Yes, American Chinese Food Is Authentic Chinese Food

Writer Su-Jit Lin questions who gets to define "authentic" Chinese food.

Hands holding a bowl of food

The Spruce Eats / Julie Bang

Our world has never been more rose-colored, sugar-coated, highlight reeled … disingenuous. Yet ironically, we are simultaneously living in the age of authenticity. The more manufactured our experiences become, the most posturing occurs on social media, the more we crave a dose of truth. Authenticity. And if we can’t have it in our consumed media, in our pop culture, then at least let us have it in our mouths, we cry out.

And so, despite the continuing rise of hatred and violence toward the AAPI community, an appetite for “authentic” Chinese food has never been so voracious. It’s sriracha this, umami that, miso, fish sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, soup dumplings, and more, oh my! Soy and wheat gluten is back in as “plant-based” becomes the most overused term in our vocabulary. No ingredient is immune to trying to be baozi, wontons, and dumplings. All of it is gobbled up hungrily and unapologetically, enthusiastic foodies exemplifying as much lust for “real”  tastes of the East as others seemingly have for our blood. 

And in the same vein, American Chinese food is wholesale rejected. 

It is ridiculed, considered cheap and lowbrow—food for the ignorant masses not cultured enough to know they’re being lied to. Whether it’s made in a wok by Chinese hands or in the kitchen of a Panda Express by an American teen, it’s maligned in much the same way. “General Tso wasn’t even a real person,” some scoff. “It’s so unhealthy,” folks bemoan, imagining the debunked yet clung-to effects of MSG. Condescendingly, the discerning will notice, “Ugh, thick-skinned wontons—that’s so not how they do it in Hong Kong.” 

Even grown Chinese takeout kids—the last of a dying breed—view the food their parents made for their other-color customers the same negative way. Those returning to their restaurant roots have business plans that revolve around “cleaning up” Chinese as we know it in the U.S. After all, the now-retired old guard has never been shy about differentiating “our” food from the most egregiously unhealthy American Chinese foods, passing down prejudice against Westernized creations while traditional dishes have been elevated. And while they’re doing it with more respect than Andrew Zimmern or Arielle Haspel, the sense that American Chinese food needs whitewashing has lasted longer than those racist enterprises.

Above all, it is devalued, making what has been a sustaining, vegetable-forward, pioneering menu of Western-adapted dishes has become a guilty pleasure—a “bad” food synonymous with both indulgence and ignorance.

But the cardinal sin, the most egregious of all, is that it is widely considered inauthentic.

Yet who defines authenticity? Because to me, a Chinese American woman who grew up in an American Chinese restaurant, there is nothing more authentic to my lived cultural experience than the dishes of my childhood. 

I am Chinese, Han by blood, and I grew up happy to eat Chicken and Broccoli—a vegetable that doesn’t even grow in China—in brown sauce nearly every day. I’m Chinese with a family tree that dates back a thousand years in a village in Fuzhou, and have enjoyed yellow-dyed fried rice with frozen peas and carrots more often than I’ve had dim sum in the exemplary teahouse scene in Flushing. 

"There is nothing more authentic to my lived cultural experience than the dishes of my childhood."

I’m Chinese, yet I’ve snuck in requests for deep-fried Egg Foo Young with the oily gravy my mother shuddered to consider a sauce. I got excited when I’d see my dad battering up Sweet and Sour Chicken, and I would dip it in the neon orange syrup same as any white kid. I’ve stolen fresh-made Crab Rangoons to fry right off the tray as he wrapped them, and eaten my share of sugar-laden, double-fried Sesame Chicken

My point? Authenticity can mean different things to different people, because it’s a trait that is rightfully defined by a culture—not geography. 

It is a category of cuisine at its most authentic when cooked by folks from Fuzhou, a now prosperous locale once known as such an opportunity desert that it was nicknamed “a widow’s city” for the men who left to work abroad for decades at a time. It’s at its most raw when Chinese laborers are learning to roll egg rolls or make General Tso’s their own.

Most importantly, what makes these dishes authentically Chinese American and not just American Chinese is that it’s what I—and thousands of other takeout kids—grew up with. Plain and simple. It is honest, a universal shared truth. 

While I love and respect the traditional dishes of my culture and delight in discovering the diverse cuisine of its regions as much as any gringo, we shouldn’t shun or ignore the evolution of our food in diaspora.  Just because this cuisine was created in exile doesn’t make it any less authentic. 

Because to the tens of thousands of Chinese Americans who grew up like me, caught between cultures as a product of the mass immigration of the 1960s through 1970s, the Moo Goo Gai Pans, the Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, the Chop Suey … they might just feel closer to our idea of home and more resonant than the Xiao Long Baos, Salt Pork Congees, and Peking Duck. Those blurred lines in our memories between what is “true” Chinese food and what is “fake” and developed for Western palates might actually serve better to unify us ABCs than the distinctive dishes of Sichuan, Guangdong, Shanghai.

"Just because this cuisine was created in exile doesn’t make it any less authentic."

So why must the recipes be from the homeland, made in ancient, laborious ways to have value? Why does food need to be assigned virtue? And who determines either one?

Because to this writer, whose blood is as China-red as any, American Chinese food is a unique and special chapter in the evolving story of our culture. It’s one with its own identity, history, and poignance. And it ought not be written out. So here’s to good ol’ General Tso.