One of the great things about food in the United States is that there are so many specialty dishes that are peculiar to a particular part of the country. Of course the flip side, if you’re in some other part of the country and are longing for that regional dish, you may be out of luck. Take lobster rolls. Despite being ubiquitous in New England and into Atlantic Canada, if you live here in Los Angeles like I do, you’re going to have to search long and hard before finding a decent lobster roll, especially on a Boston-style bun. And forget about finding New York City Halal cart food here in L.A., or a restaurant that serves Pennsylvania scrapple.
But few people realize that this same regionalism extends to specialty types of Chinese food which may be common in one area of the United States and unheard of elsewhere. And no, I don’t mean food representing different Chinese regional cuisines. Rather I’m talking about unique Chinese dishes that have developed in particular areas of the United States that can’t be found in most of the country. Indeed, the Smithsonian Institute is in the process of trying to identify some of these Chinese American regional dishes as part of their Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States exhibition. Here are just a few.
This is not a joke. It’s a dish found in Chinese restaurants in parts of New England, invented in Fall River, Massachusetts and served there and neighboring eastern Rhode Island. The chow mein sandwich is exactly what it sounds like: traditional chow mein (including pork, chicken, etc.) served in a hamburger bun, often smothered with gravy.
No, the St. Paul sandwich is not found in Minnesota. Rather, it’s a specialty item served in St. Louis, Missouri, consisting of an egg foo yung patty served with hamburger-type condiments such as onions, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and pickles, though between two slices of white bread instead of a bun. It can also be served with meat added. You can even see a visual demonstration on how to make one version of the sandwich on YouTube.
We return to New England for Chinese chicken fingers found in Boston and its environs, as well as New Hampshire. These deep-fried oblong chicken fingers are made with a smooth batter and served with a dipping sauce, often honey mustard. Like the chow mein sandwich and St. Paul sandwich, mention of this dish will garner blank stares anywhere outside of the local area. However, this item has close cousins in other parts of the country that appear in different guises. Sweet and sour chicken or sweet and sour fish are sometimes cooked in a similar manner, except that the battered chicken is normally covered with sauce, rather than being dipped like a chicken nugget. Chinese buffets serving sweet and sour chicken separate the chicken and the sauce to prevent the batter from getting soggy, which almost makes it a chicken finger. Some restaurants also cook lemon chicken or lemon fish dishes in the same manner, though covered with lemon sauce.
Honey chicken is found in Florida and other parts of the south, and I would suspect that those familiar with this dish would be surprised to find this classified as a specialty item because it is so common in a relatively large geographic area. Think sweet and sour chicken, lemon chicken, or orange chicken, but with a distinct honey flavor. This is a specialty dish, as I have never seen it in California, or for that matter, anywhere outside of the South, except at P.F. Chang’s.
While the other dishes mentioned here may be viewed as either oddities or regional varieties, Springfield, Missouri cashew chicken is a real phenomenon. Now you might wonder why this is on the list, because cashew chicken has been a staple for decades in Cantonese restaurants all over the United States. But Springfield cashew chicken is different on two counts. First of all, the manner of preparation, which produces a deep fried, breaded chicken nugget served in brown gravy with sliced cashews, is far different from the typical cashew chicken that is unbreaded and stir-fried with vegetables. But more importantly, Springfield cashew chicken has been adopted as a signature dish by the entire community.
I probably first heard about Springfield cashew chicken in the 1980s and was immediately intrigued by it. But alas, I never came anywhere close to Springfield, MO, and had no prospects of ever trying that dish. But it was always on my mind, and when food writer Clarissa Wei asked me what Chinese restaurant that I hadn’t tried would I most like to eat at, immediately I replied “some place that serves Springfield cashew chicken.” Little did I realize that my statement would find its way to Springfield, MO and weeks later we were there, guests of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, flown into town to sample versions of Springfield cashew chicken.
Still, I did not recognize the significance of cashew chicken in Springfield, that is until my ride from the airport into the main part of the city. Here was a medium-sized midwestern city of 170,000 people, and as I look outside of the car window I see a Chinese restaurant every few blocks, each with signage proclaiming “Cashew Chicken served here.” Stunningly I learned that this city with a negligible Chinese population (or for that matter, minorities of any kind) had the greatest per capita concentration of take-out Chinese restaurants of any place in the United States, all thanks to cashew chicken. Indeed, besides the many dozens of Chinese restaurants serving the dish, Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants serve cashew chicken, as do non-Asian restaurants.
2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of Springfield cashew chicken by David Leong, the 92-year-old godfather of cashew chicken. There will be 50th anniversary celebrations in Springfield throughout the entire year. Clearly no Chinese American regional dish comes close to the impact this dish has had.
War sui gai might be viewed as a second cousin to Springfield cashew chicken. Like cashew chicken, it consists of fried chicken, brown gravy, and sliced nuts. However, here the entire chicken breast is breaded and fried, then it’s sliced into diagonal strips, leaving chicken meat exposed on both sides. And here, the nuts of choice are almonds, and the chicken is served on a bed of shredded lettuce. Most associated with Detroit, Michigan, war sui gai has also been reported in Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. Furthermore, war sui gai is also close cousins with two other Chinese dishes that are prevalent throughout the United States. The dish known as war sui opp (gai=chicken in Cantonese, opp=duck) is more widely known as pressed almond duck, though visually the only similarity to war sui gai is the bed of shredded lettuce, as the duck dish involves pressing the duck meat and cutting it into little squares, with no batter per se, but a layer of crushed almonds on top. Also, many Chinese restaurants prepare lemon chicken in the same visual manner as war sui gai, i.e. a chicken breast is battered and fried and sliced into strips, then covered with sauce.
These are the regional Chinese American specialties that I know of. We (and the Smithsonian) would be pleased to hear about others.
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.