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Jul 12, 2006 03:48 PM

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 ( ) 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.