In recent years it seems to have finally begun to dawn on a growing number of folks that Chinese cuisine is far from a monolithic. That this comes as a surprise to anyone comes as something of a surprise to me. Ancient human teeth were discovered in Hunan — and presumably, they were used to eat food. 125,000 years later, China is home to 1,370,536,875, all of whom also presumably eat. Nearly one in five living human beings is Chinese, to put it another way, and why would anyone assume that their cuisine wouldn’t have long ago developed into something appropriately complex, varied, and vast?
Metro Los Angeles is today home to roughly half a million residents of Chinese ancestry. In Los Angeles homes, only English and Spanish are spoken more widely than is Chinese. The history of Chinese food in Los Angeles probably began around 1850, the year California became a state and Los Angeles incorporated as a city. The first census counted 1,610 Angelenos, two of whom were Chinese servants, Ah Luce and Ah Fou, residing in the home of Robert Haley. Presumably, the food that they cooked and ate bore some resemblance to the food they’d eaten in China. The first Lunar New Year celebrations in California are recorded to have taken place in 1857 and I’d bet the contents of my red envelope that celebrants were eating nian gao. Los Angeles, over the years since, had produced Chinese cooks, chefs, and restaurants — it’s also produced, increasingly, food writers who specialize in Chinese cuisine, including but not limited to Amy Duan, Clarissa Wei, David Chan, Kristie Hang, Jim Thurman, Patric Kuh, and Tony Chen.
Most of China’s main cuisines are represented locally, if not always widely. There’s Anhui (China Taste), Fujian (Foo Chow), Hubei (Qiwei Kitchen and Tasty Dining), Hunan (Hunan Chili King and Hunan Mao’s Restaurant), Jiangsu (Nanjing Kitchen and Wang Xin Ji), Shandong (Earthen Restaurant, 101 Noodle Express, Quin Dao Bread Food, and ShanDong Noodles), Shanghai (Emperor Noodles, J & J Restaurant, Mama Lu, and Southern Mini Town), Sichaun (Chengdu Taste, Cui Hua Lou, Fang’s Kitchen, First Szechuan Wok, House of Mandarin Noodle, Hu’s Szechwan Restaurant, Meizhou Dongpo, Spicy Home, Szechuan Impression, Szechuan Place, and Yang Chow), Yunnan (168 Garden, Yun Chuan Garden, Yun Noodle House, Yunnan Garden, and Yunnan Restaurant), Zhejiang (Bamboo Creek), and Cantonese (too many to name but including JJ Hong Kong Café and Delicious Food Corner).
There are 56 ethnicities officially recognized in China, each with their own cooking traditions. Most famous of China’s minorities, perhaps, are the Tibetans, whose country was invaded by the PRC in 1950, and whose cuisine is represented locally by Himalayan Cafe, Tara’s Himalayan Restaurant, and Tibet Nepal House. Xinjiang, invaded a year before, is home to more than half of China’s 23 million Muslims, and Islamic Chinese cuisine is represented locally by China Islamic Restaurant, Dong Lai Shun, Mas’ Chinese Islamic Restaurant, Nomad Asian Bistro, Omar Restaurant, and Omar’s Chinese Restaurant. A recent survey suggested that only 10.6 million Chinese self-identify as vegetarian or vegan but many of China’s 244 million Buddhists abstain from eating animals on occasion and local vegetarian Chinese restaurants include Bean Sprout Café, Fine Garden Vegetarian, Garden Fresh Vegetarian Food, Garden Wok, Happy Family Restaurant, Happy Veggie Garden, Hsi Lai Temple (not a restaurant but they serve vegetarian food), Loving Hut, New Happy Family Restaurant, QQ Kitchen, Sweet Veggie, and Vege Paradise.
I’m not a food writer nor do I consider myself an expert in any cuisine but I worry a little that the more familiar non-Chinese become with Chinese cuisine, the more obsessed the self-appointed cultural watchdogs will be with requiring it meet their narrow definitions of authenticity (as if, in food or anything else, there is any such thing). Chinese cuisine, like perhaps all cuisines, has developed over millennia out of negotiations between indigenous and imported traditions and ingredients, individual cooking preferences, and the preferences of those for whom the food is being cooked. Consider this, peanuts and chilis were unknown outside of the Americas for most of human history and yet are fundamental to “authentic” Sichuan dishes like Kung Pao chicken.
Ask too what the cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia, the United States, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea, Myanmar, the Philippines, Australia, and Peru would be without their populations of millions of Chinese. There’d be no pad thai in Thailand, for example. If authenticity meant not allowing fusions to creep into cuisines, there’d be no ramen. There’d be no ketchup (鮭汁; kê-chiap) for our (German) hamburgers and (Belgian) freedom fries (and it would still be made in Asia with fish instead of tomatoes or bananas).
So here is my examination and celebration of the impure, inauthentic, and generally overlooked syncretisms which owe their delicious, mongrel character to multiculturalism and Chinese immigration.
Naturally, I’m starting with American-Chinese cuisine, not because America is #1, or because American-Chinese restaurants are most locally numerous, but merely out of humble deference to the order of the alphabet. American-Chinese cuisine is largely derived the Cantonese cuisine of Taishan, the city from which most early Chinese immigrants to this country arrived. Here as elsewhere, Chinese cooks adapted dishes to the palates of non-Chinese locals and substituted ingredients. Without gailan or scallions, broccoli and bulb onions are used and carrots (which originated in Persia and made exclusively orange in the Netherlands) are used in a host of dishes. American-Chinese food can be also be subdivided into Hawaiian, San Franciscan, and Canadian Chinese cuisines.
American-Chinese dishes often share names with counterparts found in China but differ so significantly that they really out to be considered something else. There are significant differences between the Chinese and American-Chinese versions of almond chicken, Chinese chicken salad, crab rangoon, egg foo young, General Tso’s chicken, Kung Pao chicken, lo mein, Mongolian beef, moo shu pork, orange chicken, Sesame chicken, and wonton soup. Uniquely Chinese-American dishes include the St. Paul sandwich and Springfield-style cashew chicken (both of which originated in Missouri), the Chow Mein Sandwich and the chop suey sandwich (both of which originated in New England), and ya-ka-mein (New Orleans).
Few Chinese-American restaurants actually bill themselves thus, although its safe to say that suburban staples like Chinese Gourmet Express, P. F. Chang’s China Bistro, and Pei Wei Asian Diner all are more properly characterized as American-Chinese chains than they are Chinese ones. The same goes for Panda Express and Pick Up Stix, both of which originated not in the Far East but in the suburbs of Glendale and Rancho Santa Margarita. The only actual Chinese chains operating locally that I know of are Jianyang-based Hai Di Lao and Dong Lai Shun.
Peru has the largest population of Chinese in Latin America. Most of Peru’s Chinese immigrants came to it from Guangzhou in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and most settled around Lima. The fusion of Cantonese and Peruvian is known as “chifa,” a term which also refers to restaurants which serve it. The Chinese-Peruvians who serve it (and in general) are known in Peru as “tusán,” a loanword from the Chinese “土生” (tǔ shēng). The popularity of chifas grew in the 1920s and has since spread to neighboring Bolivia and Ecuador. The signature chifa dish is arroz chaufa, but even Peruvian dishes not characterized as chifa, such as lomo saltado, bear considerable Chinese influence.
Sadly, there aren’t currently any chifa restaurants operating in Metro Los Angeles although there was one, Ming Yuen, which operated in El Monte for about a year before closing.
Chinoy refers to both Chinese-Filipino people and Chinese-Filipino cuisine. China and the Philippines have a long history of exchange, dating back at least to the 11th century, when Chinese merchants began trading with, and sometimes settling in, the archipelago. Since at least the 19th century, Chinoys have firmly established themselves in the Philippines’ restaurant industry. As most Chinese-Filipinos can trace their origins to either Hong Kong or Fujian, Chinoy cuisine often resembles both, albeit naturally fused with Filipino ingredients and techniques.
Representative Chinoy dishes include arroz caldo, morisqueta tostada, lumpia (which came to the Philippines via Indonesia), and pancit, the name of which comes from the Hokkien “pian i sit,” meaning “convenient food.” Local Chinoy restaurants include Kowloon Dimsum, Little Ongpin, and Mayflower, a nominally Chinese restaurant in Chinatown but one with an interior conspicuously covered in images of Manny Pacquiao.
Chinese migration to Japan stretches back at least 2,300 years and by the 9th century, Japan sent envoys to China to study Chinese culture and to import tea. Cultural exchanges continued to flourish until Japan abruptly closed its borders in the 1630s, which effectively isolated the country for the next two centuries. The US forced Japan’s ports open in 1866 and the relationship between Japan and China resumed but quickly soured with the onset of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Relations between the two hardly improved after Japan invaded and occupied China again in the 1930s and ’40s.
Politics aside, though, Japanese developed a love for Chinese cuisine and as early as the late 19th century restaurants and food carts serving nipponized Chinese cuisine, known as “中華” (or “chūka”) first appeared in port cities like Kobe, Nagasaki, and Yokohama were most chūka cooks arrived from either Guangzhou or Shanghai. Today most chūka restaurants are operated by Japanese owners.
Iconic Japanese dishes like ramen (拉麵 or “lamian”) and gyōza (饺子 or “jiaozi”) owe their existence to the influence of Chinese cuisine, as do more obvious chūka dishes like banbanji, buta no kakuni, champon, chāhan, chin-jao rōsu, ebi no, harumaki, hiyashi chūka (“chilled Chinese”), hoi kō rō, kani-tama, kara-age, mābō-dōfu, mābō-nasu, shōronpō (xiaolongbao), shumai (shaomai), subuta, and tenshindon. There are many Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles which serve some chūka dishes but as far as dedicated chūka I’m aware only of Beni Tora and Kouraku.
See also Clarissa Wei’s “A Guiding Force Behind L.A.’s Japanese Food Scene? Our Chinese Community”
In Vietnam, ethnically Chinese people are known as “người hoa,” or simply “hoa.” The Chinese presence in Vietnam stretches back at least to the 2nd century BCE, when the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, extended his control all the way to Tonkin (Đông Kinh) in Vietnam’s north. By the 20th century, Hoa were prominently represented in Vietnam’s business and commerce sectors and comprised much of the country’s educated upper class. As a result, many were persecuted by the Communists during Vietnam’s civil war (1959-1975). After the fall of Saigon, many Hoa fled to the US.
One of the highest profile Hoa immigrants in Los Angeles was David Tran, who launched Huy Fong Foods in Chinatown 1980. Huy Fong is best known for their version of the traditional Thai condiment, sriracha, which is so nearly ubiquitous that many non-Thai people think all other srirachas (including, ironically, Thai ones) are imitations of the “authentic” one, made over in Irwindale.
Examples of Hoa dishes include bánh bao, bánh bò, bánh pía, bánh quẩy, bánh tổ, bò bía, cơm chiên Dương Châu, há cảo, hoành thánh, hủ tiếu, khau nhục, mì, mì xào, sủi dìn, thịt lợn quay, and xá xíu. Local restaurants serving Hoa cuisine include Boda Restaurant, Kim Wah Chinese Restaurant, Pho & Chinese Foods, Tai Sui Restaurant, and Tan Cang Seafood Restaurant.
Korean Chinese Cuisine (중화요리 — sometimes Romanized as Junghwa Yori or Junghwa Yoli) is derived from China’s influence on its neighbor Korea. Due to Korea’s proximity to Northeastern China, specifically, the neighboring provinces of Liaoning and Jilin (home to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture), the influence of those province’s cuisines are evident in Junghwa Yori, as are the cuisines of nearby Beijing and Shandong cuisine.
In South Korea, the influence of Chinese cuisine is most observable in the port city of Incheon, which historically supported a large Chinese population. Under the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, many Chinese experienced discrimination and left the city, and today most Junghwa Yori restaurants there are operated by Koreans.
Common Junghwa Yori dishes include jajangmyeon (derived from zhajiang mian), jajangbap, jjamppong, junghwa naengmyeon, kkanpunggi, tangsuyuk, ulmyeon. Local restaurants serving Junghwa Yori dishes include Cho Man Won, Dragon Chinese, Feng Mao Restaurant, Heung Rae Gak, Lee Mangu Kyodong Jjamppong, Lee’s Noodles, Myung In Dumplings, Pao Jao Dumpling House, Peking China, Shin Beijing, Yan Bian, Young King, Yu Ga Ne, and Zzamong.
See also: Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee‘s “A Chinese-Korean mashup? Here are 5 restaurants to try in L.A.” and Euno Lee‘s “10 Stellar Korean-Chinese Fusion Restaurants in Los Angeles.”
Singapore is a relatively modern creation, founded as it was by Stamford Raffles in 1819 as a trading post for the privately owned East India Company. Although located in a strait between Indonesia and Malaysia, roughly 74% of its inhabitants are ethnically Chinese. Not surprisingly, then, Singaporean cuisine can be characterized as a fusion of Malay, Chinese, and Indonesian cuisines — although there are also influences of English, India, Peranakan, Portuguese, and other cuisines.
Although English is an official language and “Singlish” the common tongue, the names of many Singaporean dishes are often derived from the Hokkien dialect of Chinese. Popular Singaporean-Chinese dishes include bak kut teh, beef kway teow, bak chang, bak chor mee, ban mian, chai tow kway, char kway teow, crab been hoon, duck rice, fish soup bee hoon, har cheong gai burger, kaya toast, and mee pok.
Although there are a handful of Singaporean restaurants in Los Angeles, the only one which leans particularly Chinese-Singaporean, from what I can determine, is Bugis Street Brasserie.
Metro Los Angeles is home to the largest Taiwanese population outside of Taiwan, and the vast majority of Taiwanese people have Chinese ancestry. Although the first humans arrived on the yam-shaped island as long as 30,000 years ago, they left few traces of their presence and the island’s so-called aborigines (so named before the discovery of the even earlier inhabitants) arrived some 5,000 years ago and went on to settle many more islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Today there are 27 recognized tribes of “aboriginal” Taiwanese. Taiwan was later colonized by the Dutch, the Spanish, the Chinese, Japan, and the Republic of China, all of whom left their influences on Taiwanese cuisine.
The influence of Japanese cuisine is visible in the presence of grilled squid, moachi (mochi), tempura, wheel cake, and teppanyaki — rebranded as “Mongolian BBQ” in the post-war era by a people who developed a taste for Japanese cuisine during their occupation but were eager to distance themselves from their then-just-deposed colonizers. Although Ajisen Ramen was founded in Japan, its founder, Liu Tan Hsiang was a Taiwanese restaurateur from Meinong and he opened the second location of the chain in Taipei in 1972.
Although Taiwan was only under Chinese control for about 5% of its human history, China’s government insists that it is part of China, and for politically complicated reasons, most country’s play along — even though almost no one who lives in Taiwan or has visited it comes away thinking of it thus. A strange by-product of this face-saving is that Taiwanese identity has often been downplayed and many Americans probably wrongly assume that locally popular chains like Bake Code Bakery & Café, Chatime, Coco Fresh Tea & Juice, 85°C Bakery Café, Happy Lemon, Sharetea, Ten Ren’s Tea, and Quickly all have roots in China, rather than Taiwan. In fact, only BlackBall openly flaunts its Taiwaneseness.
That said, whilst there are aboriginal restaurants in Taiwan, there are none in the Los Angeles area. Although Taiwan has created its own items, like Taiwanese meatballs, cucumber pork, cuttlefish geng, dried radish omelets, eel noodles, gua-bao, iron eggs, oyster vermicelli, shaved ice, tamsui a-gei, and boba, even nominally Taiwanese items like Taiwanese sausages and Taiwanese spring roll are descended from mainland Chinese predecessors. Spring rolls and popular dishes like minced pork rice and pig’s blood cake are all descended, as are the ancestors of many Taiwanese, from Fujian; of Chinese cuisines, in fact, Taiwan’s most closely resembles that of its cross-strait neighbor.
So on the one half, while part of me thinks that listing Taiwanese restaurants on a guide to Chinese cuisine is like listing American restaurants in a guide to British cuisine, since most of the local Taiwanese restaurants have roots in either Japanese or Chinese cuisines, but some that lean decidedly Chinese include BaoHaus, Bull Demon King, Cafe Fusion, Din Tai Fung, Golden Leaf, Happy Garden, Ju Ju Shine, Lao Tao, Little Fatty, Lucky Number 1 Chinese Restaurant, Monja Taiker, Pine & Crane, ROC Beverly Grove, ROC Sawtelle, and Tofu King.
See also: Clarissa Wei’s “10 Best Taiwanese Restaurants In Los Angeles” and “4 Great Taiwanese Restaurants in Los Angeles”
Only China and Taiwan are home to more ethnic Chinese than Thailand. The first Chinese settlers arrived mostly from Fujian and Guangdong and began settling as early as the 13th century. Hokkien Chinese followed, settling in Thailand in the 15th century. They, in turn, were followed by Teochew Chinese, who began settling in China in the late 18th century. Centuries of intermarriage with the between Chinese and Thais has resulted in many Thais claiming mixed Thai-Chinese descent, especially in Bangkok and Pak Nam Pho.
Although much smaller than China, Thailand’s cuisine is not only one of the world’s greatest but also one with its own regional subdivisions. Northern Thai cuisine shares similarities with the cuisine of neighboring Yunnan. Thai-Chinese creations include goi see mee, khao soi, pad kee mao, and (although people will argue about this) pad thai. Local Thai-Chinese restaurants include Boonlerd BBQ, Kaew Thai Chinese Restaurant, Ocha Classic, Panang Thai, SiamChan Thai-Chinese Cuisine, Vim Thai-Chinese Restaurant, and Yai Restaurant.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other varieties of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 Gallery. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, Twitter, and Weibo.
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