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Chinese emigrants celebrate New Year with culinary fusions

Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on Jan. 31, involves a litany of symbolic foods. Noodles are eaten for long life. Clams, because they look like coins, are eaten for wealth. Fish, which sounds similar to the Chinese 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 in Irvine. “Food is one of those commonalities that holds us together as Chinese.”

Chinese-Americans come from many different regions of China, each with a different cuisine. Many Chinese people also come to the United States 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 they come here, they bring their versions of various Chinese 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). For nearly a century, most of the Chinese food eaten by Americans was Cantonese, says Chen, who recently wrote a book about Chinese food in America. Cantonese cuisine is heavy on seafood and slow cooking.

After an overhaul of immigration laws in 1965, Chinese people began arriving from the other countries where they had settled, Chen says. And after China and the United States resumed full diplomatic relations in 1979, people began arriving from Chinese provinces such as Sichuan and Hunan.

Since then, Sichuan fare with mouth-numbing peppercorns and elaborately prepared Hunan-style foods, such as orange beef, have become mainstream. But other variations on Chinese cuisine remain less known. 

Nelson Cho is a Chinese-Cuban-Peruvian-American who grew up on the shredded beef dish ropa vieja, the fried chicken called chicharrones de pollo and other Cuban specialties. His restaurant, Flor de Mayo in New York, offers such Chinese dishes as beef with snow peas and sweet-and-sour chicken on one page of the menu. Another page features such Peruvian fare as the steak dish lomo saltado and the fire-roasted chicken called pollo la brasa.

“We ate mostly Cuban or Spanish growing up,” says 40-year-old Cho. Except for Chinese New Year, when his family feasted on steamed oysters and roast pork. On Chinese New Year, “It was strictly traditional Chinese,” he says.

On the Flor de Mayo menu, the Chinese and Peruvian cuisines are segregated, but that 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 would be unrecognizable to Chinese people living 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 American-Chinese restaurants becomes cap cai (pronounced chahp cheye) in Indonesian Chinese.

But none of it, Jie says, looks like anything 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.”

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