filed under Chinese Food

How American Chinese Food Came To Be

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Photo by famama

David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 6,090 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. “When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America,” Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. “As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once.” He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can’t use chopsticks.

by David R. Chan

If you visit any of today’s modern Chinese American communities, such as the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, Flushing in New York, or numerous areas around San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and even Houston, you will find an interesting array of wonderful and delicious Chinese food. Yet when you compare that to what most 20th century Americans believed to be Chinese food, (and what still passes as Chinese food in many parts of the country to this day), there’s absolutely no comparison. So what happened?

Of course, this is a complicated question with many factors at play. But the leading cause is the little known history of the immigration patterns from China to the United States. The Chinese first came to the United States during the Gold Rush, went on to build the railroads, then developed the agricultural industry. But few people realize that virtually all these Chinese came from one small part of China: the rural districts of Toishan outside of the city formerly known as Canton. The Toishanese came to America because of a combination of dire circumstances at home and easy access to the seaport of Canton.

Now everything else being equal, people from other parts of China would have eventually started coming to America. However, due to the racial enmity that built among the American populace, the United States passed a series of laws that made it illegal for most residents of China to come to the United States between 1882 and 1943. In 1943, China was given an annual quota of 105 legal immigrants. This is not to say that all of the Chinese who were in the U.S. were the descendents of pre-1882 immigrants. Rather, as the only nationality barred from coming to the United States, the Chinese resorted to various forms of illegal entry to come here anyway. But those who came surreptitiously were exclusively relatives or neighbors of Chinese already here, keeping the population homogenously Toishanese. Indeed, despite the Chinese exclusion laws, it was said that in many Toishanese villages, virtually all of the adult males were in the United States.

Suddenly, the difference between what Americans believed to be Chinese food, such as chop suey, chow mein, moo goo gai pan, won ton soup, and egg foo yung and what we know today as authentic Chinese food, becomes easy to explain. The Chinese who were resident in America until changes in American immigration policy in the 1960s were not geographically representative of the people of China, and furthermore, were rural, not urban, in origin. I like to make the analog that it’s the same as if all of the Americans living in China came from someplace like Victorville, California. From this starting point, factor in the lack of availability of popular Chinese ingredients here in the United States, and on top of that throw in the need to adapt the food to make it palatable to Americans. Mix these all together and core 20th century Chinese food becomes understandable as a combination of authentic and modified food prepared by immigrants who came from a single small area of China.

Of course, not all Americanized Chinese food is traceable to Toishanese food and mutations thereof. A new wave of dishes destined to become Americanized Chinese standards arrived on the scene in the late 1960s with dishes such as kung pao chicken, mushu pork, General Tso’s chicken, and hot and sour soup joining the pantheon. Once again, immigration was the key to these dishes, as America’s doors opened up to more categories of Chinese immigrants beginning in 1965. The first wave of new Chinese immigrants came primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as immigration from mainland China would be years away, not until after President Nixon’s historic China visit in 1972. But many of the Taiwanese newcomers were Nationalists who fled from the mainland, bringing with them their penchant for a spicier Chinese cuisine than that of the Toishanese or the Hong Kong peoples. Branding this new, spicy regime as Hunan or Szechwan style, and significantly tweaking the food to suit the locals, Taiwanese chefs took New York by storm and captured the imagination of Manhattan. But this was faux Hunan- and faux Szechwan-style food adapted to New York tastes, as true Hunan and Szechwan food from immigrants from those regions bringing their native foods to America would not arrive on our shores for decades. So once again, even these new style Chinese dishes were not particularly representative of the food actually found in China, but that didn’t stop it from sweeping across the entire United States.

So really, what America has come to know as Chinese food for 150 years is really a combination of historical accidents and adaptation to American tastes. In contrast, today’s authentic Chinese food in the United States represents not only advances in culinary sophistication, but more importantly, reflects that Chinese and their food from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and all regions of mainland China are now represented in the United States. And that’s quite a difference.

 
  • http://blog.justinchen.net/ Justin C

    Now it all makes a little more sense. Thanks!

  • xiaohui

    Really like it. I also believe there are some Chinese restaurants for insiders and some for outsiders.

    • http://zuungols.myminicity.com/ind Bichon Bisou

      This is very true, even within the same restaurant! I worked with a lady from Taiwan, and she told me that many places have a Chinese-only menu, and everyone else (i.e. non-Asians) get the American style menu.

  • attyrose3

    Rest assured that the Asian food community in Houston far surpasses that of San Francisco, New York and yes, even the San Gabriel Valley. Houston’s restaurant trade, particularly in the area of all Asian cuisines is vast and has a great deal of depth that simply is not present in other cities in America. The people of Houston like their food with far more flavor than most other places in America, but it Asian foods, Mexican foods, Middle Eastern foods, or barbeque and other more regional foods.

    • Lily Queen

      Um. You keep telling yourself that. (How thoroughly have you explored the “Asian food community” in the San Francisco Bay Area? If you want to tell me that Houston’s is very rich and diverse, I’ll believe you, but your hyperbole makes you sound ridiculous, defensive, and provincial. You are reacting to an attack that I don’t think was even there — the author was mentioning Houston because it has a major Asian community and people usually forget or don’t know that it does!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/spn1007 Steven Nathan

    So what are the most authentic places to eat in nyc?

  • Lizzie

    Interesting article!

    I’ve got to say though that having lived in Toishan (the current
    transliteration based on Putonghua/Mandarin is Taishan) back in 1998 or thereabouts, the Chinese
    food that we get in England, which I’m presuming is akin to the American
    Chinese food, is actually NOTHING like the food that I ate and loved in
    Taishan. I used to like chinese food in the UK before living in
    Taishan, but really couldn’t eat it when I got back. It took me a long
    time to just accept that it wasn’t chinese food, but something
    different, and so can sometimes now eat some dishes if I think of it
    like that! I really miss the food in Taishan though which is really some
    of the best in the world! Interestingly, the emigration from Taishan to
    California was still happening then, and I taught lots of people who
    were going there to join their husband, brother, son, daughter etc, who
    in turn had gone there to join their relative etc etc.

  • Li Yen

    I think the author should do a bit more research into the actual history of the food of the Taishan (and the greater Pearl River Delta) area. To attribute the nature of early Chinese American “chop suey house” food to the fact that it came from a very local, rural area is not quite on the mark. As poster Lizzie below states, the food of that region is as diverse, interesting and rich as any in China. Though immigrants to the US largely came from this area of China, and those immigrants started what became known as standard Chinese-American restaurant fare, the food that came to be in those early chop suey houses is NOT reflective of the cuisine those immigrants actually ate at their own family dining tables.

  • ming

    so, what does this blog tell us about american chinese food? because if it does, I certainly did no catch it from this blog

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David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 6,297 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.


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