Chinese restaurants, over 46,000 of them, dot every city, town, and suburban mall across the United States. The foods of China have woven themselves into our culinary fabric, but how well do we really know Chinese food?
I ask this question not just because I happen to love Chinese cuisine. I also wrote a culinary history called Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (Oxford University Press, 2009), which is in many ways a long litany of misunderstandings at the Chinese dinner table. Americans have been eating Chinese food for 226 years—we first visited China in 1784—but our pace of learning about one of the world's great food traditions has been painfully slow. It took us a century to fall in love with it—and even then we ate chop suey, which we considered the "national dish of China"! We didn't realize that there was such a thing as Chinese regional cuisine until the publication of Buwei Yang Chao's seminal cookbook, How to Cook and Eat in Chinese, in 1945, and it didn't dawn on us that the Chinese-American food we liked wasn't what the Chinese ate until Nixon's 1972 trip to China. Even today, the vast majority of our 46,000 Chinese restaurants specialize in dishes that a visitor just off the plane from Beijing would not recognize as Chinese.
So what impedes our deeper understanding of one of the world's great cuisines? A good place to explore this question is Flushing, Queens, with its crowds and cacophony of signs in Chinese, Korean, and English. Here we can unearth regional cuisines most of us have never heard of, like the food of Shandong province, which has just appeared in Flushing over the last year or so. It turns out that Shandong isn't just any regional style but one of Chinese cuisine's foundation blocks, the food of the Han Chinese heartland near Beijing. That combination of being totally new (to us) yet still essentially Chinese makes Shandong cuisine an ideal proving ground to test our chopsticks, to judge how adept we are at bridging the culinary gap.
Joining the throngs on the Flushing sidewalk, a visitor isn't too far removed from the Americans in 18th-century Canton, intensely curious about the foreign life of the city. The difference is that they were squeamish about any food outside the North Atlantic culinary tradition, viewing Chinese market stalls with amazement, and often horror, and preferring not to taste. To us, the mingled aromas of soy sauce and sesame oil bring only the question: what's for lunch? The answer is found in the shopping malls that line Flushing's Main Street, each a warren of tiny booths where vendors sell everything from phone cards to Chinese patent medicines to Shandong-style dumplings.
Salivary glands are triggered by the fine aroma of boiling pork, but two centuries after Americans first visited China, we still haven't mastered the language. The counter women at the Best North Dumpling Shop speak only Mandarin, and the translations on the menu give only a rough idea of what's offered. It's best to just point at what the other diners are having; they turn out to be delicate-skinned and savory bite-sized morsels stuffed with a finely minced blend of pork and sour cabbage, a delicious gateway drug for Shandong cuisine.
Since the 1970s, Flushing has been a destination for successive waves of Chinese immigrants, first from Taiwan and the South China coast, and more recently form Sichuan, Hunan, Shaanxi, Guizhou, and Liaoning provinces. These regions are often culinary terra incognita for American diners, and our confusion shows when we sit down at the table. Recently, the city's first two sit-down Shandong restaurants—M&T on Kissena Boulevard and Lu Xiang Yuan on Flushing's Main Street—were opened by immigrants from the port of Qingdao. Perhaps influenced by the beer of the same name, one food writer claimed to see Germanic elements in their dishes (Qingdao was once a German treaty port). Another lumped the region's food with the cuisine of Dongbei, the frontier region up by Siberia and North Korea. In these writers' defense, it's difficult to find accurate information about Chinese regional cuisines. Nevertheless, this was the food favored by Confucius and the Ming emperors; it seems clear that the culinary influence generally flowed out from Shandong, not the other way around. When you sit down to order at a restaurant like Lu Xiang Yuan, the challenge is to discover what's specifically Shandong about the food.
The language barrier rears its head again when you open the menu. What, for instance, is a vegetable dish poetically called "Love For All Season"? If you're not lucky enough to be eating with a Mandarin speaker, the best strategy is to order dishes with an array of flavors and textures, and anything with Shandong or Qingdao in the name. Qingdao excels in seafood, particularly dishes made from clams, fish, and sea cucumber. And here we come to the last big stumbling block with Chinese cuisine: the ingredients that are either abhorrent or unpalatable to American tastes.
Dog and cat meat never translated to our shores, but we still have to deal with ingredients like stinky tofu (a Taiwanese favorite) and the ubiquitous sea cucumber. In China, sea cucumbers are a delicacy fit for the finest banquets, a soft and essentially flavorless food eaten for its texture and adept at soaking up sauces. To Americans, a mouthful of sea cucumbers is like eating space aliens, a combination of sliminess and sponginess outside our edible range. If you've tried them, it was probably Shanghai-style sea cucumbers with shrimp eggs, and that was only once. But the Lu Xiang Yuan menu lists eight sea cucumber dishes, including sea cucumber with scallion, considered a classic of Shandong cuisine.
Looking more like some pudgy brown fungus than an animal, the sea cucumber comes out sliced and bathed in a reddish-brown sauce accompanied by fat sections of scallion greens. Put a piece in your mouth and bite; these are chewier and crunchier than the spongy Shanghai sea cucumbers, and the sauce is so rich and savory that it's almost French. If you're still unsure, take another bite and keep reminding yourself, "I'm making culinary history."