Who’s Really Making Your Chinese Food?
A number of years ago I was passing through Pocatello, Idaho, when I stopped at New Hong Kong Restaurant. When I looked at the menu I was extremely surprised to find beef chow fun. I ordered it to see if it was fresh chow fun made from rice flour, as opposed to the occasionally seen dried wheat noodle version. Indeed, it was the fresh rice noodle variety. I was puzzled because fresh chow fun has a very short shelf life and there were no signs of any kind of Chinese population or Chinese grocery stores in Pocatello. My guess was the closest possible source of fresh chow fun noodles was Salt Lake City, some 170 miles away. While I had heard many stories of Chinese restaurant owners making weekly trips to a distant Chinese community to pick up Chinese provisions, it seemed too far to warrant regular trips to buy such a relatively low cost and perishable ingredient, which should be cooked the same day or the day after that they’re manufactured. Another possibility I contemplated was overnight shipping via a carrier like FedEx. I had once encountered Chinese pastries and baked goods in an Asian supermarket in Tampa, Florida that had been shipped overnight from Flushing, New York. But the weight of chow fun noodles seemed to me to make that option cost prohibitive. Since then, I’d occasionally think about the mystery of Pocatello chow fun without any kind of satisfactory explanation.
The answer was provided to me when I visited Springfield, Missouri, home of Springfield style Chinese cashew chicken. While sampling the cashew chicken and other dishes with Chef Wing Leong, son of David Leong, the inventor of Springfield cashew chicken, at his Leong’s Asian Diner restaurant, I marveled at the surprisingly wide variety of Chinese ingredients in his dishes, given that Springfield was located hundreds of miles from the closest Chinatown. Chef Leong commented that all these Chinese and other Asian ingredients are made available to him by food supply companies. Every food supply company, he explained, now has an Asian foods division. The ingredients in his dishes originated in places like Chicago, Oklahoma City, and other regional food supply centers. So thanks to companies like Sysco and US Food, Chinese restaurants no longer needed to truck in their supplies from the closest Chinatown, making a wide variety of meat, produce and specialty items readily available in every part of the country.
However, shortly thereafter I learned there is a culinarily nefarious side to the expansion of the food supply business providing Chinese food products across America. One of the breakthrough Chinese dishes in 21st century America, the so-called Shandong beef roll (it’s not truly Shandong in origin), popped up in Chinese restaurants in the United States around ten years ago. I first encountered it at the now famous 101 Noodle Express restaurant in Alhambra, California. This once rare dish has since spread to other authentic Chinese restaurants throughout the San Gabriel Valley and the San Francisco Bay areas, and has even been spotted in at least one restaurant in Manhattan Chinatown. But this is a dish that has not become mainstream outside the Chinese community, save for a 101 Noodle Express branch in a Los Angeles shopping mall, where it’s not particularly popular.
So imagine my shock when I encountered a YouTube video on how to prepare a Shandong beef roll. Of course it wasn’t a shock to find a video on the preparation of that dish; what was shocking was that the demonstration was being given by a non-Asian chef, and was provided by the Gordon Food Service company, a major food supply company in the Midwest. Immediately my heart sank. Did this mean that after excitedly visiting a new Chinese restaurant and discovering and commenting on its beef rolls, that I had eaten the exact same product before at some other restaurant?
I’m not so naïve as to think that everything I eat at a Chinese restaurant is prepared on premises. I suspect many old time Chinese restaurants in remote places “prepare” some of their dishes out of a La Choy can. More recently I dropped by a Chinese fast food restaurant in the Los Angeles area and was surprised to see dim sum items on the menu. When I ordered a few, the Latina girl behind the counter apologized that they didn’t have any as “the owner had just left to buy some.” Indeed, certain Chinese restaurants have become known for wholesaling specific products to other Chinese restaurants in the area. China Boy in Washington DC’s Chinatown, for example, provides rice noodle rolls (cheung fan) to Chinese restaurants throughout the metropolitan DC area. Likewise in the San Gabriel Valley, a small restaurant called Dean Sin World is said to supply other Chinese restaurants with xiaolongbao (soup dumplings).
But it’s one thing for a local Chinese restaurant to supply a specialized item to a few other restaurants in the area. The question is how far beyond providing raw ingredients and products have the food supply companies gone? Even before seeing the YouTube video, I noticed a certain commonality of dishes being served at Chinese buffets, particularly dishes usually not seen at sit-down Chinese restaurants, which could point to a common external supplier. The real revelation came when I visited a large and fairly upscale Chinese restaurant in a medium-sized city without a Chinese community, where I was surprised to find that some varieties of dim sum were served. When I expressed my surprise, the Chinese server cautioned me not to order any, because it “came from a food supply company.”
Beyond this, any further information on what food supply companies might provide seems sketchy, as few restaurants will admit to serving food prepared by outsiders. Recently, rumors circulated that a major dim sum restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley was actually serving dim sum originating from a food supply company. These rumors were easily countered by the fact that a local television station had just done a feature story showing how that restaurant prepared dim sum in its kitchen. Furthermore, many dim sum items just aren’t conducive to mass offsite production. But some discrete inquiries reveal that at least for a few commodity type dim sum varieties, such as steamed BBQ pork buns, some of our authentic Chinese restaurants are indeed being supplied by the Syscos of the world.
But I’m still wondering about those Shandong beef rolls, since such an authentic dish would seemingly be sold only to authentic Chinese restaurants. Does it mean that the new Chinese restaurant that just opened up in the San Gabriel Valley is a front for Sysco? I hope not, but now I really don’t know.