Irony and Chop Suey

One of the enduring memories of my childhood is a can of chicken chop suey—a mixture of chicken, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, onions, and mushrooms—dumped on a pile of rice and slathered with soy sauce. (When served with fried noodles it was called chow mein.)

Although the dish originated in Southern China, the version I remember–rubbery chicken, soggy vegetables in a sweet, cornstarch thickened sauce—was distinctly 50’s style American food. Bland, soft, convenient—a crude vehicle for sugar and salt that was a far cry from anything authentically Chinese. (Restaurant versions were only slightly more appetizing.)

In a remarkable sign of progress, Americanized Chinese food is now being sold in China. Beijing is internationalizing, hundreds of thousands of foreign transplants who call the city home are bringing with them a craving for expat versions of Chinese dishes. Panda Express, the largest Chinese-restaurant chain in the U.S., is considering expanding into China. Meanwhile, a few entrepreneurs in Beijing have begun trying to peddle American “Chinese” food to the locals.

Chinese cook Lu Wentao, having recently returned to his home in China from a stint in the U.S, is giving his fellow countryman a taste of Americana:

Foreign dishes like Mongolian beef, sesame chicken, and kung pao pork line his menu; he even graces his chop suey with those pieces of fried nothings called crispy noodles served pre-meal at Chinese restaurants in the States. His sesame chicken tastes like the American shopping-mall version, with a comforting sweetness. “I really want to find fortune cookies in China,” he says with a sigh. “That would make a big difference here.”

An excellent illustration of two old adages: Bad ideas know no borders; and the more things change the more they remain the same.

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