With beloved dishes like fried rice and Lo Mein noodles, Chinese food is right up there with pizza as one of America’s most-loved comfort food cuisines. But just like pizza, certain dishes at Chinese restaurants can lose out on the comfort points with a sheer lack of authenticity or unhealthy preparation.
Chinese food is one cuisine that often gets Americanized with ramped-up levels of sauciness, saltiness, and sweetness. One particular offender here is General Tso’s chicken, an iconic—and infamous—menu item popularized by mall food courts and takeout menus. But as one of the most Americanized Chinese foods, it’s just as inauthentic as it is popular.
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While the dish did originate from a Chinese chef, it is a rather recent invention that is virtually unknown in China. General Tso’s chicken first became popular in Taiwan where chef Peng Chang-kuei served it to some diplomats in the 1950s. It then made its way to the United States, where it received a lot of glowing press, thanks to the fact that then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger raved about it. Before long, the dish was one of the best-known Chinese dishes in the country.
So, if you’re striving for an authentic Chinese delicacy, you’d be wise to skip General Tso’s.
Lon Symensma, co-founder and executive chef of ChoLon Restaurant Concepts in Denver, Colo., which owns several Asian concept restaurants, agrees. He points out that the popular chicken item bears the signs of America’s penchant for gluttony. “General Tso’s chicken is often breaded, deep-fried, and coated in a rich sauce, making for quite a delicious but unhealthy option at Chinese restaurants.” His alternative at ChoLon puts a cleaner spin on the item. “We’ve taken the sweet, tangy, and spicy aspects of General Tso’s and put them into a steamed soup dumpling. Rich in flavor but a little nicer for the waistline.”
In San Francisco, Kathy Fang keeps her menu authentic—you won’t find any General Tso’s chicken at her long-standing Fang Restaurant. She goes to great lengths to ensure culinary credibility with dishes like soup dumplings, which have become a household name over the years.
“Since it’s become popular in the U.S., restaurants are now trying to put all these eye-catching spins on it, from multi-colored dumpling skins…to changing up the filling. Some include fillings made of cheese, while others are dyed red with beetroot juice,” she says. “The strive for making perfect soup dumplings has strayed to making them look cool or sound unusual. But with something so delicate and refined as a soup dumpling, cheese will overpower the whole dumpling and the color of the skin will not contribute to the final taste of the dumpling, but most likely take away from it.”
Be it a chicken dish or a delicate dumpling, time-tested and authentic Chinese dishes shouldn’t be over-sauced, over-fried, or over-salted. “When it comes to some classics, stick to tradition and keep it simple,” says Fang.
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While chicken dishes at Chinese restaurants get the brunt of it from chefs, other menu items might be best avoided for questions of freshness. For example, an endless list of seafood options on a gargantuan menu should raise eyebrows.
“Though there are plenty of great restaurants with big menus, I am often weary about scallops or other delicate items at Chinese restaurants with 200-plus menu items,” says Hanson Li, co-founder and CEO of Lazy Susan in San Francisco. “Though not always the case, huge menus can sometimes use frozen seafood that, when thawed, may diminish in quality. If a restaurant doesn’t have the velocity, dishes ordered less frequently may suffer.”
Instead, his solution at Lazy Susan is a menu with 25 of the most popular Chinese dishes in the U.S. to ensure ingredients are fresh.
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