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Oct 15, 2000 06:11 AM

Chicken And Asparagus Vs. Broccoli

  • d


I am wondering about something. Our best local carry out Chinese restaurant puts out a wonderful Chicken & Asparagus dish. The chicken slices are of high quality, all white, and the asparagus is crisp and fresh. There is hardly any sauce, and you can see all of the ingredients clearly.

The other day I was in the mood for Broccoli instead. So, I ordered their Chicken & Broccoli, expecting the same style of preparation, except that they would substitute the broccoli for the asparagus.

I was in for a rude awakening. The chicken pieces were cheap ragged chunks, mostly dark meat, some of which were barely edible. And whereas there was hardly any sauce in the asparagus dish, the broccoli dish was literally saturated with lots and lots of thick brown sauce. I had to pour and squeeze most of it out to make it edible.

It was hard to believe that both dishes came from the same restaurant. Is Chicken & Broccoli a dish that is traditionally prepared with lots of brown sauce at most Chinese restaurants? Another carry out Chinese restaurant prepares Chicken & Broccoli in pretty much the same way--with lots of brown sauce--but with a better quality of chicken slices.

Chicken & Broccoli (Chinese style) would be so much better without all of that yucky brown sauce! Next time I go back, I might try to ask them to prepare it in the same style as their asparagus dish.


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  1. These are the weighty sorts of questions with which we chowhounds must struggle mightily, Dennis (for an example, see the 10/14 entry in my dining diary...which you can find linked on our home page as "What Jim Had For Dinner").

    In a perfect world, every dish cooked everywhere would have it's own recipe, it's own from-scratch conception. It's own paradigm. The inclusion of just one new ingredient in a recipe should cause all other ingredients and methods to pivot and adjust with balletic grace.

    In a perfect world, in other words, chicken with asparagus WOULD be different from chicken with broccoli! Though, as a result, we chowhouds would prefer one or the other, depending on our preference (e.g. as whether we happen to like or despise BROWN SAUCE). As chowhounds, we all live with a tinge of bittersweet sadness knowing that we can't find the chicken with asparagus AND the chicken with broccoli both made with the PERFECT quantity of brown sauce. Plus 10,000 other bittersweet sadnesses.

    Some hounds seek to fix this by custom-ordering ("custom orderers" are a subset of chowhoundom). You can try this. If the counterperson at the carryout speaks enough english, beg him/her to have the chicken with broccoli made with NO brown sauce, and to use white meat. It might work. Try bribing with homemade brownies, etc. Make sure you're a regular and recognized customer first to enhance your chance of success.

    The second alternative is to seek out places that make the dish the way you like it. Rake through every single carryout in town till you find it (that's what chowhounding is all may even find greatness). Also, use this site as a a query on the message board for wherever you're from, and you just might be advised about a place making the chicken with broccoli you seek (remember: You Are Not Alone). Then you can go out of your way to find what you crave. Again, be a chowhound.

    But you know what, Dennis? I suspect it was random. My hunch is that if you go back and try again, you'll get chicken with broccoli with very little brown sauce. And I'd almost be willing to bet that the chicken with asparagus sometimes gets doused with brown sauce. And I think the whiteness/darkness of the chicken may be similarly random. Because it's not a perfect world, and most Chinese carryout chefs make no adjustments whatsoever. They just screw up sometimes.

    12 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      Hello Jim,

      Many thanks for your thoughtful ideas on this topic.

      However, I must dispute one of your theories. I've been ordering the Chicken & Asparagus dish from this particular carry out Chinese restaurant once a week for several months now. It is always of the same fine quality, with nice succulent chunks of white chicken meat, fresh crisp asparagus, and NEVER has there been any brown sauce.

      On this one occasion, when I had that urge for broccoli instead of asparagus, the contrast in the quality of the two dishes was incredible. Their Chicken & Broccoli was so bad that I would feel guilty about feeding it to my dog. And this is a family run operation with the same chefs!

      My theory is that this carry out Chinese restaurant, as a cost cutting policy, regards its asparagus dishes (Beef & Asparagus is their other one) as their signature dishes and reserves their best ingredients for them, while relegating their lesser quality ingredients for the "gringos" who order the Chicken
      & Broccoli dish.

      However, as a regular customer, I may very well take your advice and try to explain to the counter person how I want it cooked the next time I get the urge for broccoli. I'll let you know how it turns out.

      By the way, I live in Norfolk, Virginia. We do have two very worthwhile dine-in Chinese restaurants in my area, however located in neighboring Virginia Beach instead of Norfolk. One of them prepares a "Salt Baked Shrimp" that is out of this world, hugh succulent shrimp baked IN THE SHELL, with plenty of scallions, garlic, hot peppers, and NO BROWN SAUCE!


      1. re: Dennis

        Dennis, I may be wrong on this, but my suspicion is that the forces behind this carryout probably don't consider the chicken with asparagus a particularly proud house specialty, nor do they likely punish those ordering chicken with broccoli with a malevolent sneer (and substandard foodstuffs). Rather, I suspect that your stated preference for white meat and aversion to dark, plus your constitutional disgust re: brown sauce have combined to make an otherwise innocent recipe the epicenter of your particular gustatory aversions.

        Consider, for a moment, that you surely have an antipode out there who LIKES brown sauce and dark meat, and might therefore find the chicken with broccoli heaven on earth....and who'd consider the chicken with asparagus to be dry, under-sauced, and festooned with The Wrong Cut Of Meat. Once again, we're drawn back--as is so often the case on these boards--to the Frank Gorshin episode of Star Trek. It's ALWAYS about the Frank Gorshin episode of Star Trek, when you get right down to it.

        But while the above is mostly conjecture, let me try to answer the Larger Question you've raised (as you yourself surely intended by your posting to this General Topics message board). I can say with the greatest possible confidence that chicken with asparagus and chicken with broccoli are widely considered to be as dead-even equal an ordering choice as any two dishes in any restaurant of any ethnicity could possibly be. There are NO established patterns of deviation in terms of recipe, execution, or potential kitchen esteem between them. Of course, your neighborhood carryout appears to be an exception. But, if I were you, I'd give their chicken with asparagus one last shot--just to be sure, for science--before giving up on it. If you do, please report back. We all anxiously await your findings.


        1. re: Jim Leff

          Following is the latest chapter to this controversy. Last night, I decided to conduct a little experiment. I went back to this Chinese carry-out restaurant and ordered BOTH their Chicken & Asparagus AND their Chicken & Broccoli. I gave no leading instructions as to how either should be prepared. I simply placed my order, paid, and waited.

          When I returned home with my orders, my findings confirmed my suspicions. The Chicken & Asparagus dish was prepared in the exact same style as before, with white chicken meat and hardly little sauce. As a result, all of the ingredients could be clearly seen.

          In contrast, the Chicken & Broccoli dish consisted of chunks of dark chicken meat and, once again, was saturated in a veritable bath of brown sauce. I had to pour and squeeze most of the sauce out to make it even remotely edible. After a few bites, I gave the rest to my dog and proceeded to enjoy my Chicken & Asparagus.

          I am curious as to why this restaurant prepares these two dishes in such vastly different styles.


          1. re: Dennis

            Here's my theory: Chicken and asparagus is
            not as frequently ordered as chicken with broccoli.
            Therefore, the version with asparagus is made
            to order ("a la minute") while chicken with
            broccoli is prepared in a big vat out of which
            portions are scooped and warmed over.
            What do you think?

            1. re: christina z

              Hmmm...I doubt it, Christina. Chinese cookery is so fast that there's little time/convenience saving in reheating versus plain old stir frying, especially when we're talking about really simple dishes like these.

              1. re: Jim Leff

                I agree with the idea that chicken with broccoli has become a standard american oriented takeout dish, like General Tsos. The takeouts have come to know that the dish goes over well in that brown sauced way, and that people expect it, so the same dish is on offer everywhere. Whereas when a place steps out and produces a nonstandard item, like the chick with asparagus, a less homogenized possibly purer rendition might result.

            2. re: Dennis

              I am purely hypothesizing, but I think that most Chinese take-out establishments consider chicken with broccoli on par with chicken chow mein -- it's a dish which is favored by a lot of non Asians. Therefore, they may think this caters to American tastes, while I really don't see chicken with asparagus ordered very often.

              1. re: Dennis

                Dennis, that sounds scientific to me.

                Next steps, as I mentioned before, are:

                1. try asking for chicken w/broccoli made the way they make chicken with asparagus (I've been thinking about it for a few days, and I suspect this may be a better strategy than explaining that you want white meat, no brown sauce, etc, and not relating it at all to the chicken w/asparagus recipe).

                2. if that doesn't work, start working through other takeouts on nights when asparagus won't do. Gradually try them, one by one, until you find the best one (shoot, you may even wind up finding even better chicken with broccoli!).

                3. Start with a query on our "South" message the message "Chinese in Norfolk, VA" or something like that, and let's see if any neighboring hounds can shortcut you to takeout grandeur.


                1. re: Dennis

                  Instead of theorizing (although it is fun), why don't you ask the restaurant. I would be curious to hear their explanation.

                2. re: Jim Leff

                  "Consider, for a moment, that you surely have an antipode out there who LIKES brown sauce and dark meat, and might therefore find the chicken with broccoli heaven on earth....and who'd consider the chicken with asparagus to be dry, under-sauced, and festooned with The Wrong Cut Of Meat. "

                  This thread has been very interesting to me because it highlights the influence that American tastes have on "Chinese" cooking in the US. If you were to ask 1 billion+ Chinese which cut they prefer, I think you'd get a vastly overwhelming majority voting for dark meat. One of my non-Chinese friends (who is useful to have at a Cantonese banquet because he scarfs up the white meat and leaves the good stuff to us) didn't believe me until he lived in Taipei for a few months and saw with his own eyes that chicken breasts in the market are priced at pennies as non-desireable by-products and dark meat cuts are more expensive.

                  There are a few dishes that do need to be made with white chicken meat, e.g., velvet chicken, for its soft texture. But in general, dark meat is preferred by Chinese. I do make a point when I'm in a Chinese restaurant that's mostly frequented by non-Chinese in SF neighborhoods to specify dark meat for a dish, as they're likely to use white meat preferred by their clientele.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong

                    But, as you know, Melanie (so I'm mostly just editorializing to the bleachers here), Chinese cuisine in the US has been shaped by a lot more factors than Chinese preference. The Chinese-American cuisine that's evolving (which has spun off some "regional chinese" dishes that are ONLY found in places like Miami and Missouri) is a separate and vital cuisine. And--as with most foodways--it can, at best, be very delicious. So judging some of this stuff on the basis of Chinese taste or back-home-in-China tradition is actually innappropriate.

                    I used to be a linguistical curmudgeon, but I have a friend who's one of the leading lights in lexicography, and he's persuaded me otherwise (and I've learned a lot about food by analogy):

                    Language changes in every way all the time, and it's an inexorable process that doesn't give a damn about rules. There ARE no rules, only a successful or unsuccessful ability to communicate. Language is as language is used, and the process of its development and evolution can't be controlled by any party (though pedants sure try), and the pejorative sentiments of the term "bastardization" reflects a nearly delusional failure.

                    The great Julie Sahni is presently working on what sounds like a sensational book tracing the use of curry all over the world. It hits exactly this point. Indians clucking their tongues at the fruit that's fallen far from the tree is just a failure to accept reality!

                    And a certain Cantonese mutual friend of ours (who shall remain nameless) is very wrong when he insists that anything that's not authentically Cantonese served in Chinese restaurants is, categorically, phony crap.

                    White meat is indeed the norm now for a lot of these dishes. So goes the least hereabouts!


                    1. re: Jim Leff

                      I agree with Jim that authenticity is not a necessary condition to deliciousness, but I've always had my little pet peeves about the Chinese food I've encountered in the US. (I wonder if people from other countries who are staying in the US feel the same way about how their food is represented here.)

                      I have no problems if a particular dish is modified, but I feel that it would be a good idea to give it a new name. Call it spicy chicken with peanuts and all sorts of mixed vegetables, not kung pao chicken. They seem like very different things to me (and I bet to most people, Chinese or otherwise, if both versions were placed side by side).

                      I'm not against changes to traditional recipes at all, cooks and chefs do that all the time, even with Chinese food and even in Asia. But I appreciate a thoughtful modification to improve a dish more than an uncaring alteration or an expedient change that does not do much to enhance the quality of the eating experience.

                      To some extent, I feel that a significant number of the changes (just a significant number, not all of them and not necessarily most of them) that are made to "traditional" Chinese dishes or even to the range and variety of Chinese dishes available at the average Chinese restaurant I've encountered here do not improve the dish or the meal. On occasion, such changes even impair one's enjoyment of the food.

                      Changes may be inevitable, but one can always *hope* for good change.

                      On a completely different note, I wish that more kinds of regional Chinese dishes were represented here, so that I can get Teochew style braised goose more than once a year. *grin*