RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
If you ever get a chance to visit China, you discover something as soon as you go out to eat. Many classic Chinese dishes in American restaurants are not available in China. American-Chinese food is not really Chinese food, but an Americanized version of it. Take General Tsao's Chicken, when you get to China, you first learn that you're pronouncing it wrong. It's General Tsao's Chicken. And next you learn you can't get it. It's American. As a result, there are Americans in China who miss Chinese food - or at least Chinese food as they remember it.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
So a restaurant offers to provide expatriates with authentic American Chinese.
NPR's Frank Langfitt visited a Shanghai restaurant called Fortune Cookie.
FUNG LAM: (Foreign language spoken)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: At lunch time, Fung Lam relays orders to his local chefs. It's just like his family's restaurant back in North Jersey where he filled take-out orders as a teenager.
Even down to some of the very un-Chinese ingredients that have helped make this hybrid cuisine so palatable to Americans for decades.
LAM: We're American-style Chinese food, so a lot of the ingredients, so a lot of the ingredients, like Skippy Peanut Butter, Motts Apple Sauce, like things that we use, were never made in China, so we just had to find the product here.
LANGFITT: What do you use the Apple sauce in?
LAM: We use it in our sweet chili sauce that goes in our spring rolls, and then also duck sauce.
LANGFITT: The Skippy goes into fried noodles and fried rice. The secret behind that Chinatown standard: sweet-and-sour sauce?
LAM: Off the top of my head, about one third of it is Heinz Ketchup.
LAM: And that's like what gives it that like bright, red orangey color.
LAM: It's the Heinz Ketchup.
DAVID ROSSI: Hi. My name is David Rossi. I'm originally from South Pasadena, California.
LANGFITT: Rossi is Lam's business partner. They met studying for a Masters in hospitality management at Cornell. The pair came here in 2012 to open a restaurant that focused on healthy food.
When that ran into trouble, they decided to offer the only kind of cuisine they couldn't find in Shanghai: American-Chinese. Food bloggers ridiculed the idea.
LAM: Lines like you're going to try to sell, like, you know, ice to Eskimos.
ROSSI: A lot of people called us like crazy and just, they were like banking on us closing and under six months.
LANGFITT: Eight months later, Fortune Cookie is still open. Lam believes there is a market among expatriates here nostalgic for their home-town, take-out.
People like Meghan Emery-Moore, who teaches Art at Shanghai American School. Emery-Moore grew up in Missouri, where she waitressed at a Chinese restaurant.
MEGHAN EMERY-MOORE: And they had amazing sweet and sour chicken. So ever since then, I was always like: I've got to get more that was just like that.
LANGFITT: Which is what she's eating right now.
EMERY-MOORE: It's kind of embarrassing that you're in China eating American-Chinese food, but it was, like, spot-on.
LANGFITT: And kind of comforting.
EMERY-MOORE: I feel calm. I feel relaxed. I feel like I'm at home.
LANGFITT: Chinese people make up about 40 percent of the lunch crowd at Fortune Cookie. George Zhao, a management consultant, likes the beef and broccoli he's ordered. But he says, in general, Westernized Chinese food lacks the subtly of the original cuisine.
GEORGE ZHAO: The sweet sour pork, the pork is too sweet. In China, we don't eat food this sweet.
LANGFITT: A few booths away sits Jack Zhang, who works in advertising. A Chinese colleague brought him here to introduce him to taste a new kind of food.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)
LANGFITT: This is the sound of Zhang eating his first Fortune Cookie. He's kind of frowning and thinking.
JACK ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: This is like glutinous rice, he says. It also tastes like a street-side pancake. I've never been to America, so I'm not quite clear about this thing.
That's because Fortune Cookies are also unknown here. As are those little white take-out boxes with the wire handles. In fact, the restaurant's Chinese staff found both so intriguing, they took them home to show their families during the recent Lunar New Year.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News Shanghai.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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.