What's on the Menu?, Food for Thought
Chinese American Food: Stories of Odds and Ends
Did you know that some of your favorite dishes from a Chinese take out restaurant have interesting stories behind them? The origin of their names, the ingredients used and how they were conceived and transformed in America all make fascinating tales in food history.
Since the 19th century, Chinese immigrants opened restaurants throughout the American frontier. These dishes preserved and reflected the different Chinese cultural and regional identities. Initially they were not accepted or liked by Americans because they were perceived as foreign. However, many dishes were later reinvented by using local ingredients and cooking techniques to cater to the American taste.
Chop Suey has a rich history. It is a dish that consists of meat and eggs, cooked quickly with vegetables. In Chinese, Chop Suey translates as "Odds and Ends" or "Mixed Vegetables." The story behind this dish is that it was invented by Chinese immigrants living in America for an easy quick meal. To Americans, the food was considered the "national dish of China" when it was unheard of in China. Another story suggests that Chinese immigrants imported this dish to the U.S in the mid to late 1800s.
See Andrew Coe's Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.
General Tso's Chicken: where did it come from and who was General Tso? The dish consists of sweet and spicy chicken pieces and is named after General Tso Tsung Tang, a Qing dynasty statesman (1644-1911). There is no definite record that General Tso actually created the dish as well. The exact origin remains uncertain as restaurants from Taiwan to New York have claimed the culinary creation.
See The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, by Jennifer 8 Lee.
Kung Pao Chicken: A stir-fry dish made with chicken, peanuts, vegetables, and chili peppers. The dish came from Sichuan Province of China which uses chicken and Sichuan peppercorns as primary ingredients. However, the peppercorns were banned in the U.S. from 1968 to 2008 because they were found to be carrying citrus canker which is a bacterial disease that could infect crops in the U.S. The ban was eventually lifted but many restaurants still do not include the peppercorns in their Kung Pao Chicken.
The infamous fortune cookie: the cookie is often treated as a dessert in Chinese American restaurants. They also carry a piece of paper wrapped inside. Known as "the fortune," the message may include a Chinese phrase with translation or a list of lucky numbers. In the past, there have been lottery winners using the cookie's numbers. According to Jennifer 8 Lee, the recipe was based on a traditional Japanese cracker. As Lee puts it succinctly, "introduced by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese but ultimately... consumed by Americans."
Even the Chinese take out box has an interesting back story. Known as the oyster pail, these inexpensive containers were used to store oysters in the early 20th century. After World War II, Chinese restaurants utilized the oyster pail for take out since it could contain and transport a variety of dishes easily. The oyster pail is now an icon for Chinese take out.
I hate to admit this but I am not a fan of Chinese American take out food. I grew up in a household where everyone from my extended and nuclear family and family friends worked in Chinese restaurants throughout New York City and beyond. Suffice to say, I've had my fair share of General Tso's Chicken.
- How to Cook and Eat in Chinese by Buwei Yang Chao is one of the first Chinese American cookbook that describes and reflects Chinese foodways in American History.
- More on Food Habits in American History.
- More on Chinese cookbooks.
- More on Cooking Periodicals.
- More on Chinese American History.
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- Learn how lunch acquired its modern identity on the streets of New York in this NYPL exhibition: LUNCH HOUR NYC (till February 17th, 2013)