Chinese food may actually be more popular in the U.S. than “American” food — there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America. That’s more than the number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined.
The New York Times’ Mark Bittman went to L.A.’s Chinatown to explore the origins of this ubiquitous cuisine with Yong Chen, author of “Chop Suey Nation: The Story of Chinese Food in America.”
“When the first wave of Chinese came to the U.S. in the 19th century, they worked in gold mines and helped build the railroads, they lived in small rural towns,” Chen said. Those rural towns are what eventually became the Chinatown districts that still exist in cities like L.A., NYC, and San Francisco.
“When immigrants come from China, one of the first things they miss about old days is food,” Chen continued. “And so that’s why you have so many restaurants and grocery stores.”
Eventually, those districts evolved to not just be a place for Chinese immigrants to get a taste of home, but to also to lure Americans in to explore Chinese culture, Chen said.
“As you can see, looking around, there’s a deliberate effort to create an exotic, Asian, oriental appearance. The effort was to capture the tourists…. This is very deliberate and quite successful for a long time. It really captured the imagination of Americans,” Chen said.
Chinese food, though, has evolved since those days
“In the 19th century, what we call Chinese food in the U.S. until the 1970s remained Catonese for a long time. So basically there was a lot of seafood, sharks fins, bird’s nest, and a lot of shrimp. Those dishes represented … the fine tradition of Chinese cuisine. But American diners rejected that.”
While that food is exactly what Chinese immigrants wanted, many Americans didn’t take to it. As Chinese food migrated to the suburbs, it evolved into something American palates liked: mao pao tofu, chicken fried rice, and beef with broccoli.
Watch the video above to find out more about how Chinese food has evolved as populations left cities for the suburbs.
We’ll give you a hint. Bittman signs off by saying, “I love stinky tofu. It’s not stinky enough, though.”
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