The Long March of General Tso

Don’t Try This At Home: (No Chinese chef would dare!)
Chicken chop suey is an American creation

I’ll freely admit to being a sucker, at least occasionally, for the sweet and starchy Hunan/Canton/Sichuan fare — cooked by people who were not chefs in their home country — that we know as “Chinese” on these shores. But now I learn, from Nina and Tim Zagat, that in fact we’re not getting Chinese at all. They write:

Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what’s available here. Where are the great versions of bird’s nest soup from Shandong, or Zhejiang’s beggar’s chicken, or braised Anhui-style pigeon or the crisp eel specialties of Jiangsu? Or what about the tea-flavored dishes from Hangzhou, the cult-inspiring hairy crabs of Shanghai or the fabled honeyed ham from Yunnan? Or the Fujianese soup that is so rich and sought after that it is poetically called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” meaning it is so good that a Buddhist monk would be compelled to break his vegetarian vows to sample it?

Like so many other aspects of Chinese life, the culinary scene in China is thriving. As capitalism has gained ground there, restaurants have become a place for people to spend their newfound disposable incomes. Cooking methods passed down within families over the centuries have become more widely known as chefs brought the traditions to paying customers. Today, there are a number of regional cuisines known in China as the Eight Great Traditions (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang cuisines). Unless you’ve visited China, they most likely have never reached your lips.

That’s because the lackluster Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in this country do not resemble those you can find in China.

The reasons are originally historic, they say, Chinese cooks catering to indentured workers and later Western palates, and not able to access most of their traditional ingredients, adapting by serving up sweet fare that would mostly be unrecognizable on menus at home — Chow Mein, Chop Suey and so on. Today, they say, ingredients are no longer an issue:

(Now), the principal obstacle to improving Chinese fare here is the difficulty of getting visas for skilled workers since 9/11. Michael Tong, head of the Shun Lee restaurant group in New York, has said that opening a major Chinese restaurant in America is next to impossible because it can take years to get a team of chefs from China. Chinese restaurateur Alan Yau planned to open his first New York City restaurant last year but was derailed because he was unable to get visas for his chefs.

Read their impassioned plea for a new culinary diplomacy.

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