I almost wrote about another new authentic ramen restaurant in Albuquerque. Yes, I am excited that there are more places to get ramen in the Duke City! Unfortunately the food is uninspiring and I didn’t have the heart or will to write it (but I may write about it next week on a possible return visit).
So instead, I’m taking advantage of the fact that it is a Chinese holiday today (Mid-Autumn Festival to be more specific) to write a brief-ish history of Chinese food in America. I am by no means an expert in the history of Chinese food in America. For that you can read more by picking up a copy of Jennifer 8 Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles or Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey for more of an in depth look on the subject. However, I thought that a brief-ish history of Chinese food in America would be interesting for friends, family, and fellow readers of this blog.
As most Americans know from high school courses on American history, it wasn’t until the Gold Rush of 1849 that there was a large influx of Chinese immigrants to America. Political events in China such as the Taiping Rebellion, famines, and stories of California’s “Gold Mountain” from the Gold Rush led thousands of Chinese, especially those in the Taishan region of Guangdong province, to come to America and strike it rich. When they arrived in America, gold was not only hard to pan, but racism meant that many of the best places for gold panning and mining were off limits to Chinese people. Those that stayed in America instead took other jobs, including building railroads, becoming laundromats, or, of course, having their own restaurant.
There are various tales on how chop suey was invented and became so popular, but by the 1880s and 1890s it was a staple item in Chinese restaurants all over the country. Chop suey, meaning “odds and ends”, was basically a stir fry of a number of vegetables and meat, kind of like stir frying leftovers at home (similar to how fried rice at home typically is a stir fy of leftover rice from the day before and a few other ingredients). Thus, chop suey is sometimes called the “biggest culinary joke ever played,” though some scholars believe it was just an attempt by Taishanese immigrants to reinterpret home cooking that just took America by storm at the turn of the century.
For the next few decades in the early 20th century there was not much innovation or change in the menus of Chinese restaurants in America. Much of that is due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned any immigration from China for more than 60 years meaning that almost all the Chinese people in America was from one county in Southern China. Essentially Chinese food was stuck for a long time and it is one of the reason’s why many take out Chinese restaurants in America today serve very Americanized versions of very simple Cantonese food. As David Chan writes, it’s like if all the Americans in China were from Victoville, CA and that was the representation of American food.
After the Magnuson Act and the Immigration Act of 1965, however, Chinese food in America began to change. Chefs and people from Taiwan started immigrating and brought along flavors originating from other regions of China, particularly Hunan and Sichuan province. One of these most famous dishes the was created at the time is, of course, General Tso’s Chicken. General Tso’s Chicken was invented by Chef Peng Chang-kuei in the 1950s when he was in Taiwan and became popular and sweetened when he opened a restaurant in New York City in the early 1970s to adapt to American tastes. Other dishes with adapted Sichuanese or Hunanese flavors that came in vogue at the time included Hot and Sour Soup and Kung Pao Chicken.
It wasn’t really until the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that more authentic restaurants started to come to America, thanks in large part to wealthier Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants that moved into larger American cities and suburbs, especially Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In particular there were a number of Hong Kong immigrants that came as a result of fears of the 1997 handover of the territory from the United Kingdom to China (and caused an even more dramatic growth of Chinese people and extraordinary Cantonese food in Vancouver and Toronto) as well as the marketing of suburbs, like Monterey Park in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, as the “Chinese Beverly Hills.” The influx brought an infusion of wealth as well a high level chefs from Hong Kong who opened upscale and large seafood restaurants that served Dim Sum at lunch as well. The spread of these newer Chinese immigrants to more suburban and smaller cities with tech heavy influences (as opposed to old urban Chinatowns) led to the growth of suburban Chinatowns in Las Vegas, Houston, and Atlanta. Not to be left out, areas of high concentrations of Taiwanese immigrants, like Irvine, CA and Rockville, MD, brought Taiwanese dishes like beef noodle soup to American communities.
In the early 2000s, Taiwanese style bubble tea shops that also sell Taiwanese (and sometimes Hong Kong style) desserts started coming to California. Bubble tea and the shops that made them were popularized by young Chinese Americans (myself included) and the drink quickly spread across the country, especially in college towns like College Park, MD which has no less than three places that is mostly or entirely about selling bubble tea. The growth of bubble tea places was also an early indicator of the growing influence of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese American millennials, many of them who were born and raised in suburbs with large Asian American populations and restaurants and whose appetite for Chinese (and other Asian foods) can make a big impact in and around their communities. This is typified in the Fung Brothers’ popular 626 youtube video.
More recently, there have been an increasing number of Chinese immigrants from Mainland China. This has brought increasing diversity to Chinese food in America including Chinese Islamic food, Liang Pi cold noodles from Shaanxi province as popularized by Xi’an Famous Foods, to authentic Sichuanese food that uses very liberal amounts of mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorns. These dishes aren’t just being popularized in big cities either. The large growth of Chinese international students, particularly from Sichuan and Dongbei provinces, has meant that relatively small college towns like West Lafayette, IN, are also able to eat non-Cantonese and non-Americanized Chinese food for the first time.
While this history is not definitive in any way, especially as Chinese food in America continues to involve and new trends like renown Chinese chains setting up shop in America may affect our palettes in ways I can’t foresee, I do hope that it shines a light on some cultural history that is less well known. As I enjoy some mooncakes tonight and make a few phone calls to close relatives to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, I’ll also be looking back at the fond, chaotic, and rich history of diaspora, family, and food that has helped define the Chinese American experience.