The curious history of American Chinese food

Originally published at: The curious history of American Chinese food | Boing Boing


There is also a great documentary about this, The Search for General Tso.


Quite some years ago in my 20’s i lived in Reno, i was moving away from the city in a few months and decided to stop my a Chinese restaurant i had been walking by daily since it opened. It never seemed to have patrons but i was curious about it, so one day i went in and was astounded that the menu was (from what i could tell) pretty authentic food. There was very little on the menu i recognized so i ordered a couple of things and it was amazing, however i had a feeling that the place might fail despite being in a good location :frowning: i still think about that place to this day and regret that they likely didn’t get the recognition they deserved.


I remember reading a plaque outside what had once been one of America’s early so-called “Chop Suey” restaurants in Northern California. It explained the cuisine thusly:

“For many Americans, Chop Suey was their first exposure to Chinese food. For many Chinese immigrants, Chop Suey was their first exposure to American food.”


I tried real Chinese food while on a trip to Beijing. That’s all I have to say about that.


Of course, there are lots of different regional varieties. You might have enjoyed food from another locale.


Dang it. Now I want Low Mien for lunches.


Came here to share this, too. We watched it on a whim during the pandemic* and found it to be wonderfully educational about the history of Chinese immigration to America.

*I should say “during the lockdown” because this thing ain’t over…


At least nowadays it is possible to find both American Chinese food, and actual Chinese food, in many places. Also actual Chinese (and Korean, and Japanese, etc.) grocery stores. But I still have the hardest time finding good recipes for any form of Chinese food (written in English, ideally, my Mandarin is not very good) that don’t do ridiculous, idiotic things like add ketchup to savory meat dishes. There’s a few decent facebook groups and youtube channels I sometimes use, but it’s crazy that this isn’t something easily accessible today.


There’s also a pretty great book about it, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, written by Jennifer 8. Lee back in 2008.


I misread the title as “The curious history of American Cheese Food.” :thinking:


AWESOME. just full of awesome. (and a kitty)

i am so tired of people telling me “its authentic” or not - blah blah blah
my question is alwasy “was it yummy? did ya love it?”

Viva Chinese American Food! (and humans)
and viva Xiran Jay Zhao — brilliant video!

(also? sci fi author?? so coool - Iron Widow: 9780735269934: Zhao, Xiran Jay: Books )


I like this channel, but haven’t tried any of the recipes yet:


One of the better parts of that doc is the way it stresses cooking at home and cooking for Chinese immigrant communities at the root of American Chinese food.

The common story centers white people and the authenticity argument by framing it exclusively around restaurants, chop sui and compromise to sell to the assimilated public.

But a Chinese immigrant cooking at home, or cooking for other Chinese immigrants wasn’t anymore likely to have access to actual Chinese ingredients. Neither were kitchens in railroad camps, or early restaurants targeted at anyone but other Chinese immigrants.

The Search for General Tso has a whole section calling bullshit on that idea. With 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Chinese Americans repeatedly pointing out “yeah we ate that at home”. And starts from the idea of adaptation to available ingredients.

A lot of that sort of thing tends to live in books. Excepting certain trendier foods. Often Italian/Pasta, a bit Thai and Korean, French. Info about traditional cooking from a lot of places tends to get published only in cook books. And that includes regional cooking, it’s like pulling teeth to find decent recipes and information about New England cooking and cuisine from the Canadian Maritimes without buying a book. Hell of a lot of the recipes end up pushed as “traditional Southern cooking”.


Ultimately, when I sit down to eat, I am more concerned about the quality and taste of the food than about authenticity or history. There is a Vietnamese restaurant I’m fond of that I’ve heard people dismiss as “not 100% authentic”, but at the end of the day their food is delicious. So-called “fusion” places sometimes get this complaint, which is like a jazz purist complaining about electric piano.


To emphasize this, it’s worth pointing out that saying “real Chinese food” is about the equivalent of saying “real European food”. It’s like trying to compress all the food traditions from Portugal to Russia and from Sicily to Norway, and everywhere in-between into one single concept of a style of food. It just can’t be done and is dumb to even try and do it.


Had a place here that had a page at the back of the menu “For Asians Only.” I tried to order off of that page but they always Americanized it. If I complained, they told me “You are white, you can’t handle it.” I went away sad. None of the other Asian restaurants around here seem to even make an effort to be “authentic.” When my kids were small (I choose not to think about how long ago this was) I took them to a sushi restaurant. After we ordered, the whole kitchen staff came out to see “the little American boy who likes sushi. No little American boy likes sushi!” Yeah, it’s a weird old world.


When we were traveling in New Zealand many years ago, some friends took us to a Chinese Restaurant that catered to the local NZ lunch crowd. They started us out with a big plate of sliced white bread, the table was set with forks.


“Chop suey” has a quite interesting history that kind of turns the current narrative, that she’s repeating, about it upside down:

TL;DR: It seems it actually was a fancy Chinese banquet dish (not “bits and pieces”) that initially took off as haute cuisine in the US until its popularity and reductions in the availability of organ meats (due to changes in meat distribution and storage in the US) meant it got bastardized to the point of being unrecognizable.


In the US, I was taken to a “real” Chinese restaurant, by a first-generation Chinese-American who raved about its authenticity and quality. Unfortunately… I was very unenthusiastic about the food I received. I was completely underwhelmed. (I’m not a picky eater and have taken to many different cuisines “the first time.”)

What’s odd is: even if I was acculturated to (and expecting something resembling) “fake” American-Chinese food, that still should not poison the Chinese-Chinese food experience, which should stand on its own merits to my palate. It was, and is, a mystery to me.

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