There are over 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. That’s more than McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC combined. The majority of these restaurants offer very similar looking and tasting food, even though these restaurants are independently owned and operated.
I grew up in a household where my mother only cooked Chinese food. However, most of these dishes were nothing like the most popular dishes ordered at Chinese takeout restaurants. As Jennifer Lee explains in The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,
“As a child, I never considered it strange that the food we ordered from Chinese restaurants didn’t quite resemble my mom’s home cooking. My mom used white rice, soy sauce, garlic, scallions, and a wok. But she never deep-fried chunks of meat, succulent and soft, then drenched them with rich, flavorful sauce. She cooked with ingredients that were pickled and dried and of strange shapes and never appeared on the takeout menu.”
The assimilation of Chinese immigrants into American culture is not exactly a happy story. It’s also a story that not many people are familiar with.
In the 19th century, the people in China faced an onslaught of hardships, including natural disasters, war, overpopulation, and the financial burdens brought on by Western Imperialism. When the news of gold in California reached China, the decision to travel halfway around the world was even more enticing.
After the Chinese people arrived in San Francisco, Americans did not know what to make of them. They wore long braids, spoke a strange language, ate foods Westerners had never encountered, and had terrible table manners (they eat with sticks!). Chinese cuisine comprised of many animals that Americans deemed repulsive, and an image of a rat-eating Chinese man was featured in school textbooks in the late 1800s. Advertisements also used anti-Chinese sentiments as a means to sell their products.
As more Chinese people arrived looking for work, the negative perceptions of them increased. This led to countless lynchings, shootings, and arson, targeted at the ethnic group. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese arrivals from becoming naturalized citizens. This is the only law passed in American history to exclude a group by race or ethnicity. As the doors were closed to Chinese immigration, and jobs in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing were taken back by the Americans, the Chinese already living in America had to find an alternative way to make a living. Their solution was opening up laundries and restaurants. The number of Chinese-owned restaurants and laundries flourished in the late 1800s, particularly on the west coast. Because cleaning and cooking were both considered women’s work, American laborers did not feel threatened.
Introduction of Chinese Food
In the Chinese restaurants, the food served was not the same food that Chinese people ate themselves. They served food that was exotic but not scary. The most well-known dish was chop suey, which consists of meat, a thick sauce, and Asian vegetables (bean sprouts, water chestnuts, celery, cabbage). Many Americans believed this was a signature Chinese dish, but it was invented and served exclusively overseas. The name of the dish translates literally to “odds and ends” in Cantonese. There are a few theories about how the dish came about but no documented proof. Although the dish is becoming lesser known over time, being replaced by other Americanized Chinese dishes such as General Tso’s chicken, it paved the way and popularized American-friendly Chinese food.
Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), immigration from China was non-existent and the chop suey phase lasted for many decades. The borders finally reopened in 1943, but laws didn’t become more lenient until 1965. New styles of Chinese cuisine were introduced – Szechuan and Hunan. People living in these two regions of China typically enjoy dishes that are flavorful and very spicy. However, the people who were cooking these types of food were mostly from Taiwan and Hong Kong, known for their lighter and sweeter dishes. So the end result was a mashup of Taiwanese food, with inspiration from Szechuan and Hunan, using ingredients familiar to American palates that often didn’t exist in China. That is how the deep fried, sweet and spicy dishes we know and love originally found its way onto Chinese menus. None of these dishes were “authentic,” but new immigrants opening Chinese restaurants copied what seemed to be working and these similar tasting dishes with the same names materialized all over the United States.
In the early 2000s, other Asian ethnicities (Thai, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese) with more “authentic” menus flooded urban cities, giving adventurous eaters some alternatives to the well-loved Americanized Chinese food. In recent years, first and second generation Chinese-Americans have embraced their roots and opened up restaurants featuring true Chinese cuisine, such as hand pulled noodles, steamed buns, and whole fish. Fusion cuisine has also taken off, combining both Asian and European styles to create an entirely new category of dishes.
How Chinese food will evolve from this point on, no one knows. The possibilities are endless!