Will the Real Chinese Food Please Step Forward?

America’s regional Asian cuisine gets back to its roots

Kung pao beef. Orange chicken. Moo shu pork and lo mein. These are the bastardized dishes found at the corner mom-and-pop Chinese joints that have been hijacked and popularized by chains like Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s. There’s nothing wrong with these dishes—they’re just not Chinese.

But the real state of Chinese cuisine in cities with large Asian communities is quite different. In San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Vancouver, dishes like rou jia mo, Xian’s famous lamb burger, xiao long bao, Shanghainese soup dumplings, or hong shao rou, red braised pork from Hunan, are as commonplace as General Tso’s chicken.

Is American-Chinese food getting a makeover? As a Chinese chef, I think of it as a renaissance, a blossoming and awakening of the artistic and intellectual component of Chinese cuisine. 

Show Me Your Riffs

The kitchens of Chinese restaurants are at the forefront of authentic ingredients and cooking techniques. No longer are our chefs required to serve pedestrian egg or barbecue pork fried rice. Chefs are adding a bit of glamour and sex appeal to Chinese cuisine, riffing on a classic cooking style with nontraditional ingredients. 

At Mission Chinese Food in New York and San Francisco, the fried rice comes with flakes of salt cod, a direct descendent of quintessential Chinese home fare. Brunch guests at Fung Tu in New York can order jian bing, a crepe stuffed with garlic chive scrambled eggs, pickled cucumbers and watercress. 

"But is there a danger to this cross-cultural fusion? If not used judiciously and with some sensitivity, combining cultures can lead to confusion."

-Patricia Yeo

When I arrived at Khong River House in Miami Beach (where I am now the executive chef), I noticed a dish that pays homage to Chinese-American pork fried rice by pairing Duroc pork belly with Chinese sausage. Instead of pieces of egg scrambled in the rice, the dish is topped with a sunny-side up egg. And at Blue Ribbon in Las Vegas and New York, the fried rice comes with oxtail.

These restaurants have an audience today because food, cuisine, culture and geography are evolving. China is now more welcoming and accessible to foreign travel. We visit in droves, bringing back food experiences. In the ’70s and ’80s, you would be hard-pressed to find gai lan (Chinese broccoli), which is why we used conventional broccoli with beef, leading to the explosion of beef and broccoli on every Chinese menu. 

Over time, with demand and an influx of Asian farmers, Chinese vegetables and other ingredients became available. Second-generation Asian chefs are straddling the line between the American cuisine they grew up with and the food Mum and Grandma cooked at home. Chefs like Ming Tsai and Joanne Chang in Boston and Anita Lo in New York are part of this cadre, using ingredients from their childhood with techniques learned from culinary school and their mentors. 

Don’t Turn Fusion into Confusion

Similarly, chefs are using wok tossing as part of their food prep. Wok-tossed dishes like lettuce-wrapped chicken and bang-bang chicken and shrimp even appear on the menus of chains like The Cheesecake Factory.Asian ingredients are being introduced into classic American staples. What could be more American than a perfectly marbled grilled New York strip steak? Now add uni butter, like at Strip House(multiple locations), and you’ve merged two cultures. 

But is there a danger to this cross-cultural fusion? If not used judiciously and with some sensitivity, combining cultures can lead to confusion.

Too many chefs pile on ingredients in an attempt to be cutting edge. I was warned as a young chef by Bobby Flay that less is more. This is especially true when ingredients are not a part of your usual food and flavor palate. 

I heard an ad on the radio for a large chain recently touting its cheesesteak egg rolls, cranberry teriyaki chicken and butternut squash cannelloni. You may find it appealing, but I am just plain confused. Is it New England, Italian or Asian? 

Incongruous flavors thrown together in the pursuit of creativity and innovation strike me as heavy-handed. 

Eat Your Way to Authenticity

The best advice I can give to any cook is to eat. Visit your local Chinatown or large Asian supermarket. It will stimulate your sight, hearing and definitely your olfactory senses. 

Aside from visiting China, the next best option is Flushing, New York. In the borough of Queens, Flushing now has the largest authentic Chinatown in the country.

In the basement food courts of malls like the Flushing Mall or Golden Mall, you will find the juiciest dumplings and chewy noodles tossed to order. Your meal will most likely arrive in a Styrofoam bowl or on a limp paper plate but the flavors will transport you to Chengdu or Harbin. The prep, ingredients and flavors are that authentic. 

Chefs know it, too. On my last trip to the Golden Mall, I bumped into two celebrity chefs just trawling the food court—and they were not there together. 

Patricia Yeo, who is ethnic Chinese raised in Malaysia, has opened groundbreaking restaurants in New York and Boston. She was a finalist on “Top Chef Masters” and published “Everyday Asian: Asian Flavors + Simple Techniques = 120 Mouthwatering Recipes” (MacMillian) last year. Yeo is currently the executive chef at Khong River House, a concept under 50 Eggs restaurant group in Miami.