What is "Mandarin" cuisine?
A friend of mine sent me an e-mail raving about some "Mandarin and Szechwan" restaurant in MSP he wants me to try next time I'm out there.
So I'm sitting in my house, 20 minutes from the San Gabriel Valley, trying to figure out what "Mandarin" cuisine means. Mandarin to me is a language. Does it mean Imperial banquet cuisine? Does it mean Beijing-style food? Shandong? Or, as I suspect, does it mean goopy sickly-sweet Americanised Chinese food?
I asked him what it meant and he said it meant Chinese food (thanks, dude, very helpful).
Where I'm from (Vancouver BC), Mandarin cuisine is "Northern Chinese" cuisine - perhaps Shandong and northward. An over-simplified menu might include boiled, fried dumplings, wheat noodle dishes (e.g. zhajiang mian) , pancakes (e.g. jian bing) along with a smattering of attempts at dishes from Sichuan, Xinjiang, and other regions. The restaurants that serve "Mandarin" food here are typically smaller rustic, family-run joints so you won't find Peking Duck and other elaborate dishes that you might find in a "Beijing" style restaurant. (You can find that kind of stuff served at larger Cantonese run restaurants that specialize in a Northern menu). The operators are often fairly recent immigrants from the Mainland.
Here, Sichuan/Hunan/Guizhou cuisine aren't considered "Mandarin"...though I think that practice of lumping them all together is common in many NA cities where "Mandarin" often just means "Non-Cantonese."
My best guess is what Melanie said: 'foods of non-cantonese-speaking parts of China.'
Extrapolating wildly, this indicates ownership / menu-creation by later-wave immigrants, who are less prone to Americanization.
(late-wave: 1980s-onward? when the immigrants started working at research universities / tech companies instead of railroads)
In San Francisco, "Mandarin" cusine refers to non-Canto cooking. It also seems to be a code word for Korean-Chinese restaurants that might display "Szechwan (sic), Hunan and Mandarin" on their menu when they serve nothing resembling Sichuan or Hunan but rather a spicy version of Shandong cooking via Korea.
Like you, I've found it a conundrum. But a few years ago I passed by a employment agency in a Chinatown alley in SF. In the window were hiring notices for Chinese cooks. These were written in English and Chinese and divided into two categories: Cantonese cooking and Mandarin cooking.
Some sources equate Mandarin cuisine with Beijing cuisine, e.g. Wikipedia. However, I think the term as it's used in the US means a number of dishes popularized in the 1960's by Joyce Chen, who was from Beijing but who was influenced by other Chinese cuisines. This included pan fried jiaozi/potstickers (which were on the menu as "Chinese ravioli"), moo shu pork (on the menu as "moo shi pork"), dry-cooked green beans, and many others I can't remember. These were considerably less Americanized than the Chinese-American cuisine of the time.
Emily Kwoh's 1960's Greenwich Village restaurant, Mandarin House, seems to have also played a significant role in the creation and popularization of Mandarin cuisine.
The first thing I think of is a dish I first enjoyed in NYC's Chinatown ages ago: Mandarin Lamb (basically thin scallops of lamb with loads of scallions in a tasty brown sauce), but as that doesn't answer your question, I'll say I like Howard Hillman's explanation as the most comprehensive: http://www.hillmanwonders.com/cuisine...