Since my first article for Menuism in 2012, I always wanted to discuss the difference between Chinese fusion and authentic Chinese food. I’ve heard traditionalists say they hate Chinese fusion since it means messing with a revered cuisine. But as I’ve often said, Chinese food in the United States continues to evolve into new and better forms. So, what’s fusion and what’s evolution?
A common definition of fusion cuisine is the introduction of nontraditional ingredients into a particular cuisine. On its face, this definition seems to be relatively straightforward to determine when a particular dish should be classified as Chinese fusion. Adding truffles to siu mai or foie gras to har gow would seemingly be classified as Chinese fusion. But when you see well-established dim sum restaurants serving these dishes, isn’t this just part of the continuous evolution of Chinese food?
I wrestled with this dilemma for a long period of time before thinking that I had figured it out. My initial conclusion was that if an innovative dish is made by a Chinese chef, it was evolutionary (but authentic) Chinese cuisine. If done by a non-Chinese chef, it was fusion. However, this delineation seemed wrong on many counts (you have to have a special gene for your creation to be authentic?), so I was still stuck. I wasn’t ready to write this article.
A recent trend prompted me to definitively tackle the distinction between Chinese fusion and evolving Chinese cuisine. The development? Cheese.
You’ll just about never find cheese in traditional Chinese cuisine. Among my Chinese relatives and friends, many share a disgust for cheese, tied to the common lactose intolerance many members of the Chinese community endure. Indeed, lactose intolerance has made cheese and other dairy products generally a nonfactor in Chinese cuisine.
But today’s Chinese restaurants have begun to use cheese as an ingredient in dumplings and other small bite dishes. Can this counterintuitive cameo create a litmus test for what counts as Chinese fusion and what are innovations in authentic Chinese food?
As far as I know, the first appearance of cheese in Chinese food in the United States actually goes back quite a few years. Oakland tiki restaurant Trader Vic’s invented Crab Rangoon, a wonton-wrapped appetizer of crabmeat and cream cheese, in the 1950s. The dish became popular and common at Chinese buffets and Americanized Chinese restaurants, particularly in the Midwest. Cream cheese wontons and the introduction of imitation crab continued the dish’s evolution.
It may have been the cream cheese wonton that later inspired the Philly cheesesteak egg roll. This innovation is unique because the cheesesteak egg roll is only found at Americanized Chinese restaurants, Philadelphia-area restaurants that don’t even serve Chinese food, and chain restaurants like TGIFriday’s. Consequently, it’s a dish that few Chinese Americans have tasted.
If we were to stop here, we could easily conclude that because of the widespread intolerance to cheese among Chinese diners, only inauthentic “fusion” dishes aimed solely at non-Chinese diners would contain cheese. But a closer look shows this is too simplistic an analysis.
Take the Philly cheesesteak wrap served by the Bao Shoppe on Canal Street in Manhattan Chinatown. The wrap is essentially a Shandong beef roll, an authentic Chinese specialty commonly found in California, with which few non-Chinese are familiar with, slathered in cheese. The clientele at Bao Shoppe is mostly young Chinese Americans, who would not be scandalized by an Americanized dish like the Philly cheesesteak egg roll. On the other hand, Bao Shoppe does have its share of non-Chinese customers, and in fact, it was originally located in a non-Chinese neighborhood in Queens before moving to Manhattan Chinatown.
Perhaps the best known Chinese cheese creation is the cheeseburger potsticker found at Ms. Chi Café in Culver City, on the Westside of Los Angeles. Ms. Chi Café opened last year by Top Chef finalist Shirley Chung, who describes her cuisine as modern Chinese-American. Chung professes an intent to foster a greater understanding of Chinese cuisine. Consistent with the location of her restaurant, Ms. Chi Café’s clientele is predominantly non-Asian; however, a fair amount of younger Chinese Americans patronize the restaurant because they consider her cuisine to be authentic.
In fact, the cheeseburger potsticker goes back to at least the beginning of the decade. El Monte’s Cha Café, a late-night hangout for young Chinese Americans in the San Gabriel Valley, offered cheeseburger potstickers in the early 2010s. And My Little Dumpling, which opened earlier this year on L.A.’s Westside, has its own cheeseburger dumpling. Unlike Cha Café, My Little Dumpling is a Chinese restaurant with a non-Asian owner and few Asian customers.
Then there’s the cheeseburger bao, offered by XLB Dumpling Bar in the city of Walnut in the San Gabriel Valley. From the outside, the cheeseburger bao looks just like a steamed barbecue pork bao, but the bao is filled with cheesy beef. Since it opened last year, the clientele at XLB Kitchen consists mostly of young Chinese Americans.
Meanwhile, in downtown Los Angeles, Rice Box serves a steamed barbecue pork bao mixed with Monterey cheese to a mixed clientele of young Chinese Americans and non-Asian diners.
Lest you think that only millennials enjoy Chinese dishes with cheese, Tang Gong Seafood, San Gabriel’s newest dim sum palace, offers a dish of crispy rice with cheese on its menu. Meanwhile, at Spring Shabu Shabu, a typical Chinese hotpot restaurant, you’ll find fish balls filled with roe and cheese, quite unusual among the rest of the standard ingredients. At Haidilao, the Mainland China-based upscale hotpot chain, you can order cheese beef balls.
How should we sort out the difference between Chinese fusion and authentic Chinese evolution? My conclusion is not that far from my first inclination. But rather than looking to see whether the creator of the dish is Chinese or non-Chinese, I think the proper distinction is whether the dish was created for Chinese diners or non-Chinese diners. If the dish’s creator does not aim a dish at non-Chinese diners exclusively, then it’s evolutionary Chinese cuisine, not fusion.
Of course, this rule has exceptions. The cheeseburger dumpling at one restaurant might be categorized as evolutionary authentic Chinese, while the same item at another with a different clientele would appear to be fusion.
Like so many food classifications, it’s hard to draw a boundary between fusion and authentic Chinese cuisine. Rather, we’re left with fuzzy distinctions and overlapping areas; some kind of strange fusion may actually be authentically Chinese after all.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.