By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer
 
When I moved to Minnesota in 2007, I was struck by the billboards I saw seemingly everywhere for Chinese fusion restaurants.   Chinese and Indian foods at Chindian Cafe, Chinese and Latin American foods at Chino Latino—I couldn't even imagine how the combinations would taste, and couldn't make sense of why they would be so popular as to merit billboards.

By Elizabeth Greenberg, Staff Writer
 
When I moved to Minnesota in 2007, I was struck by the billboards I saw seemingly everywhere for Chinese fusion restaurants.   Chinese and Indian foods at Chindian Cafe, Chinese and Latin American foods at Chino Latino—I couldn't even imagine how the combinations would taste, and couldn't make sense of why they would be so popular as to merit billboards.

But actually, these restaurants make as much, if not more, sense than the United States' version of Chinese food.  Although originally adapted primarily from Cantonese cuisine, American Chinese food bears little resemblance to any Chinese culinary traditions. Chinese cuisine tends to be lighter and less sweet than its American variant, and several 'Chinese' dishes popular in the United States did not originate in China: for example, chop suey was invented in America in the 19th century.  Jennifer Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, even went to General Tso's hometown and asked several of the general's ancestors about General Tso's chicken: they found it completely unrecognizable, and one of them even asked whether it was Chinese food.
 
The startling changes Chinese cooking underwent to become commercially viable in the United States are part of a curious historical pattern.  When people emigrate from China to other countries, one of two things generally happens: Chinese cuisine heavily influences the mainstream cooking style, or Chinese cuisine adapts so well to local tastes and ingredients that, to quote the Natural Restaurant Association, “‘authenticity’ is no longer a concern for customers.”  
 
So why does Chinese food adapt so easily to its surroundings?
 
In The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Tommy Wong of Trey Yuen restaurant in Louisiana indicated that “a driving force behind Chinese cooking is the desire to adapt and incorporate indigenous ingredients and utilize Chinese cooking techniques... Chinese cooking is not a set of dishes, [but rather] a philosophy that serves local tastes and ingredients.”  And given the history of China, this extraordinary adaptiveness is only to be expected.  As of 2001, China supported over 20 percent of the world's population using only 10 percent of the world's arable land: this meager land to population ratio means China has developed many innovative ways of culturing food, and has been very open to alternative sources of food, including international ingredients.  As an example of China's openness to new ingredients, egg and tomato dishes are ubiquitous in China, but the tomato was only introduced to China in the 1930s.
 
Regardless of the reason or reasons for this adaptive pattern, it is an important one in understanding how China interacts with the world. This article will be the first in a series about different international adaptations of Chinese cuisines and their impact on the cultures in question. I'll begin by talking about the cuisine I first saw advertised on one of those billboards, the cuisine that first made me curious about the international influence of Chinese food.
 
Indian Chinese Cuisine
Next to different local cuisines, there is no more popular cuisine in India than Chinese food. Thought to originally come from the Chinese community in Tangra, a suburb of Kalkota (Calcutta), Chinese food became popular in India starting in the 1980s.  According to a 2007 article, “India gets a taste for Chinese” by Raja M, on Asia Times Online (www.atimes.com), the market is growing at an astonishing rate of 9 percent annually. 
 
Indian Chinese cuisine is also known as Indo-Chinese cuisine, Hakka-Indian Chinese cuisine, or, misleadingly, simply Hakka Chinese cuisine.
 
Indian Chinese cuisine tends to be heavier on the 'gravy' than traditional Chinese cuisine, and utilizes several Indian spices that are uncommon to nonexistent in Chinese cooking: these spices include cumin, turmeric, coriander seeds, and green chilies.  Additionally, because of cultural and religious taboos against beef and pork within India, these meats seldom appear on Chinese menus in India, and many vegetarian dishes are featured because of the importance of vegetarianism in India.
 
Best Restaurant Worldwide?
Unquestionably, the most famous Indian Chinese restaurant is China Garden restaurant in Mumbai.  Nelson Wang, the owner, invented several of the most famous dishes in Indian Chinese cuisine, including Chicken Manchurian, which blends Chinese ingredients with local flavorings, and date pancakes, which were developed for the Indian sweet tooth.
 
This is just a taste of all the Chinese cuisines to be found internationally-- I hope you'll come back for a second helping in the next issue of China Insight, when we head to the chifas of Latin America!
 
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth lived in China for four months, graduated from Grinnell College with a Chinese major in 2007, and wrote her college entrance essay on chopsticks. She is fascinated by the way cultures adapt to change and by how cultural identity is reflected in cuisine. She also thinks food is delicious.

 

 

 

 

  
  
 

 

 

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CHINAINSIGHT (CI) is published monthly ((except July/August and November/December are combined) by China Insight, Inc., an independent, privately owned company started in 2001 and headquartered in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.

CHINAINSIGHT is the only English-language American newspaper to focus exclusively on connections between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

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