Birmingham, Chinese food, Chinese-American Food History, Cooking, food, Fortune Cookies, New York City, Tall & Handsome, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Kung Pau USA, by Beverly Hicks Burch

Kung Pau USA

By Beverly Hicks Burch

Tell the children to leave the room. Their eyes just may be too young and tender to read and accept the following…the Fortune Cookie is not Chinese. If you travel to mainland China, good chances are, you will have a hard time finding a fortune cookie. In Hong Kong they are marketed as “genuine American fortune cookies”.

In reality, fortune cookies were introduced by an immigrant named David Jung in the city of Los Angles. The recipe was based on a Japanese cracker.

And that, my friends, is a very good example of the homogenization of Asian and Oriental food in the USA. Most large cities have very defined “Chinatowns”. I will never forget the exotic sights and smells of “Chinatown” in New York City when I was living in Westchester Co., NY in the early 1980’s. The upper West Side of Manhattan near Broadway is called Szechuan Alley because there are so many Chinese restaurants.

Today it’s not uncommon for even small, little, tucked-away hamlets in the most obscure places in the United States to have Chinese eateries. When Tall & Handsome and I lived in northwest Alabama in a small little town called Winfield there was a Chinese buffet there. They served up some pretty good Chinese food and it was a pleasant surprise to find them after moving from the big city of Birmingham.

Americans have assimilated and adapted Chinese food as their own. According to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of the book and blog The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonald’s, Burger King’s and KFC’s combined. In my finite mind, that’s a pretty heady fact! (Ms Lee shares another little juicy tidbit…there is no real P.F. Chang. The PF represents Paul Fleming who is the creator of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and P. F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro.)

Born of immigrant parents, Ms Lee has a fascination with Chinese and Chinese-American food. Her family was like any other…they bought take-out Chinese in the little cardboard boxes, but she had play-by-play critique from her parents on Chinese-American and “real” Chinese. Real Chinese food is full of more exotic ingredients than we would normally find or use here in the States.

I can attest to that. I’ve mentioned before I took a Chinese cooking class in the 1980’s at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I took the class with my sister. Our instructor was a little slip of gal named Thanh Madeleine Maring. Thanh also had a food column in our newspaper. Thanh was Vietnamese and was well trained, having received some of her chef training from some of the finest cooking schools in France.

Thanh’s recipes used some of the more exotic ingredients of Chinese cooking…snow peas, Chinese five spice, fresh ginger root, sesame oil, Chinese cabbage, Hoisin sauce, lotus root, different types of soy sauce, fish sauce and fermented black beans. We may find many of these ingredients in our mega supermarkets nowadays in the ethnic food section…right along with the selection for another of my favorite Asian foods…Thai. Some of the more exotic items still have to be sought out at specialty markets.

Back in the `80’s Pam and I had to go to a little Asian/Oriental market in downtown Birmingham in the Southside not too far from the UAB campus. We had to go there if we wanted even a half pound of snow peas! So you could see how preparing homemade Chinese for us would have been a big presentation. When you walked into this little market you were instantly hit with a cacophony of transcendental aromas. It was an instant trip through China, India, Africa and parts unknown.

I learned a lot from Thanh. How to make a good pot of rice…wash the rice before cooking it until the water runs clear. My personal Bevizing? I cook the rice in chicken broth with a pinch of kosher salt unless I’m making the rice for a sweet dish like rice pudding. Thanh recommended a wok…flat bottomed and never buy one that sits on one of those rings. She sold some she had imported from China and I still use it to this day.

Thanh also knew something Jennifer 8. Lee confirms in her book. Real Chinese food is not smothered in thick batter when it’s stir fried. My recipes of Sweet and Sour Pork/Chicken Thanh taught in the class is a classic example and is one of the reason I won’t order Sweet and Sour anything when I eat Chinese out…I’ve been spoiled by the real deal. It’s like I told T & H…once you’ve had mine…you’ll never go back.

Of course Thanh used ingredients available to her in America. One dish many Americans are very fond of is Beef and Broccoli, but broccoli is not a traditionally used ingredient in “real” Chinese food. So, I guess we could say it is Chinese-American. Nonetheless, it’s one of my favorites and this past weekend I made my adapted version of Thanh recipe for Tall & Handsome. So, without further ado I’ll be glad to share my real adapted version of real Chinese-American food…Bev Burch’s Beef and Broccoli.

Welcome to the melting pot!

© 2008 Beverly Hicks Burch All Right Reserved.

2 thoughts on “Kung Pau USA, by Beverly Hicks Burch”

    1. Hi Kim,

      I have no idea, but wished I knew. My sister took Thanh’s pastry class also and makes her Baklava as Christmas sometimes. Yum! I know for a while Thanh has a cooking column in the then morning paper in Birmingham (what was it called then? it wasn’t the News). I clipped several of her columns from then and still have them.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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