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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.

Interpreting Getting it Right

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.

Photo by FotoosVanRobin from Netherlands - La Zi Ji (Chicken with Chiles) Uploaded by Partyzan_XXI, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8196042

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About Jennifer Bustance

Jennifer Bustance is a California-based freelance writer, playwright, and novelist. Her plays have been performed all over the country, and her prose has appeared in various online and print publications. Jennifer is a teaching artist with the Playwrights Project, San Diego Writers, Ink, and UCSD Extension. She is the Playwright in Residence at the Scripps Ranch Theatre and a founding member of their New Works Studio. She has an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College.

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Meet the Authors

Brian Gruters

In addition to writing blogs for us, Brian Gruters manages translation projects for corporate clients. He started with Language Translation in 2015.

Brian brings several years of experience as a Spanish to English translator to his work. He has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from the University of Arizona and a master’s in Environment and Resource Studies from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

As a writer, Brian is mostly interested in language, science, and environmental conservation issues. He writes for various publications, as well as his blog, briangruters.com.

Jennifer Bustance

Jennifer Bustance is a California-based freelance writer, playwright, and novelist originally from Troy, Michigan. Her plays have been performed all over the country, and her prose has appeared in various online and print publications.

Jennifer is a teaching artist with the Playwrights Project, San Diego Writers, Ink, and UCSD Extension. She is the Playwright in Residence at the Scripps Ranch Theatre and a founding member of their New Works Studio. She has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and a BA from Sarah Lawrence College.

Chris Maroulakos

Chris Maroulakos has worked at Language Translation since 2007, and he is currently the director of operations. He has been a blogger and managing editor for the San Diego music blog Owl and Bear since 2008, and he also worked as a blogger and associate editor for NBC San Diego's SoundDiego music blog.

Chris holds certifications in SDL Trados Studio for Translators (Advanced Level), SDL Trados Studio for Project Managers, and SDL MultiTerm for Translators and Project Managers. He is Inbound Certified by HubSpot and also has certifications in Localization and Localization Project Management from California State University Chico, the Globalization and Localization Association (GALA), and the Localization Institute.

He graduated from The Pennsylvania State University with a BA in Communications and with minors in Italian and International Studies.