LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Panda Express sells sweet, sticky Chinese fast-food in malls all over the country. But now, they're looking towards a bigger market. It's been reported that the company is thinking of opening stores in China.

But will their Americanized menu fly in Beijing? Is the Chinese food we know and love anything an actual Chinese person would recognize?

Ms. JENNY 8. LEE (Writer): The Chinese food that we eat in America is very alien to Chinese people.

WERTHEIMER: That's journalist Jenny 8. Lee. She's tracked the origins of a classic American Chinese dish, deep-fried, sauce-drenched General Tso's Chicken.

Ms. LEE: I actually went to the hometown of General Tso, which is in the Hunan province, and there are 300 members of his family still hanging out in this little town.

And I've shown them pictures of General Tso's Chicken, and I said, do you know this dish? And they looked at it and they're like, huh, we've never seen this. And then they would squint and say, is this Chinese food? Because it doesn't look like Chinese food to them.

WERTHEIMER: And it really isn't Chinese food, Lee says.

Ms. LEE: American Chinese food actually is its own cuisine. There is actually a chain of restaurants in South Korea that sells American Chinese food called Ho Lee Chow, and they have on that menu beef with broccoli and General Tso's chicken.

WERTHEIMER: But how did egg rolls and chop suey get to be the all-American comfort foods they are today? Luckily for us, the National Museum of American History has just unveiled a little exhibit on the history of the Chinese restaurant in this country. It's called "Sweet & Sour." And curator Cedric Yeh gave me a quick tour through 150 years of Chinese food in America.

Mr. CEDRIC YEH (Curator, National Museum of American History): These plates are from Chinese restaurants in Hawaii. But really, why they're here is to demonstrate the chop suey emblem that you see on this because chop suey appeared around this time, early 1900s or even early - late 1800s.

And it took off like wildfire, and it spread across the country. And it helped really make the Chinese food experience something exotic and adventuresome for the people in America to sample and try. I mean, it became the thing that everybody wanted to have.

WERTHEIMER: Is it true that chop suey never existed in China?

Mr. YEH: Well, you know, that's the interesting story. I had wanted to say that it was an American invention. That's been a story that's been going on since I was a child.

Recent research has shown that dishes like chop suey existed in China. I think the story that I like to tell, anyways, is that - I asked my parents. They ran a Chinese restaurant themselves, and they have been my best source or my source of information for a lot of my questions.

And I asked them about chop suey because it wasn't on our menu, but I asked them. And what my father said was, well, chop suey can be loosely translated into extra bits, miscellaneous parts, or leftovers. And he said, who doesn't have leftovers? You know, you'll be able to find these (unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: So chop suey, though, started Americans being interested in Chinese food, those kinds of restaurants?

Mr. YEH: Yeah, those kind of - now, they were already eating at the Chinese restaurants beforehand, but this really started something. It helped start a craze, if you will, a fad, a fad that lasted quite some time. But it really allowed the Chinese to move, to open up new restaurants, to carry that fad with them, and because people knew about it, you know, to succeed where they opened those restaurants, kind of move across the country.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I want to know about those strange-looking tongs. What are those?

Mr. YEH: Right. The other thing that happened around that same time as the chop suey craze was starting is the introduction of the fortune cookie, the Chinese restaurant fortune cookie that we all know today.

Now, this one, I like to say, is an American invention, and the tongs were from San Francisco, and they were used to help make the first fortune cookies. And they were called (unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: So were they cooked by the cast iron tongs?

Mr. YEH: Yeah, they would be heated up. It's an important part of the story, and, you know, that it started, you know, so early and has become such a large part of the Chinese restaurant experience and to be identified with Chinese food (unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any idea why it happened?

Mr. YEH: No. That's still something we're looking into.

WERTHEIMER: Somehow, though, Chinese food has really captured this country.

Mr. YEH: I would venture to say that it's another personal thing, that it's the new comfort food. It's probably as American as anything else we have on our menus and our daily eating habits. Even if you don't like Chinese food, you can pretty much name what's going to be on the menu.

We're all familiar with it, and it's become a part of our, you know, our eating habits.

WERTHEIMER: But what if you're wandering around Chinatown with an appetite for something truly authentic? Jenny 8. Lee has this tip:

Ms. LEE: No fully American Chinese restaurant would serve jellyfish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: No jellyfish. It's...

Ms. LEE: No jellyfish.

WERTHEIMER: It's not truly Chinese.

Ms. LEE: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Well, you know what they do here in Washington? I guess you do know, because I'm sure you've seen this, is that the Chinese, Chinese menu is in Chinese, posted on little flags around the walls.

Ms. LEE: Yeah. Exactly. It is a secret code. It is meant to keep you guys out, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: And, you know - and this is - but I'll tell you what you can do. You can do - this is an interesting trick. You just point to very expensive things...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: ...and take your gamble the fact that they're expensive, that they're going to be good.

WERTHEIMER: Our thanks to Jenny 8. Lee and Cedric Yeh at the National Museum of American History, where you can see the "Sweet & Sour" display and use our handy tips to get a good lunch in Chinatown, which is just a few blocks away.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.