s actually a lot simpler than its name might suggest: It’s typically just sliced or cubed chicken (gai pin in Cantonese) with button mushrooms (mohgu in Cantonese) and a variety of other vegetables, usually including bamboo shoots, snow peas, water chestnuts, and Chinese cabbage. These are all sautéed and tossed in a mild white sauce.
While we’re on the subject, here are a few more Chinese menu items explained:
Chow mein translates to “fried noodles” in the Taishan dialect of Chinese, and that’s exactly what they are. When you see chow mein on a menu, it usually implies that the dish will consist of noodles, meat (there’s usually one indicated), onions, celery, and occasionally other vegetables, mixed with soy sauce; it’s occasionally synonymous with lo mein. There’s also crispy chow mein, which is primarily composed of fried flat noodles topped with a thick brown sauce. When you’re ordering, ask whether it’s steamed or crispy so you know what you’ll be getting.
Egg Foo Young
Egg foo young is essentially an omelette. When you order egg foo young, you’ll receive a big egg patty with a wide variety of add-ins embedded within. There are almost always onions, but you might also find carrots, bean sprouts, cabbage, water chestnuts, mushrooms, and meat, if you’d like.
This Chinese-American staple has its origins in Northern China, where a stir-fried dish consisting of sliced pork, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, and daylily buds called mù xũ rōu is still served. In the United States, it’s typically made with pork or chicken, egg, bok choy, wood ear or shiitake mushrooms, and celery, sliced into long strips and sautéed in a slightly peppery sauce. It’s eaten wrapped in thin pancakes along with some hoisin sauce, and is traditionally the only item on the menu served this way — though some menus also offer moo shu vegetables.
This is a classic Szechuan dish that’s traditionally made with chunks of chicken stir-fried with peanuts, spicy chile peppers, and vegetables that can include scallion, green peppers, and bean sprouts. These are cooked with a sauce that typically includes orange juice, ginger, garlic, chicken broth, and sugar, and garnished with more peanuts.