Hidden Menu Items

“What is Chinese American food?” Serena Puang wonders in this essay surveying the “fauxthentic” Asian cuisine in Northwest Arkansas. What makes something Chinese American enough?


By Serena Puang

As a seventh grader in  Rogers, Arkansas, I was told by a teacher who had recently visited China that he was disappointed by the food. 

“I make better Chinese food than they do in China,” he proclaimed. 

But what is Chinese food? Or rather, what did this teacher think Chinese food was? Is it the red, mala dishes of Sichuan? Peking Duck? Do fried spring rolls count? There are eight major Chinese cuisines from Mainland China, and that’s not even mentioning Chinese diaspora. Is Chinese food from Peru still Chinese? Moving to a new country shouldn’t disqualify you from cooking a cuisine you’ve been making for your whole life, you might argue. It should count! But what about when it’s altered to local taste? What if the product looks nothing like anyone in China ever eats?

Many have argued that the Chinese food scene in Northwest Arkansas is kinda lacking. Some people from big cities have literally shed tears in our local ethnic grocery stores over the lack of options. It’s not any restaurant owners’ fault. It’s a matter of survival. You need to serve the food that your customer base will eat. In NWA, that often looks a lot like sweet and sour chicken.

Growing up, I patronized restaurants that often had two menus: one printed in English and another, printed in Mandarin, was tucked in the back or hidden behind the counter, presented to only those who pass a vibe check. Sometimes, that second menu existed only in the minds of my parents. Over the years, they have honed a superpower of ordering food that doesn’t exist on menus in Chinese restaurants. Can you just make a plate of vegetables? What do you have back there? Okay yeah, just give us that, qindan yidian. 

To me, this is Chinese American food. It is pulling fresh blanched vegetables out of a kitchen known for making fried rice with frozen carrots and peas. It is boldly asking for something that doesn’t exist on the menu from knowledge of some (tenuously) shared homeland. It is making the best of what you have.

close up of dumpling soup

But recently, I got into an argument about what to call Americanized Chinese food –– Panda Express, Pei Wei, or your local equivalent. The places that serve whatever General Tso’s Chicken is (I don’t know and am afraid to ask at this point) with oily noodles in white take-out boxes with red ornamentation. Some would call it “Chinese American food,” but as someone who identified as “Chinese American” for my pre-college life, it feels wrong to use the same label on food that caters to the food preferences of white people.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve struggled through the years to take the food at Panda Express seriously as a legitimate cuisine -– especially when I traveled or went out of state for college. There’s a lot of gatekeeping around Asian culture/cuisine, and there can be a defensiveness to prove that you’re in the know. The Chinese food in Arkansas is fine, thank you very much, and of course, I know how to eat a soup dumpling. 

But a few years ago I found out that Panda Express was created by Chinese people for Chinese people. Before it was a billion-dollar chain with over 2000 locations, it was a local mom-and-pop, just like the restaurants that family friends in Arkansas have now. 

According to Clarissa Wei writing for Goldthread, the adaptations were purposeful, opportunistic and informed by the pallets that the founding Cherng family had developed in China. When head chef Ming Tsai Cherng’s son, Andrew Cherng saw that lobster and steak dinners were popular in the US, he worked with his father to provide their own versions for their customers. And there is something distinctly both Chinese and American about that. Isn’t adapting to survive a way of making the best with what you have as well? 

Pictured: close up of green bean dish, the menu and a salad with noodles

Chinese food isn’t the only cuisine that’s been fudged a little to break into a new market, but I feel like it has a disproportionate number of detractors. As Canadian Youtuber/columnist, J.J. McCullough points out in a video, “fauxthentic” cultural traditions and cuisine are everywhere. My Italian friend tells me that American pizza is “an abomination.” One of my favorite Thai dishes: moon shrimp cake, doesn’t exist in Thailand. It was invented in Taiwan. And in Singapore, they serve chicken chop, a “Western” dish consisting of deboned chicken, cream sauce and side dishes.

Could I be falling into the same gatekeeping that I’ve hated for so long? The Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Kongese American experience is not just the immigrant experience or the experience of their kids. Some families, like the Cherngs, have been here for generations. When it comes to “fauxthentic” cuisine, intentions matter and so does power. It’s one thing if Chinese immigrants use savvy business practices to carve out a place in the market for themselves, and another entirely if someone who has no background in Chinese cuisine starts making $20 guabaos. And it seems that most Americanized Chinese food is the former. There’s history there, and who am I to police what is “Chinese American enough”?

For some people, especially in more rural areas, maybe it’s the only Chinese food they have. And sometimes, a fried spring roll and lo mein is what you need. In fact, I find that when I travel far enough from home, I kind of miss it.