Myths About Chinese Food You Should Stop Believing

If you or your family ever lived near a Chinese restaurant, you'd probably just have assumed that whatever it was you were ordering, be it chow mein or lo mein, General Tso's chicken, egg rolls, or chop suey, was the real deal. But what if we told you that what you thought were popular dishes in Chinese cooking are in fact less Chinese and more American, and which had been adapted to suit American tastes? And that these adaptations, per Jennifer 8. Lee in her TED Talk, actually introduced ingredients into Chinese American cuisine that weren't actually native to China — like broccoli (of the hit duo "beef and broccoli")? 

Because Chinese cooking in America has been exceedingly adaptable, many myths surrounding the cuisine have become accepted as fact — and these myths might easily be debunked after just one trip to an authentic Chinese restaurant. Here are just a few.

Chinese food isn't just stir fried

Chinese-American cooking may be all about the stir fry, but there are different ways to get food ready to suit the tastes of a discriminating crowd. Tofu, seafood like shrimp or squid, and pieces of chicken can be breaded and deep-fried in hot vats of oil so they are made crisp and flavorful with a few shakes of salt and pepper. 

Xiaolongbao and dim sum are small bites which steamed in artful little bamboo baskets before they are served. Tough meats are "red stewed" or cooked in a clay pot over a very low flame for hours in a sauce with soy sauce, sugar, wine, ginger, five spice powder, chili, and cilantro. Hotpots are boiling soups into which vegetables, noodles, and pieces of meat are cooked quickly before they are dipped in sauces and consumed. And then there are the roasts which include ducks, geese, and pork which feature crisp, seared skin which crackle when cut, and which gives way to tender, flavorful meats just beneath (via China Highlights).

Adding soy sauce doesn't make a dish Chinese

The world of Chinese cooking is vast. So vast that it encompasses at least eight different regional cuisines including Cantonese, Szechuan, Zhejiang, Fujian, Hunan, and Shandong. Some of these cuisines like their soy sauce, others embrace chilies and specialty peppercorns that numb the mouth (via China Highlights). 

This may explain why, although soy sauce is a popular condiment, it isn't exactly at the center of the cooking universe that is Chinese cuisine. Instead, it shares the limelight with vinegar, cooking wine, chili sauces, and soybean paste. Daxue Consulting notes that while Chinese diners do enjoy salty foods, spicy reigns supreme; and when special diets take spicy condiments out of the flavor equation, soybean pastes and tahini come in second and third, respectively.

Fortune cookies are Asian — but they're not Chinese

The history of America's favorite Chinese dessert was uncovered by Jennifer 8. Lee as she was writing her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Lee had the chance to speak with Yasuko Nakamichi, a food scholar who spent a considerable amount of time trying to trace the history of the fortune cookie. Nakamichi thinks the cookies are inspired by a Kyoto (Japan) pastry called the tsujiura senbei (fortune cookie) or omikuji senbei (written fortune crackers). 

But unlike their American cousins, the Japanese versions of the cookie are flavored with miso, and their messages are written on the outside of the pastry, instead of on the inside on a sheet of paper. Japanese baker Benkyodo was the main supplier of fortune cookies until World War II forced Japanese Americans into internment camps, at which point the Chinese Americans began making their own fortune cookies — and the rest is history. Today, Eat This, Not That! says the biggest manufacturer of fortune cookies is Wonton Food, which makes 4 million fortune cookies a day. 

Chinese takeout food boxes are American in origin

If you go to a Chinese restaurant in Asia, don't be surprised if your takeout comes to you in a plastic bag or packed into a nondescript box where a lid is held in place with rubber bands. The genesis of what we think is an awesome takeout box was the brainchild of American inventor Frederick Weeks Wilcox who took a patent in 1894, for what he called a "paper pail." 

Inspired by existing oyster pails of his time, Wilcox's brainchild was made with a single sheet of paper, creased into segments and folded into a nearly-leakproof container with a delicate wire handle (via The New York Times). One of the producers for this cool container was a company named Fold-Pak, which, in the 1970s, had a graphic designer who went on to add a pagoda and "Thank you" in what was meant to look like Chinese calligraphy, both printed in red (via Reader's Digest). For what it's worth, Fold-Pak doesn't remember who that graphic designer is, but the company knows one thing — it doesn't sell the takeout boxes in China.