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Northern Chinese Cuisine

This topic has become somewhat of an obsessive interest of mine and i was hoping that someone may be able to give me some abbrieviated lessons on the subject. anything would be appreciated.

Would it be correct to say that most of chinese-american food has evolved from the traditions of cantonese people (the largest pool of immigrants)?

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  1. I've always understood that yes, you're correct in the idea that, especially in the Midwest, Cantonese men came over to work the railroad and brought with them the desire to approximate their indigenous cooking and/or make an extra buck. Unfortunately, it was Cantonese women who ran the kitchens back home. Faced with a lack of culinary skill paired with being forced to substitute ingredients and, then, dumb down the cuisine for Western palates, we arrive at the imo sorry state of affairs that is the Chop Suey Palace. Of course, even these benighted institutions are fast disappearing from the culinary landscape. One day with widespread knowledge of the minutia of China's great foods, we may look back and lament the absence of thixotropic brown glop served atop bell peppers and white rice. mmm...maybe not

    6 Replies
    1. re: aelph

      I know I'm not contributing anything to this really interesting discussion, but I must comment: "...thixotropic brown glop served atop bell peppers and white rice." -- LOVE your description! It surely takes me back to the days when I was growing up and we would go out for Chinese food...

      1. re: liu

        No authentic Chinese restaurant would use anything but white rice, though.

        1. re: Gary Soup

          -please allow me to change "white rice" to La Choy Chow Mein Noodles-

          point taken :)

          1. re: aelph

            "La Choy Chow Mein Noodles" in the same sentence with "thixotropic?" This is sooo perfect!

      2. re: aelph

        No fair making me look up a word. :-)


        1. re: Phoo D

          Great word, "thixotropic!" It just so PERFECTLY describes a brown sauce to those of us who don't like brown sauces...just because memory serves us so well!

      3. You are right but, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Even in China, Cantonese cuisine is considered the most "haute" of Chinese cuisines. Unfortunately, with some exceptions, it lost a lot in the translation to Chinese-American food.

        "Northern" Chinese was a reaction to motononously bland Cantonese-American food, and initally was applied to anything that had come chilis thrown in. It's really a red herring because it often refers to Sichuan food (which is really Western or Southwestern) or Shanghainese cuisine, which is technically also "Southern," being south of the Yangtze River.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Gary Soup

          What Gary wrote fits my experience. In the 70s, a new Chinese restaurant opened in Columbus OH. I can't remember if they called themselves Northern (perhaps a parallel to "Northern Italian"), Mandarin, or Szechuan & Hunan. But the food was all over the map so to speak. Kung pao chicken, hot and sour soup, pot stickers, ants crawling up the tree, dishes labled szechuan or hunan. But it was the first place I had ever encountered any of these dishes.

        2. Well yes and no. Most of the early Chinese restaurants in the US were run by Cantonese immigrants. However these early settlers weren't particularly skilled cooks. I cringe when I see descendants of this cuisine - as aelph says, brown glop.

          What is worse, many Americans think of this as authentic Chinese cooking. I spent a little time in Guangzhou and was blown away by the exquisite meals I ate there, beautifully cooked and presented, wonderful blends of taste and texture. Guangzhou is traditionally regarded as the gourmet center of China, what is served in many restaurants in this country is a travesty.

          1. In San Francisco you can find some very good Cantonese Cuisine with bloodlines going directly back to Guangdong (not via Hong Kong). Obviously some cooking talent got caught up in the immigration net, and San Francisco had a critical mass of Chinese consumers almost from the beginning. I understand a cooking academy that existed in SF Chinatown in the 1950's also was instrumental in keeping the cuisine grounded in the traditions of home as well.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Gary Soup

              I count myself lucky that my local Cantonese place is run by a family from Guangdong (who spent a few years in Mexicali as well). Kirk of mmm-yoso fame ( http://mmm-yoso.typepad.com/ ) calls the standard Americanized Chinese places ABCDE restaurants - American Born Chinese Dining Establishments. Another friend of mine terms them "Country and Western Chinese."


              1. re: Phoo D

                Thanks I guess the Guangdong connection explains why the average Chinese place in Mexicali is a bit better than the average Chinatown L.A. place.

            2. Yep. I was thinking of the good Cantonese fare found on the West Coast and in Canada(so I've heard).

              I'm glad my "gloppiness" comment didn't offend anyone. :) I've never been a fan of chop suey/egg foo yung, but there are those near and dear to me who crave them. And, "gloppiness" can be an artform ala a true spicy, unctuous, savory, gloppy ma po dou fu.

              I was lucky growing up in Texas to have a grandfather whose two abiding culinary passions were Cajun and mom n pop Chinese(mainly Szechwan and Hunan). He was also on a perpetual quest for Cantonese whole crab preps.

              1. I posted a short piece on Chinese immigrant food a few months ago, and it, and the replies, might be worth a look.


                1. Interesting thread...tho' certainly NYC-centric.

                  I think the Chinese-American diaspora is demonstrably different in the iconic Midwest.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: aelph

                    Well, the midwest has its St. Paul sandwich, but New York still has its chow mein on a bun at Coney Island.

                  2. I think that studying chinese cuisine would take a lifetime. My visitors to Beijing would be surprised to be able to eat in reputedly Northern restos and not have rice once.So maybe the traditional source of starch in the North is not rice. Noodles, steamed breads, including corn.

                    I also believe that Norther food, especially meat dishes, but veggies too, was cooked in heavy oil, or roasted dry.

                    My Beijing family consisted of a Northerner and a Southerner, and they argued all the time about food. For example, my Northern family member would call the water that the dumplings were cooked in "soup". My Souther family member was disgusted by this moniker. "That is NOT soup", she would say.

                    I think the differences are deep, and the difference between what you can get in the US and China (anywhere) is even deeper.

                    Not bad, just different.

                    peace, jill

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: jill kibler

                      Yes, so right. Just the study of the Chinese Diaspora could take a lifetime as well. The Chinese Diaspora fascinates me. Which is why I'm always bugging PhooD about making a trip down to Mexicali. I've had some very interesting experiences in San Diego alone, with Chin-oy food, and learned a bit about Ma Mon Luk.



                      Who was from Canton.

                      Another documentary that made the Asian Film Festival rounds was one called Chinese Restaurants on the Islands.


                      A documentary by Cheuk Kwan, which was part of a very ambitious 15 part series, that used the Chinese Restaurant to tell the story of the Chinese Diaspora.

                      As for me, I learned a great deal about the History of Chinese Restaurants in Hawaii, but won't post here, as it was in another forum.

                      One last thing, My Father In Law is from Hunan, and loves rice, my Mother In Law from Qingdao, and loves bread. My wife was raised in Qingdao. Talk about interesting Rice vs Bread battles.....



                      1. re: KirkK

                        i lived in berlin for a while where i came became fascinated with the german colony of 'tsingtao.' i even understand the kaiser originally commisioned the namesake brewery. (PS thanks kirk for the curry house confirmation!)

                        1. re: kare_raisu

                          I had asked my Wife for information, but much of what was taught was wiped from the books in the Cultural Revolution. But there is some here:


                          I'm pretty sure you know this already.

                          As for Curry House, it is my pleasure. I already had the email and was just lazy in posting it. So thanks to you, I got off my butt.....

                        2. re: KirkK

                          Thanks for the Ma Man Luk article. I swiped it for my own website:


                          I have the whole Cheuk Kwan series. It's great, though sometimes his (understandable) absorption with the lives and circumstances of the restaurateurs leaves no room for even the slightest documentation of the food they may be coming up with for their customers.

                          1. re: KirkK

                            The Chinese culinary diaspora is fascinating. In each of the following countries, Chinese have developed a repertoire of dishes signifigantly different from Chinese dishes from anywhere else, borrowing from local cuisines and ingredients yet recognizably Chinese.

                            India, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Cuba, Peru. I believe that Hawaii and Phillippines could be added too. And that's just off the top of my head.

                              1. re: Brian S

                                There is a documentary called "Chinese Restaurants" about this guy who goes all over the world to the most obscure places to find Chinese restaurants and interview the proprietors (Google this film). It's startling to listen to a Turkish girl speaking perfect mandarin because her grandmother came from China.

                          2. About forty years ago, I was on vacation and stayed one night in Dalhousie, NB, Canada. Looking for someplace interesting and cheap, I happened upon the local Chinese Canadian restaurant. I ordered sweet and sour pork (that was 40 years ago, so I am not embarrassed to admit to it now). I asked for white rice, but was told that all the dishes came with French fries.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: bobjbkln

                              I had essentially the same experience in Charlottetown, P.E.I., three years ago.

                              We have a few true Northern Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles, and one thing that throws people is that they eat bread. Not steamed buns, but actual baked bread, a lot like focaccia, but with Chinese flavours (green onions, sesame, etc.).

                              There used to be a restaurant called Heilongjiang, after the northeastern province, in Brooklyn. I went to a friend's graduation dinner there, and it was the first time I'd ever had northern food, which involved a lot more lamb than I expected, and included a course of what amounted to Korean barbecue, but with a different marinade.

                              No rice was served; it was all noodles, bread and baked puffs.

                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                My Brother-in-law was "sent down" to Heilongjiang during the Cultural Revolution and has nothing but horror stories about the food. I think it was because they gave him little to eat except wowotou.

                                1. re: Gary Soup

                                  Heilongjiang cuisine always seems to be looked down upon as "food substitute, to be used for starvation prevention only"; it's as far as you can get from Guangdong and still be in China.

                                  I remember the food at the restaurant being tasty, but I've never been to China (except Hong Kong) so I couldn't say whether it was authentic.

                                  1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                    Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang, was quite cosmopolitan in the early 20th century. You could go there by train from Paris, or Moscow, and some Russian refugees did. Many of the buildings, in yellow stucco, are reminiscent of Petersburg. Those people wouldnt have settled for starvation cuisine. I've been there but dont remember the food. Farther south in Manchuria, the seaport of Dalian is known for its fish and seafood dishes. I had one in a Manchurian restaurant in Flushing, NYC. Mixed small fish and star anise with brown sauce served in a huge metal wok with cornbread(!).

                                    1. re: Brian S

                                      My opinion is that the food in Harbin, Heilongjiang was extremely limited - limited vegetables (cabbage, spicy green peppers, onions, garlic), limited meats (eel, horse, and very lean/bony chicken or duck), limited taste (basically lots of garlic and onions for flavouring) and extremely limited fruits. I spent 6 weeks attending Heilongjiang university in the summer, and I was popping vitamin c pills because of the lack of fruit. We ate white rice for all the meals (rice and water for breakfast), noodles, and some plain white bread as well. Potatoes were consider "pig" food, so we snuck it in once and made mashed potatoes for ourselves. But I did end up eating plenty of Russian sausage, which I did like. And boiled dumplings were served when we were invited to people's homes, which I also enjoyed. The banquet meals were a little more elaborate, with steamed fish, and little more meat dishes, but still not memorable food in taste and variety. But that was in 1984, and maybe the food has improved since?

                                      The food in the restaurant described by Das Ubergeek sounds closer to the meals we had in while in Inner Mongolia (lamb, Mongolian barbeque style food) which is north of Heilongjiang.

                            2. As luck would have it, an episode of PBS's Globetrekker yesterday featured the general Chinese diaspora with a special look at U.S. Chinatowns(and their foods of course). It's worth a look if it's broadcast in your area.