From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Good Enough For Us?

The following was an actual conversation that I had with Katie, a good friend of mine whom I have known (and worked with) for 6 years. She and her fiancé, along with many others, were instrumental in helping make my restaurant, Chino’s Café, successful.

I have always known Katie to have a critical palate, as it applies to food, and she has never shied away from expressing her true opinion.

Katie Calderon July 1 at 8:13pm

So I decided: what the heck are you thinking thinking that Fire Wok is better then Fire Bowl?! No way.

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 8:17pm

lol... Fire Wok adheres to the authenticity of the recips better than Fire Bowl. You may like Fire Bowl better because their flavor profiles are created for the Americanized palate. not you fault. ;)

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Katie Calderon July 1 at 8:19pm

Lol excuse me mr know it all! Every time I eat it I'm like ehh I've had better ill give it another shot next time... Nope. The island fried rice is the only good thing they have

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 8:23pm

lol... that is why you are the best. Never afraid to let me know how you REALLY feel... so what did you think of Chino's food, then, hmm???

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Katie Calderon July 1 at 8:30pm

I liked it!! Lol

Sent via Facebook Mobile


Colin F Ogg July 1 at 8:32pm

Good thing... Considering how much the 2 of you had to do with the success of the restaurant...

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Katie Calderon July 1 at 8:35pm

Duhhh =)

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 8:36pm

I am going to put this ENTIRE conversation in tomorrow's blog post. Lol... Give you some credit...

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 8:46pm

& plus, where did all this come from anyways?

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Katie Calderon July 1 at 8:54pm

Lol I got Fire Wok to go and was so excited and its disgusting! Now I'm eating cheese and crackers

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 8:55pm

Lol... I am sorry to hear that. What did you order?

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Katie Calderon July 1 at 9:03pm

I got a stir crazy with schezuan. Vomit.

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 9:04pm

Lol... Did you at least taste the sauce first??? Theirs is not as sweet a sauce as Fire Bowl...

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Katie Calderon July 1 at 9:05pm

Yea it tastes like curry. Jonathan got the singpore thingy, double vomit.

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 9:08pm

Oh. I actually like the Singapore Curry. I bet they didn't clean out the wok between dishes. Too bad... You will have to let me make it up to you. I will cook your dish of choice, any time you & Jon are available, with enough notice.

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Katie Calderon July 1 at 9:11pm

Lemon chicken!

Sent via Facebook Mobile

Colin F Ogg July 1 at 9:12pm

I knew you would pick that... When do you want to come over?

Sent via Facebook Mobile


I am constantly asked why so many Chinese restaurants have such different flavor profiles. My consistent response is to make the questioner think about what flavor they like, and where their destination restaurant is, followed by their analysis regarding what the targeted demographic for that particular restaurant is.

Case in point – Fire Wok versus Fire Bowl Café. Fire Bowl Café versus Pei Wei Asian Diner. Pei Wei Asian Diner versus Panda Express. And so on… There are over 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, 3 times the number of McDonald’s franchise units, with the same level of annual sales to put it on par with the gargantuan hamburger chain.

So the analysis and answer comes from the differences in method and seasoning. The “stuff” that most people get from the local Chinese take-out joint, especially the ones with a drive-thru, is not the same as what is eaten on the mainland. But this is not news. Everyone needs to remember that the guy hovering (or slaving) over the hot wok must stir fry something that is acceptable to the American palate. Should they fail, their restaurant would not be busy every Thursday night.

Chinese food has long been available in a form that suits American tastes (sometimes called “Chinese-American food”), as well as in varieties that more closely resemble the various cuisines actually served in China and in Chinese communities around the world. In restaurants in large cities like New York and San Francisco, both types of food may be available, sometimes in the same restaurant.

During the nineteenth century, thousands of Chinese workers came to the western United States to build railroads, dig mines, and perform other types of hard industrial work. The early California “chow chows” were simple restaurants run by Cantonese Chinese to feed their Chinese compatriots; soon Chinese restaurateurs began to cook for American workmen, altering their dishes not only to satisfy American tastes but also to better avail themselves of local ingredients. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred further immigration, but Chinese people were already ensconced in the restaurant trade, and settled in Chinese neighborhoods in the big cities.

While groceries and restaurants in large city Chinese neighborhoods have always catered to the authentic Chinese food culture, over the course of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a form of Chinese-American food became part of the eating experience for Americans all over the country. The Chinese restaurant, usually influenced by the Cantonese cuisine of south-eastern China, offered tasty, inexpensive dishes. Whether or not it had sit-down service, it almost always offered delivery or at least pick-up; the food “to-go” would be sent out in distinctive types of containers used almost exclusively by the Chinese restaurant trade.

Staple Chinese-American dishes include Won ton and Egg Drop Soup, Fried Rice (incorporating chopped-up meats, most frequently pork), Egg Foo Young (a thick omelet served in a brown sauce), Egg Rolls, Glazed Spare Ribs, Chow Mein, Moo Goo Gai Pan (sautéed chicken with crispy vegetables in a white sauce), various Lo Mein or noodle dishes, several “sweet and sour” items, Moo Shu Pork (a light mixture of meat and vegetables wrapped in a pancake), and a great number of dishes consisting essentially of stir fried meat, fish or chicken with Chinese or western vegetables, to be served over a mound of white rice. Vegetables known only in the United States—carrots, American onions, broccoli, tomatoes—were widely used in an effort to cater to American tastes.

Two totally American inventions, Chop Suey (meat and vegetables in a brown sauce) and the Fortune Cookie, were ubiquitous. The restaurant table offered crispy fried noodles, salty soy sauce, hot Chinese mustard, and sweet “duck sauce;” these extras were also available in packet form for what became known as “take-out Chinese.” The restaurants, plain or sumptuous, all made an attempt to suggest Chinese decorative motifs: black lacquered furniture, ornate lanterns, Chinese scrolls on the walls, Chinese or mock-Chinese plates, cups and bowls. The local Chinese restaurant might offer special “family” combinations leading to the iconic phrase “Choice of three from Column A and two from Column B” and its variants. All these types of foods are still widely available in the United States.

Concurrent with the heyday of this hybrid cuisine, American food companies, using brands with Chinese-sounding invented names like La Choy and Chung King, began offering canned “Chinese style” bean sprouts, water chestnuts, mandarin orange segments, and crispy noodles, bottled soy and duck sauces, frozen egg rolls, fried rice and other dishes in this mode for home use.

Another facet of the traditional Chinese-American restaurant is that it often used large quantities of the food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate), to which many Americans found they were overly sensitive, leading to a condition popularly called “Chinese restaurant syndrome” in which sufferers complain of dehydration, headaches, drowsiness, nausea, bloating and other symptoms. As a response to this, many restaurants now advertise they are “MSG-free.”

Two closely spaced events, however, would change the face of Chinese food in America forever. In 1965, immigration laws were dramatically liberalized, opening up the United States to large scale Chinese immigration. In 1972, American President Richard Nixon visited China. A growing population of food conscious Americans began to seek a more authentic “ethnic” dining experience; enterprising Chinese chefs were there to give it to them. “Dim Sum,” a tradition of eating many small dishes like dumplings, became popular. Hong Kong, Szechwan, Hunan, Shanghai and Taiwanese restaurants now abound in large cities, patronized by both Chinese and western customers, though there are still some foods—chicken feet comes to mind—that westerners have never much taken to.

Chinese farms in the United States now produce traditional vegetables like the cabbage-like bok choy, Chinese broccoli, yu choy, and bean sprouts to satisfy the demands of authentic Chinese cooking, which stresses vegetables above protein foods. Traditional Chinese chilies, spices and specialty sauce mixtures are imported, as are luxury ingredients like shark fins.

Though most Chinese restaurants in the United States are individually or family owned, there are a number of restaurant chains offering Chinese food to American tastes. One of the largest fancy dinner chains is the comfortable P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, whose owners also operate the trendy Pei Wei Asian Diner chain. Panda Express is a large, nationwide Chinese fast-food chain with more than 800 locations. Over the past few decades, the all-you-can eat Chinese buffet has become a popular concept.

Though American tastes still dictate the content of most Chinese menus outside the largest cities, Chinese-American food has become more varied since the new immigration began (if anything, to compete with the dozens of cuisines that have also become prevalent as a result of the same immigration liberalization: Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, to name just a few of the Asian varieties). A form of restaurant called “Mongolian Barbecue” allows customers to choose their meats and ingredients and cook them or have them cooked on special grills right at their tables. The Chinese menu will nearly always feature a “hot” option in deference to the Szechwan and Hunan traditions. Catering to American health concerns, restaurants also now frequently offer dishes that are steamed instead of fried in oil, and vegetarian options. The dread MSG is far less prevalent.

In addition to its luncheon specials and appetizers, a community Chinese restaurant (in this case, chosen at random) offers, as is typical, two types of main dishes. The first generally is listed by type of protein food used as a base. Beef, for example, is offered with mushrooms, scallions, Chinese vegetables, snow peas, broccoli, oyster sauce, curry sauce, in a moo shoo option with pancakes, with garlic sauce, and with peanuts. A similar array of roast pork, shrimp, and chicken dishes are produced; chicken, beef and pork have a sweet and sour option as well. Fried rice and Egg Foo Young are available with meat, fish or vegetables. Vegetarian options include combinations of the same array of vegetables, plus bean curd: steamed, deep fried, or stir-fried. Chow Mein (crisp noodles), Lo Mein (thin soft noodles), and Chow Fun (wide soft noodles) are also available in the usual combinations.

The second type of main dish is the specialty dish, typically more expensive that the simpler combinations. Some examples from just a single restaurant: Orange Flavor Beef, Hunan Triple Delight (chicken, beef, and shrimp with green vegetables in a spicy Hunan sauce), Lemon Chicken, Happy Family (beef, pork, shrimp and chicken in a thick brown sauce), Ginger Fried Shredded Beef, Seafood Combination (shrimp, scallops, and lobster meat), Marinated Duck, Scallop and Beef (with broccoli, straw mushrooms, baby corn and green pepper in a garlic sauce), Steak Kew (sizzling beef sautéed with water chestnuts and mushrooms), and Butterfly Shrimp (battered and deep fried).

Unlike other popular ethnic cuisines like Italian and Mexican, authentic Chinese food is not prepared in the American home on a regular basis, though home cooks may use the Chinese wok pan for simple stir-fry dishes. Authentic Chinese cuisine usually calls for a level of heat unknown in Western cooking. The quick flash fry, on a high-BTU restaurant stove, seals in flavors in a way almost impossible to match in a non-professional kitchen.

But to get more to the bone, of course there is a difference between cooking Chinese food in China and cooking it here in North America. For starters, the people on the mainland never use frozen food. Ever. There’s more flavor in fresh food. Fresh is chewier and feels better in your mouth. Of course some things frozen aren’t too bad, but they are few and far between. Everything is fresh, probably picked that day. We could go into a long account about the absence of refrigeration, but it’s not necessary. Fresh is the only thing they know.

Sadly, some of the seasonings and regular commodities used in a common Cantonese kitchen cannot be found, much less pronounced or spelled at the local retailer. The clear advantage goes to the native Chinese who have generations of experience in cultivating produce that would fill a long spice rack.

A true Chinese kitchen will also never have a deep fryer. In addition to thinking about the health factors, deep frying saturates food with oil and strips it of its individuality, as tastes and flavors become mixed and combined. Stir fried, boiled, or steamed foods are the most regular products that come out of a true Chinese culinary kitchen. “True” Chinese food has a tendency to be a little firmer and rigid, not softened up with a lot of sauce.

These are just a few of the factors that make for a distinctive style and taste in food. However, there is no need to be concerned that what one enjoys from the local favorite establishment. It is the American style and the American way. It has been consumed and enjoyed for years. If ever in China, you can taste the real thing. After visiting “the real thing” and returning home, picking up some take-out may be worth the trip.

Until Then, Good Eating, Friends...

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

No comments:

Post a Comment