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china The significance of traditional Chinese foods that come from different regions of the country

By Shivani Gupta

Chinese food was first introduced in America when merchants from the city of Canton, located in South China, traveled to California for the Gold Rush and opened businesses that provided services to miners, such as trading and food. To bring back food that reminded them of their hometown, these immigrants began opening Chinese restaurants, which quickly spread throughout the country.

While Chinese food continued to spread, around the end of World War II, Chinese chefs began to incorporate two menus into their restaurant, one that catered to the palette of Chinese people and one that catered to Americans. The menu for Americans became much more popular. Chefs derived flavors from canned fruits because they were accessible and used excessive salt and sugar in their dishes, even though traditional Chinese dishes did not encompass any of these flavors.

The evolution of Chinese food in America has led to the deeming of dishes such as chop suey and orange chicken, which originated in the United States, as Chinese. While they are widespread and enjoyed by many, authentic Chinese food and flavors tend to be unknown in the country.

Chinese teacher Zoey Liu lived in China for 18 years and has lived in the United States for 10, and has seen that while there are more authentic Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area due to a greater Asian population relative to the rest of the country, other parts of America are unfamiliar with what true Chinese flavors are.

“When you ask people from other parts of the United States, ‘What do you think about Chinese food?’ I think on top of their mind people think about takeout food, like very oily and very heavy-flavored, greasy, not healthy food,” Liu said. “But I don’t think that’s the beauty of authentic Chinese food. If you ask my Chinese 4 Honors students, we learned that there are regional Chinese cuisines, and all of them are very complicated, and delicate with a variety of flavors and they have their own beautiful stories behind it.”

Junior Elizabeth Lee, who is taking AP Chinese at MVHS, explains that she has been able to learn a lot about Chinese culture, food and traditions, despite not being Chinese herself.

Additionally, junior Bryan Zhu has been greatly involved with Chinese culture through both his family and by teaching children about their heritage at a Chinese afterschool. Having been so involved with the culture, Zhu has noticed Chinese food’s misrepresentation in America.

Read below to learn about three dishes that are significant to Chinese culture and their significance to Liu, Lee and Zhu.

Lotus root soup with pork ribs

The lotus root soup with pork ribs is a classic Chinese dish that can be consumed for medicinal purposes, but because of its rich, comforting flavor, many eat it as a full meal. The lotus root is not a vegetable commonly found in American supermarkets, according to Liu, but is available at Asian grocery stores such as 99 Ranch Market. Liu, who grew up in the city of Wuhan in Meilin, China, describes the feeling that she gets when she thinks of the dish.

“The picture of that soup is more family related, it’s like mom [is] making the soup for the children, especially in the winter,” Liu said. “In the winter it feels good to drink that warm soup where you get the lotus root, which tastes kind of like yam and potato, which tastes kind of starchy and sweet and since it’s been in the soup for a while, it’s soft. And then you get the spare rib which is a combination of both, it’s really good.”

Zongzi

One of the dishes with significant cultural value that Lee learned about in Chinese class is Zongzi, sticky rice and pork dumpling wrapped in banana leaf. She recalls a story associated with the dish that she was taught:

“[Zongzi is] important in Chinese culture because of [the] Dragon Boat Festival,” Lee said. “Basically, what happens is that there’s this man named Quyuan, and he loved his country, but the Emperor didn’t listen to his advice, so that led to the fall of their nation, and he committed suicide. And due to him committing suicide, a lot of the Chinese people wanted to find his dead body before the fish ate it, so then they would throw this dish into the sea, wishing that the fish would eat this instead of the body, before [the fish] find the body.”

The shape of the dish and the filling used with the rice varies in each region you go to in China, and there are diversifications of the dish in different countries in Asia. Although cooking the dish can take almost 90 minutes, it is commonly prepared and holds great significance in Chinese culture.

steamed whole fish with ginger, scallions and soy

Zhu’s mother is from Guang Zhou, China, and Zhu has noticed a difference in the flavor of Chinese food in America versus over there.

“There’s like a specialty of Guang Zhou food. It’s more light in flavor,” Zhu said. “One dish I feel is super unrepresented in America’s representation of Chinese food is a basic steamed fish. It has to be a fresh fish, and you just steam it, and after it’s done steaming, you pour some soy sauce, ginger, and some scallions on there. By steaming a fresh fish, you preserve the natural flavor of [it]. Some American Chinese restaurants serve deep-fried fish in sweet and sour sauce, and I think it really just covers up the natural sea flavor. I feel like a lot of Americanized Chinese food stresses really heavy flavors, but I think a lot of Chinese food also finds its specialty in the lighter flavors.”