Why Is American Chinese Food So Weird?

David R. Chan is the David McCullough of Chinese food in America. OK, that’s not true—Chan isn’t the ponderously jowly pundit that McCullough is, even though Chan does have a unique perspective on the historical sweep of Chinese restaurant food in the U.S.

As Chandavkl, Chan’s one of the best-known users on Chowhound: Twenty years ago, he set out to eat in every arguably authentic Chinese restaurant in greater Los Angeles, and he’s made forays into New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Chan reckons he’s eaten in well over 6,000 restaurants (he told LA Weekly’s Clarissa Wei he keeps a spreadsheet to keep track of it all).

Today on Menuism, Chan explains why American Chinese food has been so unlike what people in China eat, so—what’s the word?—weird.

In “How American Chinese Food Came to Be,” Chan says the early-20th-century notion of Chinese food—chop suey, egg foo yung, sweet and sour pork—was adaptations of dishes from a particular locale in southern China, brought by immigrants to California in the 19th century. “Few people realize that virtually all these Chinese came from one small part of China,” Chan says, “the rural districts of Toishan outside of the city formerly known as Canton.”

And because the Chinese were excluded from immigrating during so much of California’s subsequent history—the U.S.’s, too—Chinese food in America became stuck on those early dishes.

The people who immigrated tended to be rural and poor, naturally, “not geographically representative of the people of China,” Chan notes.

“I like to make the analog that it’s the same as if all of the Americans living in China came from someplace like Victorville,” a desert city east of LA, buzzing about the Panera Bread that opened last week.

It wasn’t until immigration laws eased in 1965 that Americans got a new taste of Chinese food, mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan. “Many of the Taiwanese newcomers were Nationalists who fled from the mainland,” Chan writes, “bringing with them their penchant for a spicier Chinese cuisine than that of the Toishanese or the Hong Kong peoples.” The new taste of Chinese-American food in the 1970s branded itself as “Hunan” or “Szechwan”—it seemed amazing, even sophisticated, in New York and San Francisco, and still survives.

It’s the same ground Andrew Coe covered in his 2009 cultural history of U.S. Chinese food, Chop Suey, only condensed, and digested as only David Chan’s prodigious personal history of eating can manage. Go read it.

Photo by Flickr member fab4chiky under Creative Commons

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