Cooking Chinese? Chances are, you really Aren’t

There are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than there are Burger Kings or McDonald’s.

And there are only signs that love for Chinese food is growing: last Christmas, the number of Americans ordering Chinese at Christmas increased by over one hundred and fifty percent from the previous year.

But most chefs aren’t preparing anything close to what you’d find in China. It’s actually most likely a blend of several cuisines, including Japanese and Italian, that reflects much of the cultural infusion emblematic in the United States.

The private or personal chef hoping to execute authentic cuisine that sets themselves apart from commercialized need to understand the most common mistakes made when preparing Chinese.

Mistake One: Making it Too Sweet

General Tso’s Chicken, sweet and sour chicken, orange chicken, and sweet and sour soup all make the top ten most popular “Chinese” dishes in America. What do they have in common? An emphasis on overly sweet notes or sauces.

Make it More Authentic: Hold the sugar and add some spice. American versions tend to focus on building glazes or sauces, but the ingredients themselves should be the star of the dish. While a little sweetness can be added to tone down extra spicy elements, the most authentic dishes will focus on traditionally popular seasonings and sauces, like Chinese five spice, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, and oyster sauce.

Authentic Takes: Chicken with Chinese mushrooms and Chinese almond chicken still showcase some subtle sweetness but focus more on the chicken itself and more earthy notes. If you still want to use sweet sauces, try the Cantonese Chow Fun, or glazed Peking Duck. These renditions are authentically based and generally less sweet and more focused on developing complex flavors.

 

Mistake Two: Relying on the Fryer

Egg rolls, fried sweet and sour chicken, crab rangoons, and  so-called Chinese doughnuts can be found at most buffets and are highly popular among Americans. And while some frying can be found in authentic Chinese, it’s far rarer than popular American dishes.

Make it More Authentic: Instead of relying the fryer, many dishes instead focus on developing flavor through stir-fries, and using popular fats like sesame seed oil, peanut oil, and, for more multipurpose dishes canola oil. There’s also more emphasis on fresh ingredients and unique sauces.

Authentic Takes: Stick with classic stir fry recipes, which add elements of fat  without the deep fry. Spring rolls are a lighter take on egg rolls, but still usually rely on pork and cabbage as main ingredients. Fried rice is consumed in China, but plain white rice can also add the same general touch. Less deep frying typically lends itself to more authenticity.

 

Mistake Three: You’re sticking to Basics

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make is sticking to just a few recipes. Like any cuisine, Chinese food can hardly be summarized by one aesthetic or a handful of dishes. In fact, Chinese dishes vary by region: Cantonese cuisine tends to be sweeter, while Shadong dishes emphasize salt and the Sichuan region is lauded for its signature spice.

Make it more Authentic:

Do your research and make sure you are looking at not just “Chinese” cuisine, but cuisines offered in specific regions. And regional influence is not only based in geography: Chinese Muslims are influential in their dishes featuring lamb and mutton, while the Yangatze region’s culture emphasizing gastronomic cooking.

Authentic Takes:

If you’re new to Chinese cuisine, start with replacing too common and Americanized dishes with similar but more innovative options. Business Insider recommends swapping egg rolls for scallion pancakes; wontons  for shrimp dumplings, and beef broccoli for shredded pork in hot garlic sauce.

To get started, browse through this database of authentic recipes to get an idea of flavors, ingredients, and aesthetics.  Like any cuisine, authentic Chinese becomes more and more delightful the more it’s explored.

And dessert? Try trading out those fortune cookies, an American invention, for orange slices.

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