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Just How Chinese is Your Chinese Meal?
If I’m completely honest—and, of course, I always am—I don’t lose a great deal of sleep worrying about exactly how authentic the Chinese food that they serve up in my local restaurant really is. Let’s face the facts, we all know that most, if not all, of the Chinese cuisine that is available in this country is, in reality, a fusion of Chinese and American influences—and, depending on the restaurant in question, dishes may draw on inspiration from many other parts of the world in addition to that. Indeed, in all probability, anyone who had lived all their life in China would have a hard time recognizing many of our best-loved dishes as examples of their national cuisine! That being said, while I place a higher value on delicious flavors, appealing presentation and the sheer enjoyment of the meal than any considerations of its authenticity, I do like to know a little about the inspiration behind the dishes that are available. If nothing else, it provides a rich topic for debate and discussion if the conversation over the lazy Susan ever starts to flag.
Fake or Fusion?
While purists may scoff at some of the ostensibly Chinese food served up in restaurants and point out, with perfect justice, that that ingredients such as cheese or tomatoes are, respectively, rarely used or simply not native to China, they are not always correct in their judgement on the heritage of any given recipe. After all, China is an immense and culturally diverse country and, if we are talking about Chinese food as a whole, rather than, for example, the widely admired Szechuan cuisine, there really is an incalculable number of dishes waiting to be discovered. While a connoisseur may be correct in thinking that a certain dish owes far more to this country than to China, it may very well turn out that a similar dish really does exist in one form or another, perhaps in a region that is less familiar to them. This may indeed be the case with the much-maligned chop suey, which is widely thought of as an American concoction.
Fancy a Fried Scorpion?
There is a good reason for the success of Chinese-American fusion cuisine. It is unlikely that Chinese food would have the same popularity that it enjoys today, if it had not been adapted and re-imagined to appeal to a wide variety of palates. You sometimes hear it said that authentic Chinese food is a cuisine influenced by famine and, not surprisingly, hard times can make people open-minded about the kinds of foods they are prepared to try in order to assuage their hunger. This means that the Chinese food to be found in China itself features a great many items that may not find favor with the customers of the typical American Chinese restaurant. Anyone who is squeamish about the idea of eating chicken feet, for example, is probably going to struggle with the idea of snacking on pig’s trotters as well and the thought of eating insects could send many people into a restal state of panic. Dishes containing such delicacies as intestines or brains may very well be delicious—indeed, a review in Boon Magazine said of a dish of fried pork intestines “If you forget about the origins of this food, you might actually enjoy it.” However, how many customers will give themselves the chance to find out?
None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with enjoying those Chinese dishes that turn out not to be quite so Chinese after all. Far from it! Fusion foods containing traditional Chinese ingredients may be beneficial to the health in addition to being delicious. According to practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, herbs such as Ginkgo, sometimes used in tea as well as soups, for example, is considered useful in the treatment of memory loss, while Ginseng is thought to help people on the road to recovery from addictions. Meanwhile, many of the most popular items on the menu of any Chinese restaurant are likely to draw on inspirations sourced from every corner of the global village. This is the case for one excellent reason: they are, quite simply, delicious and inspired creations. While it may be highly improbable that General Tso took time away from the duties of state to perfect a recipe for deep fried chicken, that fact does not make the dish one iota less mouth-watering. Similarly, the fact that such literary luminaries as Cao Xueqin, author of The Dream of the Red Chamber, and Wu Cheng’en, who wrote Journey to the West, were even less likely to have had the opportunity to experience the delights of stir fries in which broccoli or tomatoes are featured should not in any way prevent you from enjoying those healthy and delicious ingredients as part of your meal.