Wordless Wednesday–What Americans think Chinese Food looks like (part 1)

Yes, I realize that it’s barely still Wednesday on East Coast Time and it’s Thursday morning in Singapore, but let’s do this anyway.

Oh, we adorable, misguided Americans and our take on Chinese food.  Allow me to show you what I thought “Chinese Food” meant before I moved to Singapore.

This is basically the full menu available at Panda Express.  Panda Express is a fast food chain you’ll find in food courts or free standing as a fast food restaurant throughout the US.  There are only a few in Boston–one at the airport, one at the Prudential Center (where these were taken) and one nearby in Medford (a suburb in which I used to live).  Another day I’ll do a more “restaurant” version of American Chinese food, but this will give you a baseline.

This is what you see when you walk up.  You take a tray and order.  They scoop your food and give it to you on a plate or in a box.  Not pictured–the giant rice cooker where the white rice is made/served from.  Also missing is a picture of fried rice.

Chow Mein

Honey Walnut Shrimp  (top) Shangai Angus Steak (bottom)

Country Style Tofu (top) Black Pepper Chicken Breast (bottom)

Orange Chicken.  My absolute favorite dish at Panda Express.

Kung Pao Chicken (top) Broccoli Beef (bottom)

string bean chicken breast (top) mushroom chicken breast (bottom)

crispy shrimp

chicken potstickers (top) sweetfire chicken breast (bottom)

spring rolls (top) chicken egg rolls (bottom)

Those are all the major dishes.  Then you walk past a display of “other” stuff you can buy, such as….

Fortune cookie   Based on the recipe for a Japanese sweet cracker, these are a staple of American Chinese Food.  If I didn’t get a fortune cookie, it wouldn’t count as eating Chinese food.  They are delicious as hell.

crispy noodles

sauces for sale.  Yes, I’m going back to get the orange sauce

You then pay and go eat your dinner.

My orange chicken in the to-go box.  Which again, we think of these boxes as standard when getting chinese food.

My fortune, which are always corny, and often have a “learn a word in mandarin” on the back.

Major differences to my still uneducated eyes.  You don’t see a lot of seafood or internal organs in the fast food American interpretation of Chinese Food.  The meat to vegetables ration is very different; we Americans want to see a substantial amount of meat on our plates.  Some of the recipes are totally made up, others are “interpretations” of actual Chinese recipes.

However, what you see before you is why Ravi and I are fairly unenthusiastic about Chinese food in Singapore.  We just have a very specific set of expectations, and not seeing them on the menu makes us sad and a little homesick.

Feel free to be appropriately horrified.

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19 Responses to Wordless Wednesday–What Americans think Chinese Food looks like (part 1)

  1. Jim says:

    I think of Chinese food and Chinese-American food as very different things. I like them both, but they’re certainly not the same. For Chinese food, you go to Chinatown, and find the restaurant where everyone is speaking Mandarin. For Chinese-American food, you head to the mall and hit the food court, or call the delivery place down the street.

    I think fortune cookies were invented somewhere in California, BTW.

    • Crystal says:

      They definitely are two very different things. But I doubt I’m the first person to be taken aback by authentic Chinese food. My family growing up was of the Panda Express/takeout variety and not the Chinatown approach, so when we went to a Chinese restaurant, I had no idea what anything was or how to order something I’d like (I’m super picky and not very adventurous eating-wise, although I’m improving at a glacial pace).

      Yes, you’re right if I recall that fortune cookies were invented in CA. On a trip to San Francisco, Ravi and I toured a cookie factory–will have to see if I can find those pictures on my back up hard drive when we get back to SG.

  2. Naomi says:

    Oh I could agree with you on most of this! 🙂

  3. bookjunkie says:

    Hehe I similarly just couldnt get used to the version of Chinese food I tried in the Chinatowns of USA and Australia. And for me the most horrifying thing was Singapore noodles which is basically curry powder noodles that doesn’t exist in Singapore. I wonder who invented that 😉 friends who studied overseas now tell me that they are a bit nostalgic for the fusion Chinese food from elsewhere. Now I understand a bit more, why.

    • Crystal says:

      I think we all love what we grow up with. And we all find other culture’s interpretations of “our” food unpalatable. I know I can’t take Billy Bombers–it was horrid!

    • Dawn says:

      That’s hilarious that Singapore noodles (which are a favorite of my hubby’s, but I’m not too keen on curries in general) don’t exist in Singapore. I wonder if the person who invented it was the same one who did French fries or Swiss cheese?

      • Crystal says:

        I love bourbon chicken…went to New Orleans for the first time and asked where the best bourbon chicken place was (because they’re all served at places with names like “cajun cafe” here in the northeast). The concierge tried very hard not to laugh at me, as it’s about as authentically cajun as your examples of french fries and swiss cheese.

        Remind me to bring Tim some authentic Singapore spice mixes and such next time!

      • Dawn says:

        Oh yes, we’d appreciate some real Singaporean spices! Thank you!

      • Crystal says:

        Just remind me before the next trip home in November.

  4. Stacey says:

    I miss our local Chinese haunts in Vancouver. Very authentic even compared to here or China but with way higher quality ingredients. No mystery pork added to veg dishes and no MSG.

    • Crystal says:

      I remember when they took MSG out of American Chinese food–I think I was in middle school/high school and thought the food didn’t taste as good after. Maybe my palate has improved since because the msg is overpowering now.

      • Dawn says:

        My parents used to ask for all Chinese food without MSG and without (extra) salt. To this day I cannot tolerate anything particularly salty. As for MSG, when I finally started eating Chinese without my parents, and forgot to ask for no MSG, I got horrible headaches. I have more of a tolerance now, but it was bad when I was pregnant. I basically had to avoid most Chinese food or ask for everything made special with no MSG. Some of the Chinese restaurants we frequent don’t use MSG, or claim not to use MSG, but it never hurts to ask, though occasionally it takes a little extra time for the order. One benefit of asking for our peking ravioli with no MSG from Yangtze River (in Lexington) was that they had to make them fresh for us and couldn’t just take them off the buffet. 🙂

  5. Dawn says:

    Enh, see, even as an American, I wouldn’t consider that Panda Express stuff to be “real” Chinese food. (I’ve never actually been to a Panda Express and you don’t make it seem appealing. Of course, I’ve also never liked fortune cookies. I read the fortune then throw out the cookie, or give it to someone else who eats them.) And that was before I started dating an ABC. After that my tastes got more sophisticated…our wedding rehearsal dinner was a full Chinese banquet with everything from the cold cut appetizer plate, including jellyfish (yum!), whole steamed fish – including the head, to the sweet bean dessert soup (my favorite; second favorite is the white taro soup, and third favorite is sweet red bean sticky rice). There is still some “real” Chinese food I can’t stand, like sea cucumber and chicken feet. My favorite “imitation” Chinese food around here is a place called Shanghai Village in Arlington center. Fairly simple food with all the American staples, but most of their sauces are on the sweet side, and if it’s not sweet enough, there’s a bottle of duck sauce at every table. Slightly more authentic is Mary Chung’s in Central Square (best scallion pie in town, but it’s small so order two, and famously delicious peking ravioli). And if you like spicy things, Sichuan Garden II in Woburn is fantastic. The rehearsal dinner was at Royal East near MIT for convenience – there might have been better food elsewhere, but they were located near our wedding venue and hotel and were able to give us the whole room in the back. And to their credit the banquet they gave us was higher quality than their average fare, and was actually quite delicious.

    • Crystal says:

      Yes, but you’re married to someone who knows authentic Chinese food. You cheat! 😉

      • Dawn says:

        Right, but even before I met him, my parents took me out to Chinese food all the time. They eschewed “Americanized” Chinese like Panda Express, although I didn’t realize until I had a Chinese partner that the food they considered “authentic” was pretty Americanized too. But yes, at this point, I consider myself unusual in that I appreciate jellyfish and cuttlefish and tripe and don’t mind the eyes staring at me from the yummy steamed whole fish with ginger and scallions and cilantro. 🙂

      • Dawn says:

        Also, being married to a Chinese person means that I realize not all “authentic” Chinese food is the same. There are very distinctive cuisines originating from various parts of China, not to mention Taiwan and Hong Kong. Most Chinese restaurants, unless they are completely Americanized, specialize in one of the regional cuisines.

      • Crystal says:

        all excellent points. Here in Singapore you find restaurants that are clear they’re selling Hong Kong or Cantonese etc food.

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