Nelson Cho isn’t just Chinese-American: He’s Chinese-Cuban-Peruvian-American, which means he grew up on the shredded beef dish ropa vieja, the fried chicken called chicharrones de pollo and other Cuban specialties.
“We ate mostly Cuban or Spanish growing up,” says 40-year-old Cho, whose family founded the Peruvian-Chinese restaurant Flor de Mayo in New York.
But for Chinese New Year, Cho says, it was steamed oysters and roast pork all the way. “It was strictly traditional Chinese,” he says.
Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on Friday, involves a litany of symbolic foods. Noodles are eaten for long life; clams, because they look like coins, are eaten for wealth; and fish, a Chinese word that sounds similar to the word for “abundance,” symbolizes prosperity.
“Food has always been very important for the Chinese, especially for the celebration of the new year,” says Yong Chen, an associate history professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Food is one of those commonalities that holds us together as Chinese.”
Many Americans think of Chinese food as a broad category of interchangeable dishes. But Chinese-Americans come from many different regions of China, each with a different cuisine. Many Chinese also come via Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and other parts of Asia, as well as Cuba and South America. Like many emigrants, they adopted the foods and flavors of the places they settled. When those families later came to the United States, they brought those dishes with them.
The first Chinese came to the United States in the mid-19th century from the province of Canton (also known as Guangdong), and for nearly a century, most of the Chinese food in America was Cantonese, says Chen, who has just written a book about Chinese food in America. It is a cuisine heavy on seafood and slow cooking.
After an overhaul of immigration laws in 1965, Chen says, Chinese began arriving from the other countries where they had settled. And after China and the United States resumed full diplomatic relations in 1979, more people began arriving from Chinese provinces such as Sichuan and Hunan.
While Sichuan fare with mouth-numbing peppercorns and elaborately prepared Hunan-style foods such as orange beef have become mainstream, other variations on the cuisine are less known.
Cho’s restaurant, Flor de Mayo, offers a Chinese side of the menu with dishes such as beef with snow peas and sweet-and-sour chicken and a Peruvian side of the menu, where the steak dish lomo saltado and the fire-roasted chicken called pollo la brasa are popular.
But just because the two cuisines are segregated doesn’t mean they don’t fraternize. Soy sauce is a key ingredient in the pollo la brasa, Cho says, and pork chops often come with fried rice. A Chinese lo mein noodle dish is made with roast pork or chicken — and fried plantain.
Some of the culinary fusions so thoroughly altered dishes that they would be unrecognizable to Chinese in China, says Chen. For instance, he says, Korean-Chinese food is not a matter of simply adding kimchee to everything but rather is a panoply of unique dishes.
The signature dish of Korean-Chinese cuisine is a noodle dish called jajangmyeon— a plate of thick wheat noodles drenched in a pungent sauce of fermented black soybeans that often includes seafood, pork and julienned cucumber. Though this dish began as the northern Chinese noodle-and-ground-pork dish zha jiang mian, Chen says today it is thoroughly Korean.
At Rice Bowl 2 in Houston, Indonesian food occupies one side of the menu and Chinese food the other. But the Chinese food has a definite Indonesian flair. The omelet dish pu yung hai is similar to American egg foo yung, says owner Soentono Jie, but instead of brown gravy, it floats on a sea of sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. Sometimes peas are added.
A mixed vegetable dish common in many Chinese-American restaurants becomes cap cai (pronounced chahp cheye) in Indonesian Chinese. But none of it, Jie says, looks anything like what you’d find in China.
“The people coming from China to the U.S., they’re not familiar with my food,” says Jie, who was born in Indonesia but is ethnically Chinese. He came to the United States in 1987. “People who are straight from China, they don’t come to my restaurant.”
Jie and his family also celebrate Chinese New Year with traditional Chinese foods — that is, the foods that are traditionally Chinese in Indonesia. Though they have none of the symbolic foods, he says, the table groans with cap cai and noodle dishes.
Andrew Huang, an engineer who is active in Houston’s Indonesian community, says he and his family also skip the symbolic new year foods but make sea cucumber with chicken and potatoes with Chinese sausage.
“I make regular dishes like what we have when we are in Indonesia,” Huang says. “Every family has their own different food.”