Monday, May 1, 2017

A College Town's Chinese Restaurant Menu Is a History of Chinese Food in America

As I have mentioned numerous times, the presence of over 300,000 Mainland Chinese university students in the United States has altered the face of Chinese dining in the United States, bringing authentic Chinese food to cities and towns where such a find would have been unimaginable even just a decade ago.  As a big fan of both college sports and US geography, and having visited all 50 states, I have used my familiarity with both to track down authentic restaurants in many college towns.

Recently I was watching the replay of an ESPN college football telecast from a couple of years ago, when they did a promo for their College Game Day telecast.  It was a slow period early in the season, so ESPN decided to do their show from a small (athletically speaking) campus, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.  While I had heard of that school, I was surprised that I had never heard of the town in which it was located.  Looking it up, I saw that it was in rural Virginia, a two hour drive away from both Washington DC and Richmond, explaining why it had never come to my attention.  Obviously I decided to check whether James Madison was a school that had enough Chinese students to warrant authentic Chinese food, and indeed it is, with A Taste of China Restaurant providing anything a homesick Mainland Chinese student would want to eat.

The menu at A Taste of China is absolutely fascinating.  As I have written before, these college town Chinese restaurants serve a mixed audience--students from China, students not from China, and local residents.  The result is an interest mashup of old time Americanized Chinese dishes and cutting edge items from the Chinese interior.  However I don't think this has been any more starkly demonstrated than by the menu at A Taste of China.  For example, look at the "soup" section of their menu.
Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime!  From the most primitive Toishanese American classic egg drop soup to the slightly more sophisticated wonton soup to the post 1960s immigration reform "northern" Chinese Americanized classic hot and sour soup, to the post immigration reform advanced Cantonese Westlake beef soup, to today's Sichuan boiled fish soup and pork rib pot.  It's like 150 years of Chinese dining in America capsulized in 8 lines.

Likewise, the hot appetizer section of the menu was also like a diorama of Chinese food in America.
Once again, the menu started with the crudest old time Americanized Chinese appetizer, the egg roll, followed by the slightly more modern crab rangoon, before transitioning to more modern, Mainland Chinese diner oriented appetizer items.

Typically we think of Chinese restaurants in the US as falling into distinct categories--old time Americanized Chinese, more modern Americanized Chinese, and modern authentic current Chinese regional cuisine.  But at A Taste Of China in Harrisonburg, and undoubtedly others in different college towns, they can be all rolled up into one.

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