Craving Hyphenated Chinese (New York Times)


NEW YORKERS always think they know the real thing when it comes to Chinese food. Forty years ago it was egg rolls, chop suey and drinks with paper umbrellas. Then it was General Tso’s chicken and sesame noodles.

But over the past decade, as large communities of people from India, Peru, Korea, Trinidad and Guyana have formed here, New York has had to expand its ideas about what Chinese food can be.

“I call them second-generation Chinese restaurants,” said Cheuk Kwan, who has directed a documentary film about the spread of Chinese restaurants around the world. “These restaurants always have a hyphen: Chinese-Venezuelan, Chinese-Norwegian, Chinese-Mexican.

“Chinese-Malagasy,” he said, on the island of Madagascar, “was the best food, with lots of coconut milk and spices.”

Dishes like chili-spiked, deep-fried chicken lollipops, which are a Chinese-Indian specialty, and lo mein topped with chunks of peppery jerk chicken, served at De Bamboo Express, a Chinese-West Indian restaurant in Brooklyn, are what Chinese food is now to thousands of New Yorkers.

The city’s first hyphenated version of the cuisine – after Chinese-American, of course – was Chinese-Cuban, which arrived in the 1960’s, when thousands of Cubans of Chinese descent came to New York after Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

“My grandfather was born in Zhanjiang, but his whole life was in Havana,” said Manny Liao, a musician who lives in Washington Heights. “He always ate Chinese food, but he cooked Cuban.”

Seafood soups, fried rice with pork, scallions and tiny shrimp, and chicharrones de pollo -chicken cut into small pieces and deep-fried in the Cantonese style – were and are standbys in restaurants like Caridad la Original on the Upper West Side and La Chinita Linda in Chelsea.

Over the years, as more Americans have visited China and more Chinese have imigrated to the United States, more authentic versions of Chinese food have come to town on a gust of hot chilies, Sichuan peppercorns and bean paste. Keeping up with the openings of restaurants serving the cuisines of Taiwan, Shanghai and Fujian in the city’s burgeoning Chinatowns – Flushing in Queens and Sunset Park and Homecrest in Brooklyn – has practically become a second job for many New Yorkers.

But for others it does not matter how real the food tastes, so long as it tastes like home. (more… registration required)

Thanks, Bill!