Kuora: Chinese food in America doesn’t have to be an abomination

This week’s column comes from two of Kaiser’s answers, originally posted to Quora on August 3, 2018.

What do people from China think of Americanized Chinese food?

There are all sorts of variations on Americanized Chinese food, and my wife, who was born and raised in China and has only lived in the U.S. now for two years, has had the chance to sample quite the range.

No one should be surprised that she finds some of it abominable — a real insult to the cuisine from which it is putatively derived.

What’s rather surprising to me is that there’s some of it — and it depends very much on the restaurant we’re talking about — that she quite likes. At a restaurant on Piedmont Ave. in Oakland, California called Little Shin Shin, if I remember correctly, she really liked the distinctly American take on gulao rou, which is “sweet and sour pork.” She also quite liked their General Tso’s Chicken. In this case it wasn’t smothered in sweet sauce, had a nice crispy crunch to it, and was served piping hot, garlicky, and just sticky enough.

Where we live now, in the Triangle region of North Carolina, she loved the take on Chongqing laziji that we tried in a Carrboro Sichuan restaurant called Gourmet Kingdom: It was fairly large piece of boneless chicken battered and rolled generously in cayenne flakes with lots of Sichuan peppercorn flavoring. We liked this take on it so much that we’ve replicated it at home. It’s nothing that a self-respecting Sichuan eatery in China would ever serve, but it works, and there’s about 3x the amount of meat in that one dish than you’d find in the comparable dish in an authentic Sichuan place.

At a restaurant called Red Pepper in Chapel Hill, we both liked their take on shuizhuyu, a sort of nouvelle Sichuan dish that got crazy popular in China in the early 2000s. This version used large pieces of tilapia that I suspect had been lightly breaded and pan fried before being steeped in a wicked peppery concoction with tons of Sichuan peppercorns. It was quite good! The chef of that restaurant, to our surprise, was a really friendly African-American guy. We complimented him on the excellent dish but he said he was just preparing it the way the boss — a Sichuanese woman — had taught him. Again, this was totally “Americanized,” but it was great.

And just last night I ate in Richmond, Virginia, at a place called Peter Chang’s. Peter Chang is something of a legend in the mid-Atlantic region; he was the chef at the Chinese embassy in DC and has since opened a number of different places. The stand-out at this place last night (my wife wasn’t there, but she would have agreed I’d bet) was another Americanized take on spicy chicken. This one was served in a dry pot with copious peppers, little strips of lotus root, celery, onions, and lots of cilantro. The chicken itself was cut not into cubes but into roughly 2 cm by 1 cm strips, maybe 3 mm thick, and battered and fried. It had absorbed the peppery goodness of the sauce, but still had just enough of a crunch to it.

Also see:

Kuora: The fascinating appeal of Mexican food in China

The Secret Menu: A quintessential Chinese dish, by Kaiser Kuo

Kuora is a weekly column.