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.
Over the past two centuries, the Chinese community and its cuisine have endured several forms of discrimination. The Chinese exclusion laws of the late 1880s left Chinese food in America exclusively Cantonese for over a century. Housing discrimination restricted Chinese Americans to a limited number of neighborhoods, affecting the geographic distribution of authentic Chinese restaurants to this date. And twentieth-century protests by labor unions threatened the very existence of Chinese food in the U.S.(more…)
As bad as the pandemic has been, we’ve all needed to look for small silver linings along the way. In my case, it’s been the rediscovery of the mid-20th century Toishanese/Cantonese favorite, pressed almond duck.(more…)
In May, I painted a rather pessimistic picture of the early effect of the coronavirus pandemic on Chinese restaurants in the United States. A combination of xenophobia, prescient caution in the Chinese-American community about dining out, as well as a high concentration of mom-and-pop enterprises, the Chinese restaurant industry seemed to be perilously close to wide-scale collapse.
Los Angeles Chinatown looked particularly stark. In April, a good two-thirds of the Chinese restaurants had shuttered. The restaurants that remained opened for take-out only significantly pared their food offerings. For example, only a handful of dim sum varieties were available at the two remaining eateries, Tian’s Dim Sum and Keung Kee. These establishments were likely the least-known in Chinatown, until Ocean Seafood and Golden Dragon closed, eventually followed by Won Kok Restaurant, Long’s Family Pastry, Lucky Deli, CBS Seafood, ABC Seafood (which remained open for steam tray but not dim sum), and others.(more…)
Even in good times, a restaurant operation can expect a net profit of about 3% on sales. Employee wages are often 25 percent or more of restaurant costs, so it doesn’t take much of a decline in restaurant revenue in such a low-margin industry to trigger labor cutbacks.
But Chinese restaurants have been hit by a triple whammy during this pandemic. Not only have they been buffeted by the general economic disaster, but they have suffered additionally for serving Chinese food. COVID-19 originated in China, and from the beginning has been associated with unfortunate terms such as “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” Immediately as the virus spread through China, business at Chinese restaurants in the United States, and indeed throughout the world, began to sink — even before the rest of the world economy and other types of restaurants became impacted.(more…)
A few years ago, I discussed the merits of ordering dim sum from a menu versus serving dim sum from heated carts. I argued that menu-driven dim sum is more conducive to creating new and better dishes, because offerings would not have to wheel around the dining room.
Carts have been dishing out longtime favorites like steamed barbecue pork buns, har gow, siu mai, cheung fun (rice noodle rolls), pineapple buns, turnip cake squares, lotus leaf sticky rice, and many others since arriving on the dim sum scene in the 1960s and 70s.
But America’s dim sum palaces are innovating all kinds of new, non-traditional dim sum items. Here are five ways they’re changing our expectations of Chinese brunch.(more…)
Since my first article for Menuism in 2012, I always wanted to discuss the difference between Chinese fusion and authentic Chinese food. I’ve heard traditionalists say they hate Chinese fusion since it means messing with a revered cuisine. But as I’ve often said, Chinese food in the United States continues to evolve into new and better forms. So, what’s fusion and what’s evolution?
A common definition of fusion cuisine is the introduction of nontraditional ingredients into a particular cuisine. On its face, this definition seems to be relatively straightforward to determine when a particular dish should be classified as Chinese fusion. Adding truffles to siu mai or foie gras to har gow would seemingly be classified as Chinese fusion. But when you see well-established dim sum restaurants serving these dishes, isn’t this just part of the continuous evolution of Chinese food?(more…)
In the past decade, Chinese dining in the United States popularized “Mainlander food,” or non-Cantonese regional cuisines. The Mainland moniker distinguished it from food from Hong Kong and Taiwan. But Mainland food largely excluded Cantonese cuisine, even though Canton (now known as Guangzhou) sits squarely on the Chinese mainland.(more…)
When my thoughts turn to my favorite Chinese dishes over the decades, my tastes seem to evolve just as Chinese food in America has.
Five years ago, I wrote a Menuism article about why I generally did not eat at Chinese restaurants in the United States that were more than 20 years old. My reason for this 20-year rule was that Chinese food in America was evolving at a surprisingly rapid rate, with diners and chefs endlessly looking for that next more delicious, more innovative Chinese food creation. Because innovation is more likely to come from new players, and because existing successful Chinese restaurants are likely to stick with what works, I decided that after 20 years, most Chinese restaurants are behind the curve.(more…)