In Praise of Chop Suey
When the first Chinese restaurant opened in 1849 in San Francisco, no doubt owner Norman Asing hadn't a clue about the trend he was launching. Today, there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America. From hole-in-the-wall carryouts to lavish banquet halls, from the Empress in Kotzebue, Alaska, to Manhattan's Dim Sum Go Go, these eateries dish up what for many Americans remains their favorite ethnic food.
Chinese food arrived in America in the mid-1800s with laborers imported to work the California gold rush. When those jobs dried up, the immigrants found their employment options drastically limited by exclusionary laws enacted to cut out the "Chinaman." Cooking, by contrast, was a business open to anyone willing to work hard. "Globalization is not a recent phenomenon," says Yong Chen, an associate professor of history at University of California-Irvine and a scholar of the Chinese diaspora. "You pool some money, you can start a small restaurant. This is quintessentially an American experience."
"Little pieces." By the 1890s, Chinese restaurants had sprung up in big cities on both coasts. Most early Chinese immigrants hailed from Canton, in southern China, and brought with them that city's celebrated cuisine. But as those restaurateurs strived to adapt to the tastes of their new land, they came up with something altogether different: chop suey. This mix of chopped meat, vegetables, and bean sprouts, which translates to "little pieces," may have been an amateur chef's improvisation or may have been created for the visit of a Chinese viceroy in 1896. No matter. Chop suey proved exotic and familiar, cheap and delicious, an irresistible combo that led to a proliferation of chop suey houses. Other innovations, including chow mein, egg foo young, and the fortune cookie, followed. "For many people, it's their first exposure to Chinese culture and to Chinese people," says Cynthia Lee, deputy director of programs for the Museum of Chinese in the Americas.
Lee dived into the history of Chinese restaurants to curate an exhibition at the New York museum based on a collection of almost 10,000 Chinese restaurant menus. She found that Chinese restaurateurs, well aware of how intimidating the new cuisine could be, offered tips on ordering "family style" and came up with the "one from Column A, one from Column B" system to simplify choosing. Chinese restaurants also welcomed blacks and Jews when other establishments shunned them; Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant is still a tradition for many Jewish families.
Chinese-American cuisine adapted again after 1965, when a new law loosened restrictions on immigrants from Asia. Spicier dishes like Sichuan chicken and Hunan pork, from northern China, started to push chop suey off the menu. New immigrants seeking opportunity ventured into new markets. By 1971, there were 28 Chinese restaurants in Utah. Now there are 263. Regional variations abound. Chinese restaurants in the Northwest don't shy from serving hamburgers. Southerners are more partial to fried chicken dishes. "There's a lot of inventiveness," says Cheuk Kwan, a Toronto filmmaker who visited 13 countries for his documentary series Chinese Restaurants. "In Mauritius, I found a woman doing fantastic cuisine fusing Chinese, Creole, and Indian. The resulting dishes are a wonderful fusion food unlike anything else in the world."
Ming Tsai is perhaps the ultimate expert in Chinese-American fusion cuisine. As a boy, he rolled spring rolls on the family ping-pong table in Dayton, Ohio. His grandmother, who lived in Iowa City, would put scallions and hoisin sauce on the kids' frozen pizza, 20 years before Wolfgang Puck. When he was 14, his mom opened the Mandarin Kitchen. "At 7 a.m. I'd go make all the rice," says Tsai, now owner and chef of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass., and star of Simply Ming on PBS. He fried mu shu pork and sweet-and-sour pork and pushed the egg-roll cart his engineer dad designed. "I'd peddle them to people eating lunch out on the square, next to the hot dog cart, the gyros cart."
Although Tsai went to Yale to study engineering, a few summers spent in Paris convinced him that his fate lay in food, not formulas. His cooking is noted for synthesizing Chinese and Japanese flavors with French and American technique--Asian lacquer poussin, say, or shiitake-leek dumplings. And he still cooks his mother's Asian sloppy joes, made with hoisin sauce in place of ketchup. "This is not fad food. This is food that will stay in America." Until, that is, the next wave of immigrants reinvents it.
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.