Do They Really Eat That In China? The Truth Behind 3 Chinese Restaurant Favorites

24 April 2017
 Categories: Food & Cooking, Blog

Chinese cuisine is a popular staple in most American cities. Even in small towns, where it can be difficult to find exotic cuisines, there's probably a Chinese restaurant somewhere within relatively close driving distance. But have you ever wondered how authentic the Chinese dishes you're eating actually are? The truth is that many of the American favorites on a Chinese restaurant menu aren't authentically Chinese at all. Take a look at the facts behind some common Chinese restaurant favorites and find out what to order instead when you want a real taste of China.

General Tso's Chicken

The famous chicken dish is named after a real person – General Tso is a real general from the Hunan province of China, and he's an important historical figure in that province. However, he didn't create or eat the chicken dish that was named for him, and he probably wouldn't recognize it.

General Tso's chicken was first created in the 1960s by a Hunan-born chef working in Taipei. However, the dish was adapted for American palates by Chinese restaurant owners in America. The logic was that Americans wanted food that was somewhat exotic, but still basically recognizable to them. Each Chinese restaurant has its own version of the recipe, but few resemble the spicy style of cooking that the Hunan province is known for.

Try This Instead: Peking duck is one of China's most famous authentic dishes. Not only does the juicy roasted meat and crispy skin make a delicious treat, it's also presented with flair. Peking duck is meant to be carved at the table in front of the diners and served in several delicious stages.

Egg Rolls

Egg rolls are definitely a Chinese food restaurant staple. Usually, they're filled with bean shoots and some type of meat, although there are vegetarian varieties. However, it's the deep fried roll on the outside that should give you your first clue that this food may not be authentically Chinese. Although foods that are rolled in batter and deep-fried are popular in America, it's not a popular style of cooking in China.

The egg roll that most Americans are familiar with is an Americanized version of the spring roll, a similar but lighter cylindrical side dish containing carrots and bamboo shoots in a flaky flour wrapper. As part of a backlash against unhealthy deep-fried foods, the egg roll temporarily dropped in popularity, and Chinese restaurants began to introduce the more authentic spring roll instead. Now you can often find both on the menu at many Chinese restaurants.

Try This Instead: Xiao Long Bao are also called Chinese soup dumplings. That's because the flour dumplings are filled not just with meat (usually pork) but also with a hot, savory broth. They're served in bamboo baskets with vinegar, ginger slivers, and a clear soup on the side.

Fortune Cookies

You may have suspected that fortune cookies aren't the most authentically Chinese food out there, although they are a fun way to end a meal. The little message-bearing cookies have their roots in Japan, where they were originally a regional specialty, sold to tourists visiting the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine in Fukakusa. The shape of the cookies was meant to evoke the image of the bells in the shrine.

Fortune cookies came to America in the late 19th century, courtesy of a Japanese immigrant. Eventually, Chinese restaurants began to sell them as a pan-Asian delicacy. They began to be associated with Chinese food in the 1940s, and the association stuck, even to the present time.

Try This Instead: In China, it's common to end a meal with a slice of orange, which is thought to be good luck. However, if you're looking for something a little sweeter, try zeen doy – sticky balls of rice flour filled with red bean paste and coated with sesame seeds. They may be listed on the menu as sesame balls. In China, this sweet treat is especially popular during the festivities of the Chinese New Year.

There's nothing wrong with Americanized Chinese cuisine if you enjoy it. However, you may discover a whole new appreciation for Chinese cuisine if you try some more authentic dishes when you get the chance. You can also check out Chinese restaurant websites such as beforehand so you know what to order when you arrive.