There are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds and Burger Kings combined – a statistic that never ceases to amaze me. It is all the more remarkable considering how much the American public loves its burgers and fries. Chinese restaurants are not confined to the bigger urban centers; they exist all over America, even in the small towns of the American mid-west or the Deep South. Whence comes this love of Chinese food?
Contrary to what some claim, it has nothing to do with the perceived gastronomic superiority of Chinese food. In fact, in the 19th century and for a long time afterwards, the Chinese were reviled for allegedly eating dogs, cats and rats. A common illustration of the time showed a Chinaman peddling rats, strung by their tails to a stick slung over his shoulder. From such beginnings, how did Chinese food become so popular ?
To arrive at the answer, one has to know something of American history.
The Transcontinental Railroad linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was completed in 1869. It was a massive undertaking that required a large pool of labor. Chinese immigrants had been emigrating from Guangdong ( Canton) province in southern China lured by the promise of the California goldfields. Failing to strike gold, they went to work for the railroad in their thousands and the railroad bosses were only too glad to hire them. The Chinese worked hard, rarely drank and knew how to handle explosives. Besides they were willing to work for less ( 20 to 30% less) and were not given the free food provided to the other laborers, The Chinese cooked their own food, primarily dried seafood, greens and rice which, ironically, was healthier than the salt/ fresh beef and potatoes eaten by the others.
After the Transcontinental railroad was completed, the Chinese workers went on to workoin other railroads but several opened Chinese restaurants all over the western states. The food they served quickly became popular with American customers. Along with some authentic dishes, these restaurants also served some Chinese- American hybrids. One of the dishes invented was ” chop suey” which means ” odds and ends” or” leftovers ‘. It consisted of chopped meats/ seafood, vegetables and eggs quickly stir-fried doused in a brown sauce and served over rice. It ( and other dishes like it) quickly became popular with American customers. And why not? The Chinese food at these restaurants was at once exotic ( very different from the ” meat and potatoes” that was the standard fare in those times) and familiar ( because the Chinese restaurants were to be found everywhere). Chinese food was not spicy. It was also served piping hot, was filling and very affordable.Chinese food is the ideal fast food. It is prepared in minutes while you wait and is easily packaged for take-out.
Chinese restaurants continued to proliferate because many Chinese immigrants were ill-educated and shut-out from the white collar occupations. Cooking was something these immigrants knew and so they went into the restaurant business in droves. According to one source, one-tenth of all Chinese immigrants in North America in 1988 were employed in the restaurant business.
Until the nineteen sixties, Chinese food in America was almost entirely Cantonese food or variants thereof. Menus featured dishes like moo goo gai pan, mu shu pork with pancakes, egg foo yung, chicken almond ding, beef / chicken lo mein, sweet and sour pork and, of course, chop suey, chow mein, egg rolls and fried rice. The food was bland, and the restaurant staff gifted cooks rather than chefs.
All this changed in the late sixties- early seventies when first Szechuan and then Hunan cooking took America by storm. I had just come to New York City and I was surprised by how different the food was from the bland food in the Chinese joints in the hinterland. This was about the time President Nixon went to China. The subsequent thaw in Sino- American relations resulted in an influx of Chinese from all parts of China, not just Canton. Some of them were professional chefs with experience in running restaurants. Soon, New York City and other large urban centers saw a proliferation of restaurants featuring Szechuan, Hunan, Fukien and other regional cuisines.
Until that time, Americans were not too fond of spice but with an increase in immigration from India, Thailand and other Asian countries American taste buds awoke. One result was that they learned to like hot foods and as a result Szechuan, Hunan and other Chinese regional styles of cooking became popular overnight.
Away from the large urban centers, Cantonese food still holds sway because it is familiar yet different, affordable and easily available for take-out. In the large cities, the spicier regional Chinese cuisines are just as popular as Cantonese. Together, they account for the widespread popularity of Chinese food in America.