Red hanging lanterns, orange chicken, and often the same quick-brushstroke font for the restaurant’s name – these aspects call up memories of late-night sleepover orders, college cram sessions, or even just a parent’s quick alternative to cooking after a long day at work. Menu items include fried rice, Kung Pao chicken, and chow mein, and when a friend asks what you want while holding her hand over the phone, you can usually give an instantaneous reply without looking up the menu.
But authentic Chinese food includes traditional delicacies that aren’t included in the Westernized version, as well as familiar Americanized dishes that are prepared differently in China. Most “Chinese food” as we know it originated in San Francisco in the 1950s, which only used available local ingredients. General Tso’s chicken isn’t an authentic Chinese dish, and fortune cookies aren’t even Chinese (they actually originated in Kyoto, Japan).
Menu items the United States did get right include egg foo young, lo mein, and fried rice, but America definitely can’t cite China for beef with broccoli, crab Rangoon, and sweet and sour pork. Authentic Chinese cuisine that isn’t a popular “Chinese restaurant” menu item in the United States includes zha jiang mian, or noodles topped with fermented soybean paste and stir-fried pork, and la zi ji, a Sichuan dish made with chicken breast, peppercorn, and toasted sesame. Chinese scallion pancakes, or cong you bing, are often served with rice porridge for breakfast or on the street with soy sauce for dipping. They are usually made with fennel, bell pepper, and scallions.