For years I’ve been puzzled about one of the most iconic Chinese American dishes, broccoli beef. Its appearance doesn’t fit into the otherwise neat evolution of Chinese food in the United States.
As I have explained in the past, there were two separate and distinct sources of today’s Americanized Chinese food. The first category of food was rooted in the Toishanese immigration to the United States, from the time of the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century until the late 1960s repeal of discriminatory anti-Chinese immigration laws in the United States. Basically, rural Cantonese food was adapted to ingredients available in the United States, as well as to the taste buds of the American public. In this category, one finds classics such as chop suey, egg foo young, sweet and sour pork, and wor won ton soup, which most of America erroneously believed representative of food eaten throughout China.
However, after the change in American immigration laws, Chinese people of more diverse backgrounds began to come to the United States. The first wave in the 1970s included the Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese, most of whom themselves had evacuated the Chinese mainland as it fell to the communist regime. Taiwanese chefs, many of whom had arrived in Taiwan from Hunan and Sichuan provinces two decades previous, arrived in New York and started serving what they remembered as Hunan and Sichuan food. But since there were few natives of Sichuan or Hunan living in the United States at the time, these chefs found themselves cooking for native New Yorkers. The result was the addition of new Americanized Chinese dishes to restaurant menus — mu shu pork, General Tso’s chicken, and hot and sour rice soup, to name a few.
While we’re now used to seeing a mashup of Cantonese and non-Cantonese dishes at Americanized Chinese restaurants, the difference between the two was originally like night and day, except perhaps for the presence of white rice at both styles of restaurants. Furthermore, because the first half of the 20th century saw little migration from China, it consisted almost exclusively of friends and relatives of the Toishanese already here. As such, Chinese restaurant menus during this period stayed stable, making the contrast of the non-Cantonese regional foods brought by the Taiwanese chefs even greater.
Now back to the mystery of broccoli beef. This dish is not found on Americanized Chinese restaurant menus in the early 20th century. Yet, it had become a standard dish in Americanized Chinese restaurants before the second wave of Americanized Chinese food that began in the 1970s. As simple stir fry mixtures of meat and vegetables evolved in Chinese restaurants in the 1920s (coincident with the American public’s willingness to partake in Chinese food beyond chop suey and chow mein), broccoli beef would likely have been an acceptable Chinese American dish. So why didn’t this dish arise until a period of time where there was little evolution in Chinese food in America?
As it turns out, there is a simple reason there was no broccoli beef in the early 20th century. It was because there was no broccoli, period. Broccoli did not arrive in the United States as a commercial crop until the 1920s when it was brought by Italian immigrants. And it didn’t become a mainstream vegetable in the United States until the 1940s. So it was an evolution in American food, rather than anything specifically due to Chinese food or the Toishanese community, that led to the introduction of the classic broccoli beef, truly making it an American dish.
As an interesting juxtaposition, in the late 20th century, American broccoli gained popularity in Hong Kong as a fashionable vegetable, leading to its substitution for Chinese broccoli in trendy Hong Kong restaurants. This trend spilled over into the United States where cutting-edge Hong Kong-style Cantonese restaurants in Chinese communities started serving broccoli beef with American broccoli. The shift occurred much to the puzzlement, if not disgust, of Chinese American diners, who had always considered beef with American broccoli to be a dish to be served only to gringo palates. And even today, beware if you go to an authentic Cantonese restaurant in the United States and you see “Broccoli Beef” on the menu instead of “Chinese Broccoli with Beef.” You might want to inquire as to which broccoli you’ll be getting.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 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.