Skip to comments.Shanghai Warms Up To A New Cuisine: Chinese Food, American-Style
Posted on 02/12/2014 10:06:18 AM PST by nickcarraway
Imagine living in China and missing Chinese food. It happens. American expatriates who grew up with popular takeout dishes like General Tso's chicken can't find it in China because it essentially doesn't exist here.
Much of the Chinese food we grew up with isn't really Chinese. It's an American version of Chinese food. Chinese immigrants created it over time, adapting recipes with U.S. ingredients to appeal to American palates.
Now, Americans living in Shanghai can get a fix of their beloved Chinatown cuisine at a new restaurant called Fortune Cookie.
A pair of American entrepreneurs launched Fortune Cookie last year to cater to nostalgic expatriates and local Chinese. The venture could be seen as one big prank the culinary equivalent of coals to Newcastle.
American entrepreneurs David Rossi (left) and Fung Lam co-own Fortune Cookie, a new Shanghai restaurant that serves Chinatown cuisine.i American entrepreneurs David Rossi (left) and Fung Lam co-own Fortune Cookie, a new Shanghai restaurant that serves Chinatown cuisine.
Frank Langfitt/NPR "A lot of people called us crazy and were banking on us closing after six months," says co-owner Fung Lam, 31, who grew up in North Jersey.
Eight months later, though, the doors here are still open, and Lam is hopeful he can find a market.
"American-Chinese food is another regional cuisine for China," he says, likening it Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese food, which seems a bit of a stretch.
Lam is a third-generation Chinese-American restaurateur. His grandfather came from Hong Kong and opened his first restaurant in Brooklyn in the 1960s. Lam spent his teenage years packing takeout boxes in one of the family's restaurants in New Jersey.
Fortune Cookie's core demographic includes patrons like Megan Emery-Moore, who teaches art at Shanghai American School. Emery-Moore grew up in a town of 20,000 in Missouri, where she waitressed at a Chinese restaurant.
"They had amazing sweet-and-sour chicken," she recalls, "so ever since then, I was always like: I've got to get more that was just like that."
As we chat, Emery-Moore digs into a plate of sweet-and-sour chicken covered in sauce and pineapples.
"It's kind of embarrassing that you're in China eating American-Chinese food, but it was just spot on," says Emery-Moore, referring to her meal. She says the food transports her to another place and time. "I feel calm. I feel relaxed. I feel like I'm at home."
No Taste Like Home
The food at Fortune Cookie tastes like home because many key ingredients Skippy peanut butter, Mott's applesauce and Philadelphia cream cheese originate there.
Mott's goes in the duck sauce as well as the chili sauce for spring rolls. Skippy is used in fried noodles and fried rice. Cream cheese serves as filling in Crab Rangoon, a deep-fried dumpling appetizer.
Standing in the restaurant's cramped kitchen next to a bubbling wok of sweet-and-sour sauce, Lam reveals the secret behind the dish Megan Emery-Moore swears by.
"Off the top of my head, about one-third of it is Heinz ketchup," says Lam matter-of-factly. That's "what gives it that bright, red-orangey color."
Fortune Cookie serves authentic American-Chinese dishes, including many that won't be found elsewhere in China.i Fortune Cookie serves authentic American-Chinese dishes, including many that won't be found elsewhere in China.
Frank Langfitt/NPR When Lam came to Shanghai in 2012, he wasn't thinking about opening a place like this. He and his business partner, David Rossi, who met in a master's program in hospitality management at Cornell University, planned a quick-service restaurant that focused on healthy food.
When that concept ran into trouble China is a notoriously tough place to do business the pair considered what was missing from the burgeoning culinary scene in this city of 24 million.
"If you're out here, there are so many pizzerias and burger places and bistro bars and tapas ... so you almost don't even miss being in the States," says Lam. But when he went looking for the Chinese comfort food his family made back home, he couldn't find it.
"A light bulb went off," says Lam, who wears a pinstripe apron and black, backwards baseball cap.
Intro To Fortune Cookies And Takeout Boxes
Getting Fortune Cookie up and running wasn't easy. The owners sourced the restaurant's namesake, a treat that's unheard of in China, from a factory in neighboring Jiangsu province that exported to the Netherlands.
When the sample fortune cookies arrived, they cracked them open to find all the fortunes were written in Dutch. With the restaurant's opening looming, panic set in.
"You have no idea how hard it is to write a fortune when you have to come up with 120 of them in one night," says Rossi, 33, who grew up in South Pasadena, Calif.
Rossi says the first 40 fortunes they wrote were pretty good, but by 2 a.m., their imaginations were spent. They wrote single-word messages such as "Yes" and "No."
Guests were not impressed.
"Who wrote this?" Rossi recalls one bewildered customer complaining as he cracked open a cookie. "This is horrific!"
Hmmm. This is like glutinous rice. It also tastes like a street-side pancake. I've never been to America, so I'm not quite clear about this thing. - Jack Zhang, tasting his first fortune cookie The restaurant now has a box where customers can suggest their own fortunes.
Chinese people make up about 40 percent of the lunch crowd at Fortune Cookie these days, and they seem to enjoy the food. Earlier this week, George Zhao, a management consultant who spent eight years in Melbourne, praised his dish of beef and broccoli. But Zhao said, in general, Westernized Chinese food lacks the subtlety of the original cuisine.
"For example, the sweet-and-sour pork the pork is too sweet," said Zhao. "In China, we don't eat food this sweet."
A few booths away sat Jack Zhang, who works in advertising. A Chinese colleague brought him here to taste a new kind of food. After a plate of orange chicken, Zhang bit into his first fortune cookie. He furrowed his brow and searched for the words to describe it.
"Hmmm. This is like glutinous rice," he said in Mandarin. "It also tastes like a street-side pancake. I've never been to America, so I'm not quite clear about this thing."
Another thing at Fortune Cookie that intrigues people here are the white cardboard takeout boxes with wire handles and red pagodas on the side. Ubiquitous in America, they are known to Chinese only through scenes in Hollywood movies.
When the restaurant staff saw them for the first time, they were so excited, they took photos. Then, with Lunar New Year approaching, they loaded up some boxes and fortune cookies and took them home to show their families.
Is that like putting a Taco Bell in Mexico City?
This sounds like a fantastic idea; the Chinese will get a taste of Americanized Chinese takeout and Americans will get a taste of home when they feel like it.
Not a bad analogy.
Similarly, PF Chang’s is a restaurant that makes relatively authentic Chinese dishes like are found in China, Taiwan or US restaurants patronized by overseas Chinese.
But PF Chang’s isn’t quite as good, has smaller portions and costs more.
That's just the 'MSG' kicking in...
Never thought I’d hear PF Chang being considered authentic.
Did you ever notice that of all the Chinatowns in America, not a single one has a Mein Street, why is that?...
In Spain. before franchises expanded there, we heard there was a McDonald's. Arriving we discovered he had only copied what he had heard about American food.
The hamburgers were ground pork [HAM-buger get it?], the buns were dinner rolls and the fries were small new potatoes fried. Nevertheless we ate it up . HA...
Why do you say that?
Then, we go to mainland China and a big Chinese dinner is served just for us at a large building and it's owned by the Chinese government. Again, little dumplings, etc., all bland. Peking duck at least has enough meat you know you are eating meat and it's not drowned in little pasty tasting dumplings.
My trip was some years ago, so I don't know if it has changed, but based on this new restaurant serving spicy food, I guess it hasn't - that their main food is still bland.
I would go to this new restaurant in a heart beat if I lived there.
The Japanese like sticky rice.
We used to make fun of my buddy’s BIL who wouldn’t eat local cuisine in Mexico because it “didn’t taste like Taco Bell”
In China, it was a whole other world. Most every course was swimming in fat and 'clean' dishes were not. The 'five star' hotel that they stayed in, was no better than 'Billy Bob's Hotel, Strip Joint, Mortuary and Paint Shop'. Terrible meals, soiled linens, bed sheets, etc. Of course, this was when China was just opening up to the West.
That’s a PBR on the table. Thought they were out of business years ago.
You didn’t know hipsters love it?
I’ve spent time in China and HongKong, ( 7 tourjst trips and 2 6- week study trips) and have to say that I’ve had some wonderful tasty dishes. I’ve had mediocre food too, but for the most part, the food was great. I’m not Chinese, but have a deep interest in the food and taught it for 38 years. Some of the best was in out of the way places, and in all my time there, I kept an account of every meal I had. Really interesting!! I’ve no favorite region. All are interesting and wonderful.
When it comes to Sweet/Sour Pork, theirs is so much better, IMMHO, and not cloyingly sweet.
“You didnt know hipsters love it?”
Nope, we drank that when we couldn’t find horse piss.
Maybe it’s just me, but that’s one of the funniest things you’ve ever said to me, and that’s saying a LOT.
A Chinese fiend of mine told me the wealthier the Chinese are, the less flavored their food is. They get the best quality food and don't feel the need to flavor it.
The poorer Chinese people do the opposite: they flavor the lower quality food. - Tom
It’s a lot easier to ‘get’ when it’s in writing. Asimov would have said it’s too perfect a pun.
I’m not Asimov (sp??) but you knew that, dintcha?!
They have Taco Bell in Mexico City and other cities in Mexico. Rather amusing to see. They’re usually not so busy.
Is chop suey on their menu?
I think it is a funny way to introduce what we view as Chinese food, while they think we’re clueless. Then they get excited about the way their food is packaged stateside.
“...the wealthier the Chinese are, the less flavored their food is....The poorer Chinese people do the opposite: they flavor the lower quality food.”
A verrrrry interesting observation.
And some curry powders & Mexican peppers (and Vietnamese peppers) will blast one’s sinuses into the middle of next week.
Don’t know if it’s a class thing or not. As I get older I need more seasonings. Still recall the story of how they `tortured’ Saddam Hussein by providing him with nothing but unseasoned bland food. Apparently waving a salt shaker in his face finally got him to talk.
Or was it that bag of Doritos?
I sometimes host my Chinese counterparts when they come to the US. I took one of the women who was having some issues getting used to American style breakfasts to a a dim sum restaurant. At the end of the meal the waitress broke us the check and fortune cookies. My counterpart asked, “Do all American restaurants serve these?” It’s been years and I still chuckle when I think of it.
Back in a Chinese history, when the Mongols ruled, moon cakes were used by the Chinese to send messages about the upcoming revolt. The messages were written on pieces of paper and hidden inside the moon cakes. Also, Chinese birth announcements were written on paper and placed in cake rolls. I don’t know the date of that practice, tho.
But the Fortune Cookies, as we know them, are a Western invention. My favorite one is the one you see as a joke——— “ That wasn’t chicken”! Lol!