Chi­nese party foods steeped in tra­di­tion

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life - MICHELE KAYAL

Nel­son Cho isn’t just Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can. He’s Chi­nese-CubanPeru­vian-Amer­i­can. Which means he grew up on the shred­ded beef dish ropa vieja, the fried chicken called chichar­rones de pollo, and other Cuban spe­cial­ties.

“We ate mostly Cuban or Span­ish grow­ing up,” says 40-year-old Cho, whose fam­ily founded the Peru­vian-Chi­nese restau­rant Flor de Mayo in New York.

Ex­cept for Chi­nese New Year, Cho says, when it was steamed oys­ters and roast pork all the way. “It was strictly tra­di­tional Chi­nese,” he says.

Chi­nese New Year, cel­e­brated this year on Jan. 31, in­volves a litany of sym­bolic foods. Noo­dles are eaten for long life; clams, be­cause they look like coins, are eaten for wealth; and fish, the Chi­nese word for which sounds sim­i­lar to the word for “abun­dance,” sym­bol­izes pros­per­ity.

“Food has al­ways been very im­por­tant for the Chi­nese, es­pe­cially for the celebratio­n of the new year,” says Yong Chen, an as­so­ci­ate his­tory pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine. “Food is one of those com­mon­al­i­ties that holds us to­gether as Chi­nese.”

Many North Amer­i­cans think of Chi­nese food as a broad cat­e­gory of in­ter­change­able dishes. But Chi­nese-Amer­i­cans come from many dif­fer­ent re­gions of China, each with a dif­fer­ent cui­sine. Many Chi­nese also come via Korea, Thai­land, In­done­sia and other parts of Asia, as well as Cuba and South Amer­ica.

Like many em­i­grants, they adopted the foods and flavours of the places they set­tled. When those fam­i­lies later came to the United States, they brought those dishes with them.

The first Chi­nese came to the United States in the mid-19th cen­tury from the prov­ince of Can­ton (also known as Guang­dong), and for nearly a cen­tury most of the Chi­nese food in Amer­ica was Can­tonese, says Chen, who has just writ­ten a book about Chi­nese food in Amer­ica.

It is a cui­sine heavy on seafood and slow cook­ing.

Af­ter an over­haul of im­mi­gra­tion laws in 1965, Chen says, Chi­nese be­gan ar­riv­ing from the other coun­tries where they had set­tled. And af­ter China and the United States re­sumed full diplo­matic re­la­tions in 1979, more peo­ple be­gan ar­riv­ing from Chi­nese prov­inces such as Sichuan and Hu­nan.

While Sichuan fare, with mouth-numb­ing pep­per­corns, and elab­o­rately pre­pared Hu­nanstyle foods such as orange beef, has be­come main­stream, other vari­a­tions on the cui­sine are less known. Cho’s restau­rant, Flor de Mayo, of­fers a Chi­nese side of the menu with dishes such as beef with snow peas and sweet-and­sour chicken, and a Peru­vian side of the menu, where the steak dish lomo saltado and the fire-roasted chicken called pollo la brasa are pop­u­lar.

But just be­cause the two cuisines are seg­re­gated doesn’t mean they don’t frat­er­nize. Soy sauce is a key in­gre­di­ent in the pollo la brasa, Cho says, and pork chops of­ten come with fried rice. A Chi­nese lo mein noo­dle dish is made with roast pork or chicken — and fried plan­tain.

Some of the culi­nary fu­sions so thor­oughly al­tered dishes that they would be un­rec­og­niz­able to Chi­nese in China, says Chen. For in­stance, he says, Kore­anChi­nese food is not a mat­ter of sim­ply adding kim­chee to ev­ery­thing, but rather is a panoply of unique dishes.

The sig­na­ture dish of Kore­anChi­nese cui­sine is a noo­dle dish called ja­jangmyeon — a plate of thick, wheat noo­dles drenched in a pun­gent sauce of fer­mented black soy­beans that of­ten in­cludes seafood, pork and juli­enned cu­cum­ber. Though this dish be­gan as the North­ern Chi­nese noo­dle-and-ground pork dish zha jiang mian, Chen says to­day it is thor­oughly Korean.

At Rice Bowl 2 in Houston, In­done­sian food oc­cu­pies one side of the menu and Chi­nese food the other. But the Chi­nese food has a def­i­nite In­done­sian flair. The omelette dish pu yung hai is sim­i­lar to Amer­i­can egg foo yung, says owner Soentono Jie, but in­stead of brown gravy, it floats on a sea of sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. Some­times peas are added.

A mixed veg­etable dish com­mon in many Amer­i­can-Chi­nese restau­rants be­comes cap cai (pro­nounced chahp ch­eye) in In­done­sian Chi­nese. But none of it, Jie says, looks any­thing like what you’d find in China.

“The peo­ple com­ing from China to the U.S., they’re not fa­mil­iar with my food,” says Jie, who was born in In­done­sia, but is eth­ni­cally Chi­nese. He came to the United States in 1987. “Peo­ple who are straight from China, they don’t come to my restau­rant.”

Jie and his fam­ily also cel­e­brate Chi­nese New Year with tra­di­tional Chi­nese foods — that is, the foods that are tra­di­tion­ally Chi­nese in In­done­sia. Though they have none of the sym­bolic foods, he says, the ta­ble groans with cap cai and noo­dle dishes.

Feng Li/AFP/Getty Im­ages

Chi­nese New Year, cel­e­brated Jan. 31 this year, in­volves a litany of sym­bolic foods. Noo­dles are eaten for long life; clams are eaten for wealth; and fish sym­bol­izes pros­per­ity.

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