Shanghai Warms Up To A New Cuisine: Chinese Food, American-Style

Feb 12, 2014
Originally published on February 12, 2014 9:25 am

Imagine living in China and missing Chinese food. It happens. American expatriates who grew up with popular takeout dishes like General Tso's chicken can't find it in China because it essentially doesn't exist here.

Much of the Chinese food we grew up with isn't really Chinese. It's an American version of Chinese food. Chinese immigrants created it over time, adapting recipes with U.S. ingredients to appeal to American palates.

Now, Americans living in Shanghai can get a fix of their beloved Chinatown cuisine at a new restaurant called Fortune Cookie.

A pair of American entrepreneurs launched Fortune Cookie last year to cater to nostalgic expatriates and local Chinese. The venture could be seen as one big prank — the culinary equivalent of coals to Newcastle.

"A lot of people called us crazy and were banking on us closing after six months," says co-owner Fung Lam, 31, who grew up in North Jersey.

Eight months later, though, the doors here are still open, and Lam is hopeful he can find a market.

"American-Chinese food is another regional cuisine for China," he says, likening it Sichuan, Hunan and Cantonese food, which seems a bit of a stretch.

Lam is a third-generation Chinese-American restaurateur. His grandfather came from Hong Kong and opened his first restaurant in Brooklyn in the 1960s. Lam spent his teenage years packing takeout boxes in one of the family's restaurants in New Jersey.

Fortune Cookie's core demographic includes patrons like Megan Emery-Moore, who teaches art at Shanghai American School. Emery-Moore grew up in a town of 20,000 in Missouri, where she waitressed at a Chinese restaurant.

"They had amazing sweet-and-sour chicken," she recalls, "so ever since then, I was always like: I've got to get more that was just like that."

As we chat, Emery-Moore digs into a plate of sweet-and-sour chicken covered in sauce and pineapples.

"It's kind of embarrassing that you're in China eating American-Chinese food, but it was just spot on," says Emery-Moore, referring to her meal. She says the food transports her to another place and time. "I feel calm. I feel relaxed. I feel like I'm at home."

No Taste Like Home

The food at Fortune Cookie tastes like home because many key ingredients — Skippy peanut butter, Mott's applesauce and Philadelphia cream cheese — originate there.

Mott's goes in the duck sauce as well as the chili sauce for spring rolls. Skippy is used in fried noodles and fried rice. Cream cheese serves as filling in Crab Rangoon, a deep-fried dumpling appetizer.

Standing in the restaurant's cramped kitchen next to a bubbling wok of sweet-and-sour sauce, Lam reveals the secret behind the dish Megan Emery-Moore swears by.

"Off the top of my head, about one-third of it is Heinz ketchup," says Lam matter-of-factly. That's "what gives it that bright, red-orangey color."

When Lam came to Shanghai in 2012, he wasn't thinking about opening a place like this. He and his business partner, David Rossi, who met in a master's program in hospitality management at Cornell University, planned a quick-service restaurant that focused on healthy food.

When that concept ran into trouble — China is a notoriously tough place to do business — the pair considered what was missing from the burgeoning culinary scene in this city of 24 million.

"If you're out here, there are so many pizzerias and burger places and bistro bars and tapas ... so you almost don't even miss being in the States," says Lam. But when he went looking for the Chinese comfort food his family made back home, he couldn't find it.

"A light bulb went off," says Lam, who wears a pinstripe apron and black, backwards baseball cap.

Intro To Fortune Cookies And Takeout Boxes

Getting Fortune Cookie up and running wasn't easy. The owners sourced the restaurant's namesake, a treat that's unheard of in China, from a factory in neighboring Jiangsu province that exported to the Netherlands.

When the sample fortune cookies arrived, they cracked them open to find all the fortunes were written in Dutch. With the restaurant's opening looming, panic set in.

"You have no idea how hard it is to write a fortune when you have to come up with 120 of them in one night," says Rossi, 33, who grew up in South Pasadena, Calif.

Rossi says the first 40 fortunes they wrote were pretty good, but by 2 a.m., their imaginations were spent. They wrote single-word messages such as "Yes" and "No."

Guests were not impressed.

"Who wrote this?" Rossi recalls one bewildered customer complaining as he cracked open a cookie. "This is horrific!"

The restaurant now has a box where customers can suggest their own fortunes.

Chinese people make up about 40 percent of the lunch crowd at Fortune Cookie these days, and they seem to enjoy the food. Earlier this week, George Zhao, a management consultant who spent eight years in Melbourne, praised his dish of beef and broccoli. But Zhao said, in general, Westernized Chinese food lacks the subtlety of the original cuisine.

"For example, the sweet-and-sour pork — the pork is too sweet," said Zhao. "In China, we don't eat food this sweet."

A few booths away sat Jack Zhang, who works in advertising. A Chinese colleague brought him here to taste a new kind of food. After a plate of orange chicken, Zhang bit into his first fortune cookie. He furrowed his brow and searched for the words to describe it.

"Hmmm. This is like glutinous rice," he said in Mandarin. "It also tastes like a street-side pancake. I've never been to America, so I'm not quite clear about this thing."

Another thing at Fortune Cookie that intrigues people here are the white cardboard takeout boxes with wire handles and red pagodas on the side. Ubiquitous in America, they are known to Chinese only through scenes in Hollywood movies.

When the restaurant staff saw them for the first time, they were so excited, they took photos. Then, with Lunar New Year approaching, they loaded up some boxes and fortune cookies and took them home to show their families.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

If you ever get a chance to visit China, you discover something as soon as you go out to eat. Many classic Chinese dishes in American restaurants are not available in China. American-Chinese food is not really Chinese food, but an Americanized version of it. Take General Tsao's Chicken, when you get to China, you first learn that you're pronouncing it wrong. It's General Tsao's Chicken. And next you learn you can't get it. It's American. As a result, there are Americans in China who miss Chinese food - or at least Chinese food as they remember it.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So a restaurant offers to provide expatriates with authentic American Chinese.

NPR's Frank Langfitt visited a Shanghai restaurant called Fortune Cookie.

FUNG LAM: (Foreign language spoken)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: At lunch time, Fung Lam relays orders to his local chefs. It's just like his family's restaurant back in North Jersey where he filled take-out orders as a teenager.

Even down to some of the very un-Chinese ingredients that have helped make this hybrid cuisine so palatable to Americans for decades.

LAM: We're American-style Chinese food, so a lot of the ingredients, so a lot of the ingredients, like Skippy Peanut Butter, Motts Apple Sauce, like things that we use, were never made in China, so we just had to find the product here.

LANGFITT: What do you use the Apple sauce in?

LAM: We use it in our sweet chili sauce that goes in our spring rolls, and then also duck sauce.

LANGFITT: The Skippy goes into fried noodles and fried rice. The secret behind that Chinatown standard: sweet-and-sour sauce?

LAM: Off the top of my head, about one third of it is Heinz Ketchup.

LANGFITT: Yeah.

LAM: And that's like what gives it that like bright, red orangey color.

LANGFITT: Yeah.

LAM: It's the Heinz Ketchup.

DAVID ROSSI: Hi. My name is David Rossi. I'm originally from South Pasadena, California.

LANGFITT: Rossi is Lam's business partner. They met studying for a Masters in hospitality management at Cornell. The pair came here in 2012 to open a restaurant that focused on healthy food.

When that ran into trouble, they decided to offer the only kind of cuisine they couldn't find in Shanghai: American-Chinese. Food bloggers ridiculed the idea.

LAM: Lines like you're going to try to sell, like, you know, ice to Eskimos.

ROSSI: A lot of people called us like crazy and just, they were like banking on us closing and under six months.

LANGFITT: Eight months later, Fortune Cookie is still open. Lam believes there is a market among expatriates here nostalgic for their home-town, take-out.

People like Meghan Emery-Moore, who teaches Art at Shanghai American School. Emery-Moore grew up in Missouri, where she waitressed at a Chinese restaurant.

MEGHAN EMERY-MOORE: And they had amazing sweet and sour chicken. So ever since then, I was always like: I've got to get more that was just like that.

LANGFITT: Which is what she's eating right now.

EMERY-MOORE: It's kind of embarrassing that you're in China eating American-Chinese food, but it was, like, spot-on.

LANGFITT: And kind of comforting.

EMERY-MOORE: I feel calm. I feel relaxed. I feel like I'm at home.

LANGFITT: Chinese people make up about 40 percent of the lunch crowd at Fortune Cookie. George Zhao, a management consultant, likes the beef and broccoli he's ordered. But he says, in general, Westernized Chinese food lacks the subtly of the original cuisine.

GEORGE ZHAO: The sweet sour pork, the pork is too sweet. In China, we don't eat food this sweet.

LANGFITT: A few booths away sits Jack Zhang, who works in advertising. A Chinese colleague brought him here to introduce him to taste a new kind of food.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRUNCHING)

LANGFITT: This is the sound of Zhang eating his first Fortune Cookie. He's kind of frowning and thinking.

JACK ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: This is like glutinous rice, he says. It also tastes like a street-side pancake. I've never been to America, so I'm not quite clear about this thing.

That's because Fortune Cookies are also unknown here. As are those little white take-out boxes with the wire handles. In fact, the restaurant's Chinese staff found both so intriguing, they took them home to show their families during the recent Lunar New Year.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News Shanghai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.