Nelson Cho isn’t just Chinese-American. He’s Chinese-Cuban-Peruvian-American. Which means he grew up on the shredded beef dish ropa vieja, the fried chicken called chicharrones de pollo, and other Cuban specialties.
“We ate mostly Cuban or Spanish growing up,” says 40-year-old Cho, whose family founded the Peruvian-Chinese restaurant Flor de Mayo in New York.
Except for Chinese New Year, Cho says, when it was steamed oysters and roast pork all the way.
“It was strictly traditional Chinese,” he says.
Chinese New Year, celebrated this year on Jan. 31, involves a litany of symbolic foods. Noodles are eaten for long life; clams, because they look like coins, are eaten for wealth; and fish, the Chinese word for which sounds similar to the word for “abundance,” symbolizes prosperity.
“Food has always been very important for the Chinese, especially for the celebration of the new year,” says Yong Chen, an associate history professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Food is one of those commonalities that holds us together as Chinese.”
Many Americans think of Chinese food as a broad category of interchangeable dishes. But Chinese-Americans come from many different regions of China, each with a different cuisine. Many Chinese also come via Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and other parts of Asia, as well as Cuba and South America. Like many emigrants, they adopted the foods and flavors of the places they settled. When those families later came to the United States, they brought those dishes with them.
The first Chinese came to the United States in the mid-19th century from the province of Canton (also known as Guangdong), and for nearly a century most of the Chinese food in America was Cantonese, says Chen, who has just written a book about Chinese food in America. It is a cuisine heavy on seafood and slow cooking.