Andrew Coe: When the first Americans got to China, they were intensely curious about Chinese culture. They had Chinese merchants who were their trading partners and they went to have feasts at their homes. This was one of the great novelties of their lives—to have this food. For those first Americans, the meals were probably the most exotic and alien experiences they’d ever had. Everything about the experience was weird—the ingredients, the flavorings, how the food was prepared, how it was chopped up, the textures, … the chopsticks, and the etiquette of how people acted at the Chinese dinner table. All of this was totally alien, and when you think about how [Americans] react to Chinese food today, there’s still a little of that kind of alienness in Chinese food— at least as far as the greater American population.
Obviously there are many Chinese Americans here and many other people who really know Chinese food who are perfectly comfortable eating within the Chinese tradition, but you look at the kinds of Chinese food [many] people eat—so-called Chinese food—in the United States, and it’s nothing like what they eat in China. It’s been Americanized, because most Americans aren’t comfortable with Chinese food until it’s turned into essentially an American version and served in an American setting. So we’re still a little weirded out by Chinese food.
Fish: What was the culinary impact of Nixon’s 1972 visit to China?
Coe: One of the big things that happened was that the Chinese did a live broadcast of President Nixon having a feast in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and sitting next to the paramount Chinese leaders having Peking duck. People just went crazy. At the time, the Chinese food that people knew about was chop suey, chow mein, egg rolls and the like, but it was no longer considered hip food. It was sort of boring and bland and nobody cared about it anymore. But suddenly, after seeing Nixon eating his Peking duck, people decided that they wanted “authentic Chinese food” like Nixon was eating in Beijing and like restaurants catering to Chinese populations were serving. So people went exploring in Chinatowns. There were restaurants opening in New York and the West Coast serving Hunan and Sichuan food, and this was at a time when there was a kind of counter-culture where it was cool to like hot, spicy food—anything with chili peppers. That’s how a whole new range of dishes got introduced to the United States, like kung pao shrimp and General Tso’s chicken. Of course, over the years those dishes then became Americanized and bland.
Fish: Do you see any generational difference in tastes for authentic Chinese food in America? Are younger people becoming more open to it?
Coe: That’s an interesting question, and I’m afraid I have to answer no, I don’t think so. A lot of younger people, both Chinese Americans and non-Asian Americans, have largely been brought up within the American tradition, and they’re not that used to it. If you go to Chinatowns, you don’t really see large parties of young people eating in traditional Chinese restaurants. They will, however, eat in restaurants where the traditional Chinese food has been made hip. I’m particularly thinking of places here in New York, like a chain called Xi'an Famous Foods, which is kind of like Chinese fast food, but they’re not serving chop suey. They’re serving very delicious spicy noodle dishes, vegetable dishes, and a kind of spicy lamb burger. That’s where Chinese food has been made very attractive to younger customers, and that is working very well.