Bringing Chinese-American Food to Shanghai

Smog in Shanghai.

Photo by ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

The Chinese-American cuisine that many of us grew up on here in the United States has fallen into disfavor relative to more authentic fare. And, of course, many classic Chinese-American dishes such as General Tso’s chicken are completely unknown in the People’s Republic of China (see Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles for the best overview of the subject) making it one of the major genres of world cuisine that’s hardest to find in otherwise cosmopolitan Chinese cities.

Frank Langfitt at NPR has a great piece about two American-born Cornell grads, David Rossi and Fung Lam, who are trying to change that. They originally went to Shanghai to open a quick-service health food restaurant, but it failed. So they pivoted to the idea of doing a Chinese-American restaurant. Lam’s grandfather owned one in Brooklyn in the 1960s, and his parents own several in New Jersey right now. Their core clientele is expats from the United States seeking out a taste of home, but they also have a nontrivial number of Chinese customers.

Langfitt seems a bit skeptical:

“American-Chinese food is another regional cuisine for China,” he says, likening it [to] Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese food, which seems a bit of a stretch.

I think this proposition deserves to be taken more seriously. A lot of Chinese-American food really is bad, based on low-quality ingredients and slipshod cooking techniques. But any genre of food can be executed poorly. It can also be executed well! And the somewhat mongrel origins of Chinese-American cuisine—adapting Chinese culinary concepts to ingredients available decades ago in the United States and to the different American palate (no pickled stuff) and food norms (no chicken bones) aren’t all that unusual.

Tacos al pastor are Middle Eastern immigrants trying to adapt Levantine cooking concepts to Mexican ingredients and palates. Anglo-Indian cuisine is a thing. For a long while American-style Italian cooking was very popular in the United States, then it became depreciated in favor of more authentic Italian cooking, but now there’s a high-end Italian-American revival. And for at least some Americans, old-school Chinese-American food is comfort food. When I’m under the weather, there’s nothing I want more than well-prepared renditions of American-style wonton soup, moo shu pork, or fried dumplings. There’s room for that kind of thing in major Chinese cities, and I would even say plenty of room for a revival of high-end Chinese-American cooking in big American cities.