American Chinese vs. Traditional Chinese Food: What’s the Difference?

One of the most popular cuisines across America is Chinese food. Wooden chopsticks and white takeout boxes are ubiquitous in all of the major cities in this country. But many people who enjoy General Tso’s Chicken might be surprised to hear that most actual Chinese people haven’t even heard of General Tso, let alone his chicken.

There are a number of differences between Westernized Chinese food and authentic Chinese cuisine, but the biggest difference is that Westernized Chinese food isn’t as spicy, and is considerably more fattening, than its authentic Chinese counterparts. Many of the dishes we have come to know and love are inspired by actual, authentic food, but a lot of it is a complete fabrication straight from the minds of American chefs.

But how did these changes come to be? According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Westernized Chinese food began in the mid-1800s in San Francisco. Chinese immigrants came to the United States and began looking for work, but many Chinese laborers and artisans found it difficult to procure employment. Chinese restaurants began as a way to simply feed their own communities — they weren’t opened by professionally trained chefs. But their restaurant industry expanded when Americans became interested in their flavorful cuisine at comparably low prices.

The primary differences between Westernized Chinese food and Authentic Chinese food are the cooking methods and the ingredients. Much of Western Chinese food is fried, but authentic cuisine only sporadically relies on this method. Spices in particular vary from region to region.

But much American Chinese food has more in common with other types of American cuisine than it does with a traditional Chinese fare. For example, a dish like Sweet and Sour Chicken is more like Southern American cooking than anything eaten in China.

Of course, China is a large country, and the food eaten there does vary from province to province, but common authentic meals include such dishes as Peking duck, jellyfish, and sea cucumbers. You can find Peking duck on American menus, but it might be a little harder to find jellyfish.


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