Chinese takeout is another way of saying American Chinese cuisine, a definitive variety of Chinese cuisine developed by Americans of Chinese descent. Dishes from China are adapted to American tastes and often differ significantly what you might find in Asia.
Learn more about each of the more popular appetizers and dishes, what is in them, and how each is prepared.
You will find these items in the appetizer section of the menu:
- Egg rolls: Very popular in the West although not eaten in China, egg rolls are a larger, bulkier version of spring rolls. These are normally deep-fried and are filled with barbecued pork or shrimp, vegetables like cabbage, celery, and bean sprouts.
- Spring rolls: A lighter, more delicate version of egg rolls, spring rolls are made with a flour and water wrapper (no egg). Like egg rolls, spring rolls are deep-fried. These can be made with meat or vegetarian. Vegetarian spring rolls usually feature shiitake mushrooms, carrots, cabbage, as well as tofu or cellophane noodles.
- Deep-fried wontons: Wonton wrappers are filled with ground pork and a variety of vegetables and seasonings before being deep-fried.
- Crab Rangoon: This is a variation of deep-fried wontons, although it is not an authentic Chinese appetizer. Wontons are stuffed with crab, cream cheese, and scallions before deep-frying.
- Salt and pepper spare ribs: One of the most popular rib type dishes in Chinese restaurants, the ribs are marinated for many hours and slow-cooked with the marinade for two to three hours until the meat on the ribs is tender and soft. The ribs are then deep-fried so they will be slightly crispy on the outside and tender and soft on the inside.
- Satay chicken on skewers: Chicken breast of legs marinaded in peanut-flavored satay sauce for hours before being grilled on a grill. Some versions of satay chicken can be a little bit spicy but it depends on the restaurant or take away. This dish is originally from Malaysia but it’s become popular in Chinese restaurants.
- Prawn or shrimp crackers: These are popular snacks made of starch with (usually) prawn or shrimp flavoring. They are crispy, crunchy, and light. These come in different colors including white, pink, and orange.
These are typical soup dishes seen on the menu:
- Egg drop soup: A classic dish, this soup of flavored chicken broth or stock, is topped with silken threads of egg. It usually includes a green onion garnish, and sometimes frozen peas are added to the stock.
- Hot and sour soup: Regional variations of this soup are found throughout China. All contain bean curd, Chinese black mushrooms, and usually pork, but the remaining ingredients can vary. It can be vegetarian and include tofu or eggs rather than meat.
- Wonton soup: The word "wonton" translates to "swallowing a cloud," and the wontons floating in the soup do resemble tiny clouds. The wontons are filled with a mixture of meat (usually pork) and seasonings, then boiled, and then added to chicken stock.
- Chicken and sweet corn soup: This is a soup made of chicken stock with creamed sweet corn, sweet corn kernels, and eggs. The texture of this soup is often thick, as it’s usually thickened with cornflour. Some versions of this soup contain crab meat, sweet corn, and ham.
Beef and Lamb Dishes
Moving to the main dishes, look for these kinds made with beef or lamb:
- Crispy shredded beef in chili sauce: This dish is deep-fried shredded beef coated with sweet chili sauce. You can ask the restaurant to keep the sauce off the beef, so you can dip your beef in the sauce and spice it to your liking.
- Beef with green peppers in black bean sauce: This dish is a stir-fry of sliced beef with green peppers in black bean sauce. Versions of this dish may contain yellow and red bell peppers and some chefs like to add water chestnuts.
- Beef in oyster sauce: The savory flavor of oyster sauce works well with beef. In this recipe, beef is thinly sliced and then marinated with several ingredients that generally include sherry, soy sauce, cornstarch, and sometimes sugar. The beef is stir-fried or deep-fried and then a "gravy" or sauce that includes oyster sauce is added.
- Beef with broccoli: Marinated beef is stir-fried and then mixed with stir-fried vegetables. The entree is covered with a thick brown sauce or gravy that sometimes includes oyster sauce.
- Ginger beef: Thin strips of beef are marinated in ginger juice, covered in a batter, deep-fried and coated with a sweet sauce. Restaurants often deep-fry the beef twice to make it extra crispy. Authentic ginger beef will be dryer and less sweet than the popular restaurant dish.
- Lamb in black pepper sauce: This dish is made with stir-fried lamb slices, usually sliced onions, and peppers, and is cooked in a black pepper sauce.
Menus are often divided by type of meat. Here are typical chicken and poultry dishes:
- General Tso's chicken: Chicken cubes are coated in cornstarch and deep-fried, cooked with a sauce that includes hoisin sauce, dark soy sauce, and chili peppers.
- Kung pao chicken (Kung pao chi ting): Deep-fried diced chicken and roasted peanuts are used in a spicy dish made with chili peppers.
- Lemon chicken (Ling mung gai): The chicken is batter-coated and deep-fried and flavored with lemon. The main ingredients are chicken, sherry, soy sauce, cornstarch, sugar, and lemon.
- Moo goo gai pan: At its essence, it is stir-fried chicken with mushrooms. It is an Americanized version of a Cantonese dish usually including snow peas, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and cabbage.
- Hot chicken salad (Bang bang ji): Made with hot chili oil, chicken breasts are cut into matchstick-sized pieces and served on a sheet of green bean paste.
- Beggar's chicken: A whole chicken is stuffed with vegetables (usually mushrooms and chestnuts) and is wrapped in dough (or clay) and baked. The story behind this dish has to do with a peasant who stole a chicken, packed it in clay, and lit a fire in a hole underground, where it cooked overnight. The result was a tender, aromatic chicken. There are other folkloric legends involving an emperor and his guards not being able to find the stolen chicken since there was no trace of smoke as it cooked underground.
- Chili chicken cubes (Cheng du chicken): A classic Szechuan dish, it includes cubed chicken breasts, marinated and deep-fried; the sauce includes hot bean sauce, freshly ground Szechuan pepper, sugar, and vinegar.
- Crispy skin duck (Xiang su ya): An interesting Szechuan dish, in this preparation, the duck is steamed, while the skin is deep-fried. The result is a fragrant, crispy variation on a Peking duck.
- Chinese chicken with oyster sauce: Prepared oyster sauce, available at most grocery stores, adds the essence of oysters to this dish. The finished flavor of a dish served with oyster sauce—combined with all of the other ingredients—becomes more savory than fishy.
- Princess chicken or empress chicken: Another interesting dish, chicken wings are stuffed with mushrooms and bamboo shoots (ham is sometimes included).
Pork is a common protein for Chinese food. Look for these items:
- Mu shu pork (Moo shu/shi pork): This dish from northern China is a stir-fry of marinated pork mixed with bits of scrambled egg, green onions, and mushrooms. It is normally served with Mandarin pancakes.
- Sweet and sour pork (Wu lo yuk, ku lu jou): Marinated pork is deep-fried in batter (some versions use less batter than others) with a sweet and sour sauce.
- Twice-cooked pork (Hui guo rou, hui kuo jou): From the Szechuan province, boiled pork is stir-fried with vegetables in a spicy sauce that includes chili paste.
- Dry garlic spareribs: Pork spareribs are simmered twice. The second time, it is in a flavorful sauce that includes brown sugar and dry mustard.
- Ants climbing trees (Ma yi shang shu): This is a very flavorful, albeit spicy, Szechuan dish. Marinated pork is cooked in a spicy sauce and served over cellophane (mung bean thread) noodles.
- Ma po tofu (Marpoo dofu): This is a spicy Szechuan pork dish served with aromatic bean curd. It is numbing, hot, aromatic, and tender.
These are common dishes featuring fish and shellfish:
- Sweet and sour shrimp: There are two versions of this dish. One is deep-fried prawns (or shrimp) coated with sweet and sour sauce, and in the other, the prawns (or shrimp) are stir-fried.
- Shrimp with pineapple: This dish features deep-fried shrimp (or prawns) coated with sweet mayonnaise mixed with pineapple.
- Fish in hot sauce (Dou ban yu): This is a Cantonese dish featuring a steamed fish fillet covered in a minced-vegetable spicy bean sauce.
- Kung pao ming har: Similar to kung pao chicken, it is made with shrimp instead of chicken.
- Salt and pepper squid: Squid rings are coated with a salt and pepper mixture and deep-fried. Toasted black peppercorns and chili flakes may be added. In restaurants, the dish is frequently finished by stir-frying the squid with onion and a mix of bell peppers and hot red chili peppers.
You will always see steamed rice offered, but may also find these rice dishes:
- Fried rice: Cold, previously cooked rice is combined with scrambled egg and other ingredients to add texture and flavor.
- Yangzhou fried rice: This is a very colorful fried rice dish, made with shrimp or prawns and ham or barbecued pork. Chicken is sometimes added as well. Vegetables include peas, green onions, and sometimes carrots for color.
- King prawn fried rice: This egg-fried rice dish is made with king prawns (jumbo shrimp), peas, and carrot in egg fried rice. This dish may contain other vegetables like sweet corn, pepper, or lettuce.
Pasta originated in China, and you can see these varieties:
- Chow fun: This is a staple Cantonese dish, made from stir-fry beef, hor fun, which is wide, flat rice noodles, and bean sprouts.
- Chow mein: In this dish, usually thin egg noodles and vegetables are stir-fried separately and added back together at the end of the cooking process. The noodles can be soft or crispy depending on how long they are cooked in oil. The gravy is either added to the noodles in the stir-fry process or at the final stage of cooking. Chicken is popular meat to use, although shrimp, beef, and pork are used as well.
- Lo mein: These are tossed noodles, unlike chow mein, where the noodles are stir-fried separately, the noodles are tossed and blended with the stir-fry mixture. These are saucier noodles than chow mein noodles.