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Jan 25, 2002 04:52 PM

chinese menus

  • k

I grew up in Cambridge MA and used to work at a chinese place called Hsing Hsing that was really really good for a while. I thought I knew my way around a menu, too, because most of the chinese places in cambridge/somerville/alston had at least a similar set of standard dishes.

Now I find myself in Arizona, and the standard menu is completely different. Places here feature mayonnaise shrimp, pepper salt squid, and seafood with ginger and green onion as staples. These are things I had never seen or heard of before (I have since seen then in san francisco places too). Do the differences have to do with regions in china and imigration patterns? Can anybody explain?

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  1. That's an interesting question (for which I don't have an answer).

    I've noticed the same thing.

    For example, books and conversations taking place in New York mention Moo Goo Gai Pan in ways that lead me to believe it is a standard Chinese menu item. In my experience of almost 40 years of eating "standard" Chinese food in California, there is no such thing (or at least not anything that's called that on the menu in English characters). I'm sure there are other examples.

    So all you bi-coastal Chinese food experts, what's the scoop?

    15 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      The dishes mentioned are contemporary Cantonese/"Hong Kong" banquet style dishes. The Cantonese in New England (where I grew up) was a version brought over by earlier immigrants and tailored to the Sunday-night let's eat Chinese crowd (and I am not putting it down; it was great - spareribs, shrimp in lobster sauce, etc.)

      1. re: soccerdad

        No, no, no, at my parents', it was SATURDAY nite!!! (g)

        1. re: galleygirl

          What? You're not Jewish??!!

          1. re: soccerdad

            I am SUCH an observant Jew, that it was my family's tradition to break our Yom Kippur fast with take-out Chinese!! And every single family from the temple was there, waiting for their orders!

            1. re: galleygirl
              Lynne Hodgman

              I grew up with Moo Goo Chow Yoke, Moo Goo Gai Pan, etc. and enjoyed it as much as I enjoy Sechuan, Hunan etc. now. What I want to know is, why do Jews like Chinese food so much???!!! Our 30-family congregation somehow supported 3 Chinese restaurants in a town of 14,000. In New Hampshire, yet!

              AND -- we have yet to have a family occasion where Chinese food isn't included in the weekend eating excursions.

              My grandmother loved Chinese food until someone made the mistake of telling her it included tref. Sigh. I've always felt bad for her!

              I'm writing this as I finish polishing off last night's leftover orange chicken...

              1. re: Lynne Hodgman

                Hard to say; besides the fact that, from what I've seen, Jewish and Chinese mothers are EXACTLY the same? (g)..Remember the scene in "Joy Luck Club", (the book..) where Waverley's mother pulled toilet paper "from home" for her to use in the restaurant rest room? My mother to a T!!! (altho after using the conveniences across China, I began to understand where she was coming from...) I live in a very Jewish town that must support as many Chinese restaurants per capita as Chinatown....But man, the stuff I grew up with was SO BAD..Luckily, I found my way to the good stuff!!
                My life was changed by oysters with ginger and scallions!
                (My mother wouldn't LET me tell my grandmother the truth when she was enjoying loster...)

                1. re: galleygirl

                  We talked about the affinity of Jews for Chinese food often when I was growing up, eating almond chicken, egg foo young and spare ribs in Cantonese restaurants on Fairfax Ave. and Pico Blvd. My dad relished the delicious irony, when we walked into Cantor's deli one night and saw a Chinese family eating corned beef sandwiches.

                  1. re: zora
                    Lynne Hodgman

                    Thank you all for the 1) explanations! and 2) terrific anecdotes.

                    I do have a thing about trying not to eat Chinese (or anything obviously tref) during Passover even if I eat other non-Passover foods! Go figure.

                    And for sure, my Chinese friends tell me such similar stories about their mothers!

                    1. re: zora

                      My dad told me that when he lived in LA during the 40's, all the kitchen staff at Cantor's were Chinese.

                  2. re: Lynne Hodgman

                    What I want to know is, why do Jews like Chinese food so much???!!! Our 30-family congregation somehow supported 3 Chinese restaurants in a town of 14,000. In New Hampshire, yet!

                    A few years ago, I read a very interesting article that looked at this question..several factors were mentioned.

                    1. There was a large influx of Chinese, Eastern European Jews, and Italian immingrants at about the same time..settling in lower Manhattan in neighborhoods of close proximity. Because of prejudices, the job market was not very open to the Chinese, so many opened restaurants..far more restaurants than could be supported by the Chinese they had to woo non Chinese customers. Jewish restaurants have never been a large factor..the early immigrants generally preferring to cook at home...but considered going to Chinatown to be adventurous or sophisticated. Italian immigrants also opened restaurants, but the overall job market was much more open to them and an Italian restaurant could make a living just from Italian customers and didn't feel the same need to attract non Italians.

                    2. Chinese food doesn't use much dairy the Jewish immigrants didn't have to worry about mixing dairy and meat.

                    3. Jewish dietary laws prohibit pork...while spare ribs are clearly pork, the pork in egg rolls or dumplings is chopped fine...and adventurous eaters could "make believe" they weren't really eating pork..yes, rules were occassionally broken..:)

                    There were a few other things mentioned but I can't recall them all..BTW this article pointed out that this Jewish-Chinese link was primarily for Eastern European Jews. The German Jews who came to America were typically wealthier and tended to live "uptown" and more quickly assimilated to existing NY society.

                    I have nice memories of my grandfather taking me to NY's Chinatown...staring in amazement at all the exotic goodies..and being so impressed that my grandfather was so "well known" in the restaurants we went to.

                    BTW..we were a Sunday night Chinese eating family..never on Saturday.

                    1. re: 9lives

                      Thank you, 9lives..I vaguely remembered reading that article, but I couldn't remember the salient points well enough to post...
                      I've heard that the Italian, esp. pizza, market really opened up after WWII, when GI's who had been stationed in Italy came home and wanted what they had tasted..My father, who grew up in the ABC's, never got as far as Chinatown, but he DID introduce my mother to pizza..She, in return, introduced him to Brooklyn style Chinese...A match made in Chow-heaven....

                      1. re: 9lives

                        Regarding breaking the rules by eating the finely chopped pork:

                        I remember my paternal grandmother telling my father on his way to order take-out Chinese food to be sure to get the soup "mit der kreplach" (pork filled wontons) from the local Cantonese restaurateur who -- not suprisingly -- spoke Yiddish as his second language, and English as a poor third.

            2. re: Ruth Lafler

              I remember Moo Goo Gai Pan as a standard from my (shudder!!) suburban-style outside Boston upbringing; beef and mushrooms in brown glop..Or is that Beef Chow Yoke? (yuk!). I had never heard of mayonnaise shrimp til I encountered it in SF, but ANY seafood with ginger and scallion is common all over Boston, Allston, etc, and as far as pepper-salt, or salt-pepper, or salt-fried, they're all over town too..Even my less than adventurous friends know to ask for them...I've never been to Hsing Hsing, but I'm always less than underwhelmed by most Cambridge Chinese food....It sorta sounds like the stuff I grew up with in the Boston 'burbs--not that that's a bad thing, there have been threads on the Boston board lately of people looking for the suburban Chinese they remember from their youths!

              1. re: galleygirl

                I've mayonaise shrimp at a Chinese Restaurant here in Rhode Island exactly as described in this thread. It was different but surprisingly good!

              2. re: Ruth Lafler

                my wife's family lives in CT - not far from Hartford - in a small we go back annually and I have noticed that some of the standards haven't changed even though it's been 40 years since I used to live there. By the way, I lived in Brookline which has a large Jewish population and most of our Chinese friends were involved in the restaurant business. Moo Goo Gai Pan, all seemed very retro. In that same time span, the repertoire here in the SF Bay area has evolved a bit quicker...probably due to more immigration. Opening relations with China and the increased numbers from Hong Kong. The walnut shrimp dish is popular in HK - I was under the impression that it came to the US from there but I'm not sure. The HK chefs take on aoli (mayo) or thousand island dressing (sweet may) ? It sure has spread quickly - not unlike the way most "California" restaurants now offer a seared tuna dish....or a salad with candied walnuts and pears with gorganzola. Chefs read and travel more than they used to - the same dishes can be found in more places than in years past. Which is unfortunate in some ways because I like the idea that I will only be able to have a particular dish in a particular region - that's what makes travelling so much fun. Excuse my ramblings - not sure what my point was.

              3. I'm sure you'll get lots of replies from regulars. But basically, you were probably familiar with one regional style of Chinese cuisine. There are so many different kind and each specializes in different dishes. The mayonnaise shrimp you mentioned is a really typical dish (though I'm not sure to which region it belongs t, maybe Cantonese) and it's usually called walnut shrimp, with lightly batter shrimp fried first then coated with a light coating of mayonnaise and served with candied walnuts. The other dishes you mentioned are also typical Chinese dishes. Ginger and green onions are practically used in all seafood dishes to mask "fishy" ordors.

                Perhaps you should say what were the dishes you are familiar with in MA, then people can tell you what region those belong to, or maybe they might be "American Chinese" and the stuff you are encountering now is the real thing.

                1. mayonnaise shrimp? I grew up on the East Coast, have lived for 10 years on the West Coast, but still have not the faintest idea what this is.

                  so what is it, in the Chinese menu context?

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Jill D

                    It's a dish supposedly invented in a Chinese restaurant in Detroit.

                    You glaze walnuts with sugar and honey, then deep-fry them. Set aside. Coat shelled shrimp with egg whites, roll in cracker meal and deep-fry. Mix wth vinegar, mayonnaise, sweetened condensed milk and sugar in a hot wok and fry for a minute. Serve over rice garnished with the walnuts.

                    Does that make your teeth ache or what?

                    1. re: Karolyn

                      Thanks, kit and Karolyn for the explanation. My reaction: not for me, thank you! The walnut part sounds nice, and shrimp is lovely but I'd be pleased to skip the mayo/milk part.

                    2. re: Jill D

                      It is shrimp coated in a mayonnaise sauce accompanied by sweetened walnuts. Odd but good. I saw it on menus here and finally tried it in san francisco.

                      1. re: Jill D

                        I think the general influence might be from HK.. where most of the 'odd' new dishes come from.

                        Here we get battered fried shrimp, covered in a mayonaise sauce served with peaches.

                      2. Not only does China have huge differences in regional cuisines (largest country in the world, one quarter of the world's population, etc., etc.), but Chinese food outside of China always adapts to local produce and regional ingredients (don't get me started about peas in fried rice). Also, Chinese food is still evolving,, even in those areas we all feel most comfortable (dim sum, soups, noodles, etc.), which is one of the reasons it's fun to eat.

                        Think if you had come to the U.S. and eaten New England style dishes (clam chower, baked beans, boiled corned beef and cabbage), and grown accustomed to thinking of that as American food, and then moved to the South, and suddenly found the menus full of mustard greens, grits and pecan pie.

                        So tell me, Kit, did you really write Hamlet?

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: P

                          with regard to Shakespeare: I wrote 'is plays and my wife and I wrote 'is sonnets.

                        2. Up until 25-30 years ago, almost all East Coast Chinese food had a Cantonese derivation, since most early Chinese families were from Kwan Tung province (Canton). Lots of seafood, chicken, and mostly stir fried. I am sure than many dishes were given names unknown in China (Chop Suey, for example). I have never heard of Moo Goo Gai Pan in the West, but it is a popular chicken dish on the East Coast. Availability of exotic ingredients has a lot to do with it...and you can see that now that many more fresh ingredients are available with air shipping. Immigration from all of East Asia has had an impact on oriental food. We should remember that Chinese cuisine has great versatility...many dishes are created by local chefs, and if they catch on, included on the menu. I think the important thing to remember is if you are in a good restaurant, and can express yourself clearly, they will cook just about any dish you want, if they have the ingredients.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Jim H.

                            My recollection is somewhat differnt from yours: Szechuan-style places became all the rage in Manhattan back in the early 60s, leading to the unfortunate (in my view) result of Caucasian food snobs all over the country treating the great Cantonese repertoire as if it were too declasse to mention and using the generic term "Chinese food" to mean anything with a few dried chiles in it.

                            For me, the revelation came with the proliferation of "Hong Kong style" places in the SF Bay Area over the last 20 years--the daily specials, live fish and shellfish, an array of vegetables, and much more. Although most such menus offer a few western and northern dishes, the approach is primarily Cantonese.

                            1. re: Fine

                              I can't quarrel with your analysis...I left the East Coast in the fifties, and seldom eat Chinese when I am there (coals to Newcastle???). In the sixties, Hunan and Szechwan became popular in San Francisco, as did classic Mandarin, Manchurian and others. Of course, we have always had a variety of regional Chinese in the Bay Area, but I think it fair to say that Cantonese (or Hong Kong) still predominates. Admittedly, it has become rather bland over the years. I think that has promoted the popularity of Thai and Cambodian cuisine, with the added spiciness.