Chinese food is one of the most popular cuisines in New York City and home to some of the best Chinese restaurants in America. If you’re wondering what makes New York-style Chinese food so special, this comprehensive guide will tell you everything you need to know.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: New York-style Chinese food adapts traditional Chinese cooking to American tastes by featuring crispy, fried items, an abundance of sauces and MSG, larger portions, the inclusion of beef dishes, and a greater diversity of regional cuisines.
In this nearly 3000 word guide, we’ll cover the history and origins of New York-style Chinese cuisine, its distinguishing characteristics and flavor profile compared to other regional Chinese cooking styles, popular dishes and essential ingredients, the top Chinese restaurants in NYC, and tips for cooking authentic New York-style Chinese food at home.
Origins and History of New York-Style Chinese Cuisine
New York-Style Chinese cuisine has a fascinating history that dates back to the 19th century. The early Chinese immigrants who arrived in New York City during this time brought with them their culinary traditions and flavors from their homeland.
These immigrants primarily hailed from the southern province of Guangdong, also known as Canton, which is why New York-Style Chinese cuisine is often heavily influenced by Cantonese flavors and techniques.
Early Chinese immigration to NYC in the 19th century
The 19th century saw a significant wave of Chinese immigrants coming to New York City in search of better economic opportunities. Many of these immigrants settled in the neighborhood of Chinatown, which still remains a vibrant cultural and culinary hub today.
These early immigrants faced various challenges, including language barriers and discrimination, but they managed to create a sense of community and preserve their cultural identity through their food.
The Chinese immigrants who arrived in New York City during this time introduced dishes such as chow mein, chop suey, and egg foo young, which were adapted to suit the American palate. These dishes became popular and helped establish the foundation of what we now know as New York-Style Chinese cuisine.
Adaptation of Cantonese food for American tastes
As Chinese immigrants settled in New York City, they had to adapt their traditional Cantonese cuisine to appeal to American tastes. This led to the creation of dishes like General Tso’s chicken and sweet and sour pork, which are now staples of New York-Style Chinese menus.
These dishes often feature bold flavors, vibrant colors, and a balance of sweet and savory elements that cater to the American preference for rich and indulgent flavors.
Restaurants in New York City also started offering Americanized versions of Chinese dishes, such as fortune cookies and egg rolls, which were not traditionally part of Cantonese cuisine. These adaptations helped popularize Chinese food among non-Chinese diners and contributed to the growth of New York-Style Chinese cuisine.
Post-1965 wave of Chinese immigrants brought more regional diversity
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 led to a significant increase in the number of Chinese immigrants coming to the United States, including New York City. This wave of immigration brought more regional diversity to the city’s Chinese culinary scene.
Immigrants from different provinces in China started opening restaurants and introducing their regional specialties, such as Sichuanese, Shanghainese, and Taiwanese cuisine.
Today, New York-Style Chinese cuisine reflects this rich tapestry of regional flavors and techniques. From the fiery heat of Sichuan peppercorns to the delicate flavors of Shanghai-style soup dumplings, there is something to satisfy every palate.
The city’s diverse Chinese communities continue to contribute to the evolution and innovation of New York-Style Chinese cuisine, making it a unique and beloved culinary tradition.
Distinctive Attributes of New York-Style Chinese Food
New York-style Chinese food has its own unique characteristics that set it apart from traditional Chinese cuisine. These attributes contribute to the popularity and appeal of this style of Chinese food in the bustling metropolis of New York City and beyond.
Emphasis on crispy, fried dishes
One of the defining features of New York-style Chinese food is the emphasis on crispy, fried dishes. From General Tso’s chicken to egg rolls, these dishes are beloved for their satisfying crunch and flavorful fillings.
The art of deep frying is perfected in New York-style Chinese kitchens, creating dishes that are both crispy and delicious.
Abundant savory sauces and use of MSG
New York-style Chinese food is known for its rich and savory sauces that add depth and flavor to every dish. These sauces often include ingredients like soy sauce, oyster sauce, and hoisin sauce, creating a symphony of tastes that tantalize the taste buds.
Additionally, the use of MSG (monosodium glutamate) is common in New York-style Chinese cooking, enhancing the flavors and making each bite even more enjoyable.
Large portions sized for the American palate
When it comes to portion sizes, New York-style Chinese food does not hold back. The generous portions are tailored to satisfy the American palate, ensuring that no one leaves the table hungry. This tradition of hearty portions has made New York-style Chinese food a popular choice for families and individuals looking for a filling and satisfying meal.
Inclusion of beef, lobster, and other non-traditional ingredients
New York-style Chinese food often incorporates non-traditional ingredients that cater to the diverse tastes of its customers. Beef, lobster, and other seafood are commonly found in dishes like beef with broccoli and lobster Cantonese, adding a luxurious touch to the menu.
This fusion of traditional Chinese flavors with non-traditional ingredients creates a unique dining experience that is distinctly New York.
Combination of Cantonese cuisine with other regional styles like Sichuan and Hunan
New York-style Chinese food is not limited to just one regional style of Chinese cuisine. It combines elements of Cantonese cuisine with flavors from other regions, such as Sichuan and Hunan. This blending of different regional styles creates a diverse and exciting menu that caters to a wide range of tastes.
From spicy Sichuan dishes to the bold flavors of Hunan cuisine, New York-style Chinese food offers something for everyone.
Popular Dishes and Key Ingredients
Must-try fried appetizers: egg rolls, wontons, dumplings
If you’re a fan of Chinese cuisine, you can’t miss out on the delicious fried appetizers that New York style Chinese food has to offer. Egg rolls, wontons, and dumplings are some of the most popular choices.
These crispy treats are filled with a variety of ingredients, such as vegetables, meat, and sometimes even seafood. The combination of a crunchy exterior and a flavorful filling makes them irresistible.
Familiar entrees like General Tso’s chicken, beef with broccoli
When it comes to entrees, there are a few classic dishes that you’ll find on almost every New York style Chinese food menu. General Tso’s chicken and beef with broccoli are two of the most familiar options.
General Tso’s chicken is known for its sweet and tangy sauce, while beef with broccoli features tender beef and fresh broccoli florets stir-fried to perfection. These dishes are beloved for their bold flavors and satisfying textures.
Lo mein, fried rice, chow mein noodle dishes
Noodles play a significant role in Chinese cuisine, and New York style Chinese food is no exception. Lo mein, fried rice, and chow mein are three noodle dishes that you’ll often find on the menu. Lo mein is made with soft egg noodles tossed with a variety of vegetables and protein.
Fried rice is a flavorful combination of rice, vegetables, and sometimes meat or seafood. Chow mein is a stir-fried dish that includes vegetables, protein, and crispy noodles. These dishes are a delicious way to satisfy your noodle cravings.
Key sauces: soy, hoisin, duck, hot chili
One of the reasons why New York style Chinese food is so flavorful is the variety of sauces that are used. Some key sauces that you’ll often encounter include soy sauce, hoisin sauce, duck sauce, and hot chili sauce.
Soy sauce is a staple in Chinese cooking and adds a savory and salty flavor to dishes. Hoisin sauce is a thick, sweet, and tangy sauce that is commonly used in stir-fries and as a dipping sauce. Duck sauce is a fruity and sweet sauce that pairs well with appetizers.
Hot chili sauce adds a spicy kick to any dish. These sauces provide depth and enhance the overall taste of the food.
Essential spices and aromatics: garlic, ginger, scallions, sesame
To add depth and complexity to the flavors of New York style Chinese food, certain spices and aromatics are essential. Garlic, ginger, scallions, and sesame are commonly used ingredients that bring a unique taste to the dishes.
Garlic adds a pungent and slightly sweet flavor, ginger provides a warm and spicy kick, scallions add a fresh and onion-like taste, and sesame adds a nutty aroma. These spices and aromatics work together to create a harmonious balance of flavors in Chinese cuisine.
The Best Chinese Restaurants in NYC
Chinatown institutions: Joe’s Shanghai, Wo Hop, Nom Wah Tea Parlor
When it comes to Chinese food in New York City, Chinatown is an iconic destination that cannot be missed. Among the many eateries, there are a few institutions that have stood the test of time. Joe’s Shanghai is known for its mouthwatering soup dumplings, while Wo Hop is a late-night favorite for its classic Cantonese dishes.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor is another must-visit spot, offering a taste of old-school dim sum in a vintage setting.
Northern Chinese cuisine at Xi’an Famous Foods
If you’re looking for something a little different, head to Xi’an Famous Foods where you can savor the flavors of Northern Chinese cuisine. This popular chain started as a small stall in Flushing and has now expanded to various locations across the city.
Don’t miss their signature dish, the Spicy Cumin Lamb Hand-Ripped Noodles, which will leave you craving for more.
Soup dumplings at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao
When it comes to soup dumplings, Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao in Flushing is a go-to spot. These delicate little parcels of goodness are filled with a savory broth and tender meat, making them a true delight to eat.
Be sure to pair them with a side of their famous scallion pancakes for a complete culinary experience.
Hot pot at Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot
If you’re in the mood for a communal dining experience, head to Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot. This restaurant offers a wide selection of meats, vegetables, and broths for you to cook at your own table.
It’s a fun and interactive way to enjoy a meal with friends or family, and the flavorful hot pot will keep you warm and satisfied.
Dim sum in Flushing: Nan Xiang, White Bear
Flushing is another neighborhood in NYC renowned for its Chinese cuisine, particularly dim sum. Nan Xiang and White Bear are two establishments that are worth a visit. Nan Xiang is known for its delectable soup dumplings, while White Bear is famous for its hand-pulled noodles and mouthwatering dumplings.
Prepare to be blown away by the flavors and variety that Flushing has to offer.
Tips for Cooking New York-Style Chinese Food at Home
Key equipment: wok, steamer, rice cooker
When it comes to cooking New York-style Chinese food at home, having the right equipment is essential. A wok is a must-have for stir-frying dishes, as it allows for quick and even cooking. A steamer is great for preparing steamed dumplings, buns, and vegetables.
And a rice cooker makes it easy to prepare fluffy and perfectly cooked rice every time.
Essential pantry ingredients to have on hand
Stocking your pantry with the right ingredients is crucial for recreating the flavors of New York-style Chinese food. Some essential pantry items include soy sauce, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, and Chinese five-spice powder.
These ingredients add depth and complexity to your dishes and are commonly used in Chinese cooking.
Simple substitutions for hard-to-find items
While some ingredients used in New York-style Chinese food may be hard to find, there are often simple substitutions you can make. For example, if you can’t find Chinese black vinegar, you can use balsamic vinegar instead.
If you don’t have Chinese broccoli, regular broccoli can be used as a substitute. Don’t be afraid to get creative and use what you have on hand.
Recipes for popular takeout favorites like General Tso’s chicken
If you’re looking to recreate popular takeout dishes like General Tso’s chicken, there are plenty of recipes available online. Websites like Allrecipes and Food Network offer a wide variety of recipes that are easy to follow and produce delicious results.
Experiment with different recipes to find the one that suits your taste preferences.
Hosting a Chinese-themed dinner party
Hosting a Chinese-themed dinner party can be a fun and exciting way to showcase your cooking skills. Decorate your dining area with red lanterns and Chinese-inspired tableware to create a festive atmosphere.
Serve a variety of dishes, such as egg rolls, sweet and sour chicken, and fried rice, to cater to different tastes. Don’t forget to provide chopsticks for an authentic experience!
New Yorkers are rightly proud of their city’s iconic take on Chinese cuisine. By combining Cantonese cooking techniques with an American focus on large portions, beef, and bold flavors, New York-style Chinese restaurants have created beloved dishes that you can’t find anywhere else. Whether you’re dining at a Chinatown institution or cooking up your favorite takeout at home, we hope this guide gives you a new appreciation for this distinct regional cuisine that’s deeply rooted in NYC’s cultural fabric.