Most of us know that all the Chinese foods we know and love: General Tso's chicken, sesame beef, sweet-and-sour everything... none of these are actual dishes eaten in China. American Chinese food is really a cuisine all on its own, an amalgamation of Asian, continental, Latin, and local flavors that have become an indispensable part of most dinner plates.
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According to historians, Chinese local fare came to the American West Coast during the Gold Rush, brought over by Chinese immigrants from the southern territories of mainland China. Records show that many of those immigrants had trouble finding work when they arrived in the U.S. and they turned to the food service industry to support themselves. In a new location with different local ingredient availability, the food began evolving to include vegetables such as tomatoes available in the Americas but not China.
Since then it adapted and fused with countless other global tastes to become the popular food we know today. Still, there are many interesting facts about Chinese food in America that are not as well-known -- click through our slideshow to find out more.
The West Coast bohemian culture really took to American Chinese cuisine in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until after World War II that it started to become really popular. Originally there were two menus available — an American one and a Chinese one, each catering to different preferences, though soon the beatnik palate started to dominate and the American menu was left standing.
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A big difference between American Chinese food and the more traditional variety is the proliferation of dishes with sweet syrupy sauces. This is because many of the ingredients used canned fruits like pineapple and cherries, which came drowned in sugary syrups. The sweet and savory combinations proved a hit with the American public and the cheaper canned ingredients kept the prices lower, which seemed like a win-win for everyone.
Today even though some eateries offer healthier versions of these dishes made with natural ingredients, those canned-food flavors still haven’t changed... sweet and sour pork, anyone?
Photo Credit: © Flickr / Philip
American Chinese food has melded and adapted to satisfy a variety of palates across the U.S., from Chow Mein sandwiches in New England and the deliciously artery-clogging deep fried pupu platters, to a St. Paul’s Sandwich further west in Missouri, which is basically an egg foo yung patty with lettuce, a pickle, and mayo between two slices of white bread.
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Those little white-carton wire-handled containers that are synonymous with Chinese takeout are actually a uniquely American invention, a Japanese-influenced origami design from Chicago native Frederick Weeks Wilcox. The invention was an update on the wooden-box oyster pail, which was used to transport raw oysters from the harbor to the urban areas where they could be shucked on the spot. When the live oyster trade started to ebb, the wooden pails were used to bring Chinese food home from restaurants for quick and easy dinners.
Photo Credit: © Flickr / Addison Berry
American Chinese food had its early beginnings on the West Coast, where it was brought to California by immigrants from the southern Chinese district of Toishan. Through much of the subsequent history Chinese immigration was severely limited so Chinese American food stuck to those early dishes and evolved from them: such favorites include chop suey, egg foo yung, and sweet and sour pork. They were associated mostly with the poor, rural dishes that were not eaten by most Chinese people.
When immigration laws relaxed, the market was flooded with newer dishes from Taiwan and Hong Kong, which added to the concoction of what we now consider American Chinese food.
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- Serusha Govender, The Daily Meal
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