I remember it like it was yesterday. My wife and I decided to dine in a local Chinese restaurant. We ordered one of our favorite dishes 'Moo Shu Pork'. Moo Shu is sliced pork, scrambled egg, rice noodle, mushrooms and day lily buds. It is served in paper thin rice paper pancakes and dipped in a sweet plumb sauce.
When the waitress brought out our Moo Shu, we were treated to the traditional serving style where the dish is brought out and the waitress paints the inside of the pancakes with the plumb sauce. The meat and veggies are steaming and are placed inside the painted pancakes. The presentation is a nice touch to this delightful dish. You can imagine my surprise when I noticed the waitress begin to paint the inside of the pancakes but instead of the paper thin white leaves of rice there sat a cream colored round tortilla!
I asked the waitress where was the traditional rice paper pancakes that we had come to know and love? The waitress sternly answered "this is them. This is how we serve Moo Shu!"
Now I realize that we weren't in Hong Kong. Heck, we weren't even in Chinatown. But this example serves as a perfect example of how the South suffers when it comes to Chinese cuisine.
For those of you who have tasted steamed pork buns or duck feet in oyster sauce, the MSG ladened food available in most buffet restaurants is but a mere hint to authentic Chinese cuisine. (I do realize I probably should be thankful that some of my more redneck friends will even try the watered down buffet places as they are typically the first ones to make jokes about 'cats disappearing around Chinese restaurants!")
The Chinese food industry in the U.S. is an interesting phenomena. For some insight into this, pick up the book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles from Jennifer 8. Lee. (Yes, the number eight)
The Chinese restaurant industry actually has an 'underground railroad' that brings Chinese migrants into New York where many migrants pay to get on a tour bus that travels around the U.S. to find Chinese restaurants needing cooks and wait staff. One of the ironic aspects that she mentions is that the 'Chinese Bistro'' known as 'P.F. Chang's' is considered 'authentic' cuisine by some but most of the restaurants dishes are American creations. Add this to the fact that the use of their 'terra-cotta soldiers' in their advertising is seen by most Chinese as the equivalent of using a tombstone to advertise an American restaurant.
Lee also reveals that we have more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than all the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chickens combined.
With that being said, there is much that we are missing. Those of us who think that sweet and sour chicken and cream cheese won tons are good Chinese dishes should visit one of the Mid-South's authentic Chinese restaurants. Some of them serve 'Dim Sum' which is a lot like the American 'brunch'. 'Dim Sum' refers to small portions of food that are usually 'wheeled in' on carts. Customers pick out a selection of dishes from the carts. Dim Sum gives customers a chance to try a number of dishes at a very low price.
Fortunately there are some great cultural jewels in areas like Memphis and Nashville that serve authentic Chinese cuisine. Looking for shark fin soup or Chinese sausage? Check out the new Asian Palace on Summer Avenue or weekends at the Great China Market on Summer where they serve up steamed pork buns, roasted duck and roast pork. Asian Palace even has fresh crabs and lobster daily.
You will find that most authentic ethnic restaurants are cheaper in price and use higher quality ingredients like vegetables and meats. No deep fried mystery meats. And no tortillas.