There are over 40,000 American Chinese restaurants across the United States – which is more than KFC, McDonald’s, and Burger King combined.
Most of those restaurants, though independently owned, have very similar menus and have for years. But now, for the first time ever we’re seeing a new brand of Chinese-American that is marrying the American side and taking the cuisine to the next level.
Dating back almost a century, Chinese immigrants first came to America by way of San Francisco during the gold rush.
Nearly all of them were from one part of the country: the rural districts of Toishan outside of the city of Guangdong (then known as Canton; hence, Cantonese food). Nearly all of them were men. And nearly none of them knew how to cook – something that, at the time, was primarily a woman’s job.
With only a basic cooking skills and plenty of missing ingredients from China, the new cooks-by-necessity found themselves basically throwing together whatever food scraps they had laying around, and chop suey (which basically just means “leftovers”) was born out of some combination of a lack of ingredients from home, a lack of kitchen skills and a need to provide thousands of new immigrants with a cheap meal that was reminiscent of home.
At first, Americans didn’t want to eat at these for-Chinese-by-Chinese restaurants amid a climate of extreme racism and rumors they served cats and dogs.
Then, in the late 18th century – just as hipsters were the explorers who dared to be the first to explore bitter chocolate and foraged moss – a group of broke New York artists in search of something cheap and exotic discovered that they could impress their friends with the realization that, “Hey, there’s something to this Chinese food.”
By the early 1900s, chop suey restaurants had spread across the country as America began its love affair with Chinese food.
In the heat of a They-Took-Our-Jobs mentality, the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and from 1882 to 1943, pretty much all of China was banned from stepping foot on American soil. It was the only law in U.S. history to exclude people specifically from one country (though President Trump recently tried to change that).
Politics aside, this policy also meant that Chinese food in America basically didn’t stretch beyond chop suey for many years.
The borders reopened in ‘43, but it wasn’t until 1965 when laws become more lenient, and a new wave of immigrants brought the food that became known as Szechuan (now Sichuan) and Hunan.
Except that immigrants who actually cooked this new, spicier, more flavorful food were mostly from Taiwan and Hong Kong, so it was mostly a weird mashup of Taiwanese food with inspiration from Sichuan and Hunan provinces, made for American palates using ingredients that didn’t actually exist in China. This is how
We got the fried, sweet-and-spicy dishes that are basically on every Chinese menu across the country – like mu shu pork, sweet and sour beef, and sesame chicken.