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 January 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."

SEE: Images of the Chinese New Year in 2013. Story continues below

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  • China's Spring Festival

    BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 10: A diver performs the dragon dance during the special program for celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year at Beijing Aquarium on February 10, 2013 in Beijing, China. The Chinese Lunar New Year of Snake also known as the Spring Festival, which is based on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar, is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the lunar year and ends with Lantern Festival on the Fifteenth day. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

  • INDIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Members of the Chinese community perform a lion dance as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Kolkata on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • INDIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Members of the Chinese community perform a lion dance as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Kolkata on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • MALAYSIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Visitors touch a python during a snake display to celebrate the Chinese New Year at the National Zoo in Kuala Lumpur on February 10, 2013. The Year of the Snake falls across the region on February 10. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • THAILAND-LUNAR-NEWYEAR

    Thai-Chinese residents celebrate the Chinese New Year in Bangkok's China town on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the ' Year of the Snake '. AFP PHOTO/PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo credit should read PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • THAILAND-LUNAR-NEWYEAR

    Thai-Chinese dancers perform a lion dance as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Bangkok's China town on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the ' Year of the Snake '. AFP PHOTO/PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo credit should read PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • THAILAND-LUNAR-NEWYEAR

    A Thai-Chinese man dressed as a God of Fortune, parades to celebrate the Chinese New Year in Bangkok's China town on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the ' Year of the Snake '. AFP PHOTO/PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL (Photo credit should read PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A Buddhist monk holds consultations behind burning joss sticks while worshippers pray at the Baoshan Temple during Lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2013. Revellers across the city lit fireworks and prayed as China traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • INDIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Members of the Chinese community prepare to perform a lion dance as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Kolkata on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • INDIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A member of the Chinese community is pictured in a lion dance costume as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Kolkata on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • INDIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Young members of the Chinese community perform a lion dance as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Kolkata on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A Chinese man prays at the Baoshan Temple during Lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2013. Revellers across the city lit fireworks and prayed as China traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • PHILIPPINES-HOLIDAY-CHINESE-LUNAR NEW YEAR

    Chinese-Filipinos pray at the Seng Guan Temple during the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year marking the start of the Year of the Snake in Manila's China town on February 10, 2013, as billions of Chinese worldwide celebrate the occasion. AFP PHOTO / Jay DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A Buddhist monk holds consultations behind burning joss sticks while worshippers pray at the Baoshan Temple during Lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2013. Revellers across the city lit fireworks and prayed as China traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A Buddhist monk holds consultations behind burning joss sticks while worshippers pray at the Baoshan Temple during Lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2013. Revellers across the city lit fireworks and prayed as China traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A Buddhist monk holds consultations behind burning joss sticks while worshippers pray at the Baoshan Temple during Lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2013. Revellers across the city lit fireworks and prayed as China traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • INDIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Members of the Chinese community perform a dragon (L) and lion dance as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Kolkata on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • INDIA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Members of the Chinese community perform a lion dance as they celebrate the Chinese New Year in Kolkata on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities worldwide are welcoming the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Dibyangshu SARKAR (Photo credit should read DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony in which emperors prayed for good fortune, during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony in which emperors prayed for good fortune, during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    People watch as performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony in which emperors prayed for good fortune, during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony in which emperors prayed for good fortune, during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony in which emperors prayed for good fortune, during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Chinese women pray at the Baoshan Temple during Lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2013. Revellers across the city lit fireworks and prayed as China traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A Chinese fire marshal stands amongst joss sticks at the Baoshan Temple during Lunar New Year celebrations in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 10, 2013. Revellers across the city lit fireworks and prayed as China traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony in which emperors prayed for good fortune, during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers take part in a traditional Qing Dynasty ceremony in which emperors prayed for good fortune, during lunar new year festivities at the temple of Heaven in Beijing on February 10, 2013. A billion-plus Asians ushered in the Year of the Snake with a cacophony of fireworks and ceremonies to kick off a week of festivities. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

  • London Celebrates Chinese New Year

    LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: A Chinese dragon in the New Year paraded on February 10, 2013 in London, England. London's Chinese community celebrate the start of the Year of The Snake with traditional dancing, music and fireworks. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

  • London Celebrates Chinese New Year

    LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Traditional Chinese dancers in the New Year parade on February 10, 2013 in London, England. London's Chinese community celebrate the start of the Year of The Snake with traditional dancing, music and fireworks. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

  • London Celebrates Chinese New Year

    LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Traditional Chinese dancers in the New Year parade on February 10, 2013 in London, England. London's Chinese community celebrate the start of the Year of The Snake with traditional dancing, music and fireworks. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

  • London Celebrates Chinese New Year

    LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: A toy stall selling new year gifts in China Town February 10, 2013 in London, England. London's Chinese community celebrate the start of the Year of The Snake with traditional dancing, music and fireworks. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

  • China's Spring Festival

    BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 10: A diver performs the dragon dance during the special program for celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year at Beijing Aquarium on February 10, 2013 in Beijing, China. The Chinese Lunar New Year of Snake also known as the Spring Festival, which is based on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar, is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the lunar year and ends with Lantern Festival on the Fifteenth day. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

  • London Celebrates Chinese New Year

    LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Traditional Chinese dancers in the New Year parade on February 10, 2013 in London, England. London's Chinese community celebrate the start of the Year of The Snake with traditional dancing, music and fireworks. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A British police officer peers through lanterns as performers in Trafalgar Square celebrate Chinese New Year in London on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • China's Spring Festival

    BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 10: Two divers perform the dragon dance during the special program for celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year at Beijing Aquarium on February 10, 2013 in Beijing, China. The Chinese Lunar New Year of Snake also known as the Spring Festival, which is based on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar, is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the lunar year and ends with Lantern Festival on the Fifteenth day. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

  • China's Spring Festival

    BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 10: Three divers perform horse- riding dance during the special program for celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year at Beijing Aquarium on February 10, 2013 in Beijing, China. The Chinese Lunar New Year of Snake also known as the Spring Festival, which is based on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar, is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the lunar year and ends with Lantern Festival on the Fifteenth day. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

  • London Celebrates Chinese New Year

    LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Traditional Chinese dancers in the New Year paraded on February 10, 2013 in London, England. London's Chinese community celebrate the start of the Year of The Snake with traditional dancing, music and fireworks. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    A traditionally dressed performer celebrates Chinese New Year on February 10, 2013 during a parade in Paris. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • BRITAIN-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Attendees stand and watch performers in Trafalgar Square celebrating Chinese New Year in central London on February 10, 2013. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers from a marching band play music as they celebrate Chinese New Year on February 10, 2013 during a parade in Paris. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers surrounded by the crowd hold a dragon as they dance during a parade in Paris on February 10, 2013, to celebrate Chinese New Year. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers surrounded by the crowd celebrate Chinese New Year on February 10, 2013 during a parade in Paris. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • China's Spring Festival

    BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 10: A diver performs the dragon dance during the special program for celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year at Beijing Aquarium on February 10, 2013 in Beijing, China. The Chinese Lunar New Year of Snake also known as the Spring Festival, which is based on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar, is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the lunar year and ends with Lantern Festival on the Fifteenth day. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

  • China's Spring Festival

    BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 10: A diver performs the dragon dance during the special program for celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year at Beijing Aquarium on February 10, 2013 in Beijing, China. The Chinese Lunar New Year of Snake also known as the Spring Festival, which is based on the Lunisolar Chinese calendar, is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the lunar year and ends with Lantern Festival on the Fifteenth day. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers surrounded by the crowd hold a dragon as they dance during a parade in Paris on February 10, 2013, to celebrate Chinese New Year. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers celebrate Chinese New Year on February 10, 2013 during a parade in Paris. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Traditionally dressed performers celebrate Chinese New Year on February 10, 2013 during a parade in Paris. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Traditionally dressed performers celebrate Chinese New Year on February 10, 2013 during a parade in Paris. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

  • PHILIPPINES-HOLIDAY-CHINESE-LUNAR NEW YEAR

    Chinese-Filipinos pray at the Seng Guan Temple during the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year marking the start of the Year of the Snake in Manila's China town on February 10, 2013, as billions of Chinese worldwide celebrate the occasion. AFP PHOTO / Jay DIRECTO (Photo credit should read JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)

  • FRANCE-CHINA-LUNAR-NEW YEAR

    Performers hold a dragon as they dance during a parade in front of Paris City Hall on February 10, 2013, to celebrate Chinese New Year. Chinese communities world wide traditionally welcomed in the 'Year of the Snake'. AFP PHOTO / MEHDI FEDOUACH (Photo credit should read MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

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 flavours 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.

After an overhaul of immigration laws in 1965, Chen says, Chinese began arriving from the other countries where they had settled. And after China and the United States resumed full diplomatic relations in 1979, more people began arriving from Chinese provinces such as Sichuan and Hunan.

While Sichuan fare with mouth-numbing peppercorns and elaborately prepared Hunan-style foods such as orange beef have become mainstream, other variations on the cuisine are less known. Cho's restaurant, Flor de Mayo, offers a Chinese side of the menu with dishes such as beef with snow peas and sweet-and-sour chicken, and a Peruvian side of the menu, where the steak dish lomo saltado and the fire-roasted chicken called pollo la brasa are popular.

But just because the two cuisines are segregated doesn't mean they don't fraternize. Soy sauce is a key ingredient in the pollo la brasa, Cho says, and pork chops often come with fried rice. A Chinese lo mein noodle dish is made with roast pork or chicken — and fried plantain.

Some of the culinary fusions so thoroughly altered dishes that they would be unrecognizable to Chinese in China, says Chen. For instance, he says, Korean-Chinese food is not a matter of simply adding kimchee to everything, but rather is a panoply of unique dishes.

The signature dish of Korean-Chinese cuisine is a noodle dish called jajangmyeon— a plate of thick wheat noodles drenched in a pungent sauce of fermented black soybeans that often includes seafood, pork and julienned cucumber. Though this dish began as the Northern Chinese noodle-and-ground pork dish zha jiang mian, Chen says today it is thoroughly Korean.

At Rice Bowl 2 in Houston, Indonesian food occupies one side of the menu and Chinese food the other. But the Chinese food has a definite Indonesian flair. The omelet dish pu yung hai is similar to American egg foo yung, says owner Soentono Jie, but instead of brown gravy, it floats on a sea of sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. Sometimes peas are added. A mixed vegetable dish common in many American-Chinese restaurants becomes cap cai (pronounced chahp cheye) in Indonesian Chinese. But none of it, Jie says, looks anything like what you'd find in China.

"The people coming from China to the U.S., they're not familiar with my food," says Jie, who was born in Indonesia, but is ethnically Chinese. He came to the United States in 1987. "People who are straight from China, they don't come to my restaurant."

Jie and his family also celebrate Chinese New Year with traditional Chinese foods — that is, the foods that are traditionally Chinese in Indonesia. Though they have none of the symbolic foods, he says, the table groans with cap cai and noodle dishes. Andrew Huang, an engineer who is active in Houston's Indonesian community, says he and his family also skip the symbolic new year foods, but make sea cucumber with chicken and potatoes with Chinese sausage.

"I make regular dishes like what we have when we are in Indonesia," Huang says. "Every family has their own different food."

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Michele Kayal is assistant managing editor of www.AmericanFoodRoots.com

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