This piece also appeared in the Fall 2009 issue.
By Yang Yang
As an international student, my first trip to an American Chinese restaurant was a mind-boggling experience. I was hoping to soothe a sudden bout of homesickness but walked out feeling worse. Adding to my homesickness was a sense of confusion; is it possible that I don’t actually know my own Chinese culture as well as I thought I did? Take, for example, General Tso. I do not know what he had accomplished to be eternally remembered by the Chinese diaspora through a chicken dish. I was also perturbed that an oddly-shaped cookie was able to foresee that I can expect a “windfall” in the coming week. I just wasn’t sure that the uneasiness in my stomach was simply a result of the grease in my stir-fry.
A discerning eye would be able to spot the many syncretic dishes that exist in America’s kitchens. They all claim to be foreign cuisines but are in fact products of local minds, an imaginative concoction of exotic ingredients and tastes. This article aims to debunk the myths behind some of them. The next time you dine out with your friends, be sure to impress them with you knowledge of the authenticity of these “ethnic” delicacies.
General Tso Chicken
When asked about the history behind this ubiquitous dish, sophomore Jackie Yantachka explains, “Way back in the day when the Chinese empire was at war, General Tso won a bunch of battles and the emperor was so proud that he named a food dish after him!” A reasonable extrapolation certainly, but it could not be further from the truth. A look into Chinese history shows that General Tso did in fact exist and made extraordinary contributions as governor of the Hunan province. However, considering his place of origin, the dish we know today seems to be an inappropriate tribute. Hunan cuisine is known for its spiciness. While General Tso’s chicken can be spicy (mildly so), it is also curiously sweet, a taste unfamiliar to Hunanese taste buds. We can’t say for sure if General Tso nursed a secret sweet tooth, but we do know that sweetness in a Chinese dish is tell-tale of Cantonese origins. Since most of America’s foremost Chinese immigrants were Cantonese, there are speculations that this dish was in fact invented right here on U.S. soil. Peng’s restaurant on East 43rd Street in New York City even claims to be the originator.
The chicken tikka masala is one of the mainstays of Indian restaurants in America. But you might not have known that instead of originating from far-flung India, it was invented just right across the pond. Yes, in the UK. Glasgow to be specific. As if Scotland isn’t already a cut above the rest with their bagpipes-playing men in skirts. Word on the street is that a stubborn patron of the Shish Mahal curry house demanded more gravy for his tandoori chicken. Chef Ali Ahmed Aslam, believing that the customer is always right, obligingly came up with a sauce on the spot using spices and a can of Campbell tomato soup. The result was possibly one of the earliest examples of fusion cooking.
For a cookie thus named, fortune cookies have been through some rather unfortunate times. Identity crises and court cases plague its history. While primarily served at Chinese restaurants now, they are rumored to be of Japanese origins. According to the documentary, “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie,” Makoto Hagiwara of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco introduced fortune cookies as complementary tidbits to tea. He was inspired by similar cookies from Japan that contained “omikuji” — a random rolled-up fortune traditionally given out at temples for a donation. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. Seiichi Keito also claims to have come up with an adaptation of the Japanese cookie for Chinese restaurants in downtown LA, and hence takes credit for making it an indispensable part of Chinese meals. He probably didn’t foresee being contested by David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in LA, who also made a solid case for having invented machines for mass production. In order to resolve this dispute, a court case ensued in San Francisco’s mock Court of Historical Review. Lady Fortune must have doted on Hagiwara because the Court finally ruled in his favor.
1.5 cups rice
Apple Cider Vinegar
Optional: Chicken/Beef Patties, Mayonnaise
1. Cook rice.
2. When rice is cooked, add a dash of apple cider vinegar and mix it into the rice evenly.
3. Cover baking pan with cooking spray.
4. Using wet hands, form rice into balls about the size of your palm. Make two for a single serving.
5. Place rice balls on baking sheet and gently press on them to make thick patty shapes.
6. Preheat oven to 350F. Bake rice burgers for 20 minutes on the first side. Flip burgers over and continue to bake it for another 15 minutes. Do not handle the rice burgers directly as they will be very hot.
7. Allow the burgers to cool before serving.
8. For a vegan burger, simply add kimchi. Otherwise, spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the rice burgers and add chicken or beef patties.