China’s cuisine is beloved in every corner of the world. But if you ask someone outside the Asian continent what constitutes “authentic” Chinese, they might not be able to answer (correctly, at least). An American might say crispy sweet and sour pork, while someone from the West Indies may mention jerk chicken lo mein.
Of course, defining “authentic” food in any context is tricky. The dishes below may not be part of an age-old Chinese culinary canon, but they are authentic products of the Chinese immigrant experience — diverse and valid gastronomical offerings that came about as a result of that cultural interplay with the rest of the world. And we — the rest of the world — are grateful for it.
As Chinese immigrants formed communities throughout the world, they yielded diverse takes on Chinese cuisine using ingredients at hand, and tweaked for local palettes. Here are six Chinese dishes to try on six different continents:
1. United States: General Tso’s Chicken
General Tso’s is a new-age classic of pseudo-Chinese cuisine. Sweet, tangy and deep-fried crispy chicken chunks cater to a distinctly American palette – but the dish is nowhere to be found in any shape or form in China. Where does it come from? Who is General Tso?
The original recipe is commonly attributed to Peng Chang-kuei, a banquet chef of the Nationalist government who fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War, and later opened a restaurant in New York City, where he reportedly created the dish. The name is a reference to the Qing dynasty military leader Zuo Zongtang, but the reasons why are unclear. General Tso’s Chicken — and its brothers Orange and Sesame — form the golden trifecta of American fast food Chinese.
The Legend of American Chinese Food: 8 Dishes and Their Authentic Counterparts
2. Peru: Lomo Saltado
Lomo Saltado is a classic Peruvian dish that’s become a staple of the nation’s diet, but its origins are in chifa cuisine. (The word is a transliteration from the Cantonese for “cook/eat food.”) The chifa culinary tradition arose when immigrants from southern China arrived in Peru in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, modifying their favorite recipes to accommodate the local ingredients and creating one of the first true fusion cuisines in the process.
Lomo Saltado is a stir-fry that varies from place to place, but generally includes strips of sirloin, tomatoes, onions and French fries over rice. A haphazard but drool-worthy mix that should be on your to-do list if you visit Peru.
3. Australia: Chiko Roll
Australian sporting snack history was changed forever when food vendor Frank McEnroe saw a Chinese cart outside a cricket stadium selling eggrolls. What if, he dared to dream, there were a stronger, sturdier alternative that could withstand the drunken terror of an Australian sports event? The Chiko Roll was born. Originally marketed as the Chicken Roll, the meat-based – though decidedly chicken-less – snack was first introduced at the 1951 Wagga Wagga Agricultural Show, and lives on today as a crowd favorite.
4. Holland: Tjap Ha
Holland’s colonial history has yielded Dutch-Chinese food that’s inextricably entwined with Indonesian influences. Soy sauce meets satay sauce in this intra-Asia free-for-all – even Dutch people probably couldn’t tell you where one ends and the other begins. Surf meets turf, as thousands of years of elegant culinary norms are tossed out the window to make room for maximalist dishes that satisfy the beefy and hearty cravings of Dutch customers.
Among these is Tjap Ha, bringing together the ungodly forces of chop suey noodles, vegetables, shrimp and chicken, in satay sauce. Eat enough of it and you too might grow to reach the size of the average Dutch person.
5. Trinidad: “Chinese-Style Chicken”
In the 19th century, after the British abolished African slavery in Trinidad, Chinese indentured servants began arriving to fill the labor void. They brought their cooking with them, and the result was an eclectic mix of spices, sauces and flavors that can still be seen in one of Trinidad’s most popular dishes, which locals refer to simply as “Chinese-Style Chicken.”
The chicken is marinated overnight in dark soy sauce and five-spice, then deep-fried to a warm, crispy, chestnut color. Tartness from ginger and lime is a must, and the bi-national flavors of Chinese oyster sauce and scotch bonnet pepper sauce complete the dish.
6. India: Paneer Schezwan
Indian-Chinese cooking has existed for a long time, and is generally thought to have originated in the Hakka Chinese communities of Kolkata. The style adapts select Chinese cooking and seasoning techniques to Indian tastes, yielding vegetarian dishes the likes of which mainland China has never seen.
Paneer Schezwan is no typo – most Indian kitchens use this spelling rather than the standard pinyin Sichuan. Indian dishes with names like Schezwan and Manchurian correspond only loosely with their original counterparts, but the idea is there. Indian Schezwan dishes center mainly around a sauce containing Indian red chilies and garlic, and may sometimes even use Sichuan peppercorns. Chinese chefs – as a rule – despise cheese, so Paneer Schezwan is the perfect example of the liberating new ideas that can be born from this kind of cross-cultural intermingling.
* The term “authentic Chinese food” is tricky. The above dishes aren’t part of any age-old Chinese culinary canon, but they are authentic products of the Chinese immigrant experience, diverse and valid gastronomical offerings that came about as a result of that cultural interplay with the rest of the world. And we, the rest of the world, are grateful for it.
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