Last week, during the Q&A portion of author Jennifer 8. Lee’s talk at the National Archives about the history of Chinese food in America, an audience member asked her what dishes would be considered “authentic” Chinese fare. Ms. Lee had just spent her lecture explaining the distinctly non-Chinese origins of General Tso’s chicken, chop suey and fortune cookies.
Her response to the question? That clear and jiggly foods tend to be authentic (think jellyfish); that Americans are averse to connecting food with a living animal, making heads, eyeballs, tongues, feet, claws, etc. on the menu another sign of authenticity.
That answer reminded me of the lunch I had recently with my Mandarin language class at Chalin’s near Foggy Bottom.
Chinese restaurants are unique in that I can’t think of another ethnic restaurant where two menus exist, one for Americans and one for customers from the country of origin. I’ve never seen someone walk into an Italian restaurant and say, “”Yeah, the eggplant parm looks great, but give me the real Italian menu.” And yet that’s what happens at some Chinese restaurants. Most likely you’ll be handed a menu with the Chinese-American staples like beef with broccoli, crab rangoon, and yes, General Tso’s chicken. But, if you’re with a Chinese person, there’s a chance you’ll also receive a very different menu, including dishes featuring the animal parts that Americans tend to avoid.
On our class lunch trip we were with our teacher and were given both menus. Each person ordered a dish (some stuck to the American menu) and we shared family style. I couldn’t snap pics of everything, but I grabbed a few.
This was beef in a spicy chili oil sauce. From the shimmering red color you can tell it’s spicy on sight.
Pork with cellophane noodles.
A dish that’s shot up close to the top of my favorite Chinese dishes, pipa tofu. It’s tofu that’s been mashed and formed into a ball or oval shape, then fried until golden brown. The outside becomes slightly crispy while the inside stays soft. And because it’s right out of the fryer, the tofu is piping hot. With a light sauce and vegetables, it’s really delicious.
I believe this was twice-cooked pork. My classmate had ordered it off the regular menu, and then the manager asked if he wanted to try the Chinese version instead. She explained that the pork belly used there would be a little fattier and more flavorful than the Americanized version.
How right she was — the thinly cut pork had a taste almost like bacon. So glad he took her suggestion.
Ma po tofu. Better than the one I had at Great Wall Szechuan House. Not quite as heavy on the Szechuan peppercorns, giving it a more balanced flavor.
Another tofu dish in soy sauce.
Here’s what I ordered: shredded pork with firm, seasoned tofu, called tofu gan.
And remember Jennifer Lee’s statement about animal parts? Well then this must be authentic — it’s tripe (aka cow stomach).
Tripe has never exactly been at the top of my priority list. Now it can be crossed off. It’s actually not bad — spongy and a little chewy, like calamari of the land. And like tofu, it’s rather neutral in taste, making it a good vehicle for sauce. Can’t say I’ll be rushing out for tripe again any time soon, but at least I know I can stomach it. Get it? Stomach? Never mind.
My advice is this: when in doubt, ask for the Chinese menu. The restaurant just might have one. Try it and you’ll be treated to a world of Chinese food beyond General Tso’s chicken, which as Jennifer Lee explained, “Is sweet, is chicken and is fried. That’s why Americans love it.”
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