Ask a random group of Americans to name some Chinese dishes, and most will likely mention egg rolls and fortune cookies. Of course, an increasing minority of Americans will know that these are actually American innovations, and that the cuisine served in China is far more varied. To put it in Chinese, we Americans are well familiar with meiguorende kouwei — Chinese food cooked to American taste. But there's a whole world of zhongguorende kouwei — or food cooked to Chinese taste — that encompasses such varied cuisines as Hunan, Sichuan, and Shandong, and comprises more than 5,000 named dishes.
In pointing it out, we don't mean to cast disdain upon the delights of General Tso or sweet-and-sour everything. If anything, the development of American-oriented Chinese food more than 100 years ago is a culinary success story. According to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, American Chinese cuisine was pioneered by the first wave of Chinese immigrants, most of whom came to work in California mines and railroads in the 19th century. But after the Chinese Exclusion Acts at the turn of the last century cut off the stream of Chinese immigration, and with growing anti-Chinese racism in the West, Chinese found industrial work scarce, and many of them adapted by opening restaurants.
Their humble eateries offered meals remembered from their native Guangdong province in southern China. Named for the province's capital city, Cantonese cuisine became North America's default "Chinese" food for more than a generation. Since the tide of Chinese immigration had been stemmed by law, Chinese-American restaurant culture couldn't rely upon a growing ethnic community, and had to court broader appeal. With some intelligent tweaks to accommodate American tastes (and restaurateurs' budgets), Chinese-American cuisine quickly grew into the most popular "ethnic" food in the United States, and the chop suey joint became a pioneer purveyor of "fast food."
With immigration laws relaxed in the second half of the 20th century, new waves of immigrants from all over China have arrived, most of them regarding U.S. "Chinese food" as a curiosity, preferring the authentic fare of their homeland, creating the demand for a new generation of Chinese restaurants. And this has been good for local diners, who now have more fantastic choices than ever before.
Yet American diners can be notoriously resistant to foreign foods, especially when they involve such taboos as whole fish, variety meats, cuttlefish, or, especially, chicken feet.
So we set out to find a scale from the timid to the adventurous, by which American diners might advance their knowledge of authentic Chinese food step by step. Thanks to the area's wealth of restaurants serving regional Chinese cuisine, it has never been easier to appreciate and enjoy.
Almond Boneless Chicken
Just as children begin to study language by learning the alphabet, many a metro Detroiter's introduction to Chinese food begins with "ABC" — or almond boneless chicken. In Chinese, the dish is called war su gai, but its pedigree is as American as the eggroll. In the Midwest, the dish consists of a deep-fried, battered chicken breast cut crosswise into slices, laid on a bed of iceberg lettuce, along with water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms, and then covered in a sweetish brown sauce and sprinkled with sliced almonds and chopped scallions. The sauce softens the crispy batter, and the heat of the fried chicken wilts the lettuce beneath. Yes, few things are more American than a breaded chicken cutlet, but the dish is a toe in the water: an introduction to the brown sauces of other dishes, and probably the first time U.S. diners find that wilted lettuce can be enjoyable.
Lamb with Cumin
One of our restaurant critics tried this dish at Taste of China, opining, "Lamb with Cumin is the type of dish you go to an authentic Chinese restaurant for." That rendition had hot red pepper flakes that set off the cumin against the pungency of the tender lamb. For $17.95 you can order it off their authentic Chinese menu, as "fresh lamb with pure cumin powder." You can also get it a little cheaper at Ann Arbor's Chia Shiang, with thin strips of fried meat amid peppers and shavings of ginger. The spiciness should draw in some varsity eaters, but they'll dial down the heat if you like. And, yes, it also comes in beef, if you must remain within your Middle-American comfort zone.
We've seen American diners sniff at duck, squicked out at the servings of skin and the fatty meat. But with U.S. health officials tiptoeing away from their cholesterol warnings — and with everything from fries to poutine being drenched in duck fat — perhaps now is a good time to appreciate the pleasures of a roasted duck. You can enjoy the traditional three-course serving at Shangri-La West Bloomfield, where you'll get crispy skins along with pancakes to wrap them in, a soup with a broth made from duck bones, and finally the duck meat itself, with a bit of chopped green onions and hoisin sauce. What's hoisin sauce? Just think of it as China's sweet-and-salty version of barbecue sauce.
Hong Kong-Style Sweet-and-Sour Pork
On some level, Americans should almost gravitate to Hong Kong's version of sweet-and-sour pork: It's made with spare ribs, after all. Given the higher fat content of these rib cuts, they are given a lighter breading over there, but the dish has been modified for Americans — for visual impact. Shangri-La restaurateur Raymond Wong tells us that "instead of using that really thinly breaded pork rib, they cut pieces of pork and use a thicker breading so it looks bigger on the table!" He chuckles and adds, "You can charge a little for a big plate." Want to get past the kitchen tricks and try the real thing? East Lake Chinese Restaurant in Troy offers sweet and sour spare ribs for $8.95. Want to try something even silkier? Try the twice-cooked pork fat ($12.95) at Taste of China in Farmington Hills. An MT reviewer raved about the "wide strips of pork belly with red and green peppers in a sauce of gold, dotted with fermented black beans."
Whole Steamed Fish
At the risk of overgeneralizing, Americans don't like their fish to look like fish. To make it to the American table, they have to be cut into fillets, sometimes skinless, and are often given treatments can overwhelm the delicate flavors, from the heavy breading on a food service fillet to the almond-crusted creations turned out by fine-dining kitchens. Nothing could be more different than Chinese-style steamed-fish cookery. First off, it is the complete fish, from head to fin. Instead of the crispy skin, the flesh pulls away loosely. There are bones to contend with. So why should the American diner push on ahead anyway? Because a small, fresh fish decked out with aromatic herbs and vegetables and given a gentle steaming concentrates flavor in a way other methods can't. Plus, some of the best tidbits on a fish are on the head, including the cheek and the collar. When it's in season, try the steamed silver bass at Shangri-La in the Bloomies. How fresh is it? You get to pick your own fish while it's still alive and swimming in a tank.
As with fish, Americans are a little jumpy if a squid dish looks anything like the animal it used to be. If Americans eat calamari, many want rounds, not tentacles, and even then breaded beyond all recognition, a la "clam strips." The other problem many Americans have with squid is an aversion to the rubbery quality squid dishes can have. But squid doesn't have to squeak like eggplant, and it's a wonderful platform for taking on flavors. In China, they'll often take small squids and run them through something like a laundry mangle, flattening them out into sheets of protein that hardly suggest a cephalopod. It may be cut to order, and end up on your plate as a crispy, spicy, chewy, and salty creation that leaves you wanting more. For $8.95, you can try the deep-fried squid with spicy salt at Shangri-La Detroit.
Yes, Americans generally shy away from eating so low on an animal as to eat the feet. It calls to mind that line about "birdies' feet" in the children's song "Great Big Gobs." But these feet are neither dirty nor disgusting. Any blemishes have been removed, the claws have been cut off. By the time they arrive at a table, they've often been rubbed in salt, deep-fried, brined, and simmered. Other preparations involve curing the delicacies in vinegar until they're almost white, or braising them until they're almost like barbecue. If it helps you make the mental leap, the glycine in the gelatin is also a legitimate anti-inflammatory.