With beloved dishes like fried rice and Lo Mein noodles, Chinese food is right up there with pizza as one of America’s most beloved comfort food cuisines. But just like pizza, some dishes in Chinese restaurants can lose comfort points with a sheer lack of authenticity or unhealthy preparation.
Chinese food is a cuisine that is often Americanized with increased levels of spicy, salty and sweet. Here are the top offenders according to the chefs.
General Tso’s Chicken
A particular culprit here is General Tso’s Chicken, an iconic and infamous menu item popularized on mall restaurant and takeout menus. But as one of the most Americanized Chinese foods, it’s as inauthentic as it is popular.
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Although the dish comes from a Chinese chef, it is a fairly recent invention that is virtually unknown in China. General Tso’s chicken first became popular in Taiwan, where chef Peng Chang-kuei served it to diplomats in the 1950s. It then made its way to the United States, where it received a lot of hype in the press, thanks to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger raving about it. Before long, the dish became one of the best-known Chinese dishes in the country.
So if you’re looking for an authentic Chinese delicacy, you’d be wise to skip General Tso’s or find out how chefs are reinventing the dish.
Look for a cleaner spin
Lon Symensma, co-founder and executive chef of ChoLon Restaurant Concepts in Denver, Colorado, which owns several Asian concept restaurants, agrees. She points out that the popular chicken item bears the marks of America’s penchant for gluttony. “General Tso’s chicken is often breaded, fried, and covered in a rich sauce, making it a rather delicious but unhealthy option in Chinese restaurants.” Its alternative to ChoLon gives a cleaner touch to the object. “We took the sweet, tangy, and spicy aspects of General Tso’s and put them into a steamed soup dumpling. Rich in flavor but a little nicer on the waistline.”
Try the soup dumplings
in San Francisco, Kathy Zanna keeps its menu authentic: You won’t find any General Tso’s Chicken at its long-established Fang restaurant. It goes to great lengths to ensure culinary credibility with dishes like the soup dumplings, which have become a household name over the years.
“Since it became popular in the United States, restaurants are now trying to give it all these eye-catching effects, from the multicolored skins of the dumplings… to the change of filling. Some include cheese-based fillings, while others are dyed red with beetroot juice,” he says. “The effort to make perfect soup dumplings has strayed into making them look fresh or sound unusual. But with something as delicate and refined as a soup dumpling, the cheese will overpower the entire dumpling and the color of the skin won’t contribute to the final taste of the dumpling, but most likely take away from it.”
Whether it’s a chicken dish or a delicate dumpling, authentic, time-tested Chinese dishes shouldn’t be over-seasoned, over-fried, or over-salted. “When it comes to some classics, stick with tradition and keep it simple,” says Fang.
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Too many fish options
While chicken dishes in Chinese restaurants take the brunt of the chefs, other menu items are best avoided for freshness reasons. For example, an endless list of seafood options on a gigantic menu should raise eyebrows.
“Although there are many fine restaurants with rich menus, I often get tired of scallops or other delicate foods in Chinese restaurants with 200+ menu items,” she says Hanson Li, co-founder and CEO of Lazy Susan in San Francisco. “Although this isn’t always the case, huge menus can sometimes use frozen seafood which, once thawed, can decline in quality. If a restaurant doesn’t have the speed, less frequently ordered dishes could suffer.”
Instead, his solution to Lazy Susan is a menu featuring 25 of the most popular Chinese dishes in the US to ensure the ingredients are fresh.