Learning the history of the things you love

By Stephan Drew


I really love Asian food. I have been enjoying it for decades and just can’t get enough. All of my friends know that if they want me to go out to dinner, it’s usually a safe bet to offer Chinese, Japanese, Thai or something along those lines. Of course, everyone has their favorite dishes. Although I’m willing to experiment with many of them, there are a few that are regulars for me — beef and broccoli with oyster sauce, hot and sour soup, teriyaki on the stick, and boneless chicken with yellow sauce. I have also learned how to cook quite a few of them, so that I can enjoy my favorite type of food at home. It does help that I have an awesome uncle in North Carolina who brings me wonderful new ingredients to try, every time he visits. Uncle Carl was in the Air Force and married a wonderful Asian woman (my Aunt Maria). Over the past few decades, she taught my mother how to cook many Oriental dishes and Mom taught me. I have learned how to “velvet” beef for stir-fry, create my own sushi, as well as which type of rice, mushroom or onion works better for each dish. Although I’ve enjoyed Asian food for many years, I never really thought about how it came to America. What I discovered was a little surprising. In 1848, gold was discovered in California. Thousands of people flocked there from the East Coast and the message of the gold strike also spread overseas. The merchants in Canton, South China, heard the news as well and decided to try their luck in America. Canton was a port city and had been a center of international trade for centuries. The wealthy merchants there knew the gold mines would need labor. The cheapest labor force at the time were Chinese immigrants and thousands were flooding to California for jobs. The Cantonese merchants knew that these workers would need to be fed and what better food than their own native cuisine? So that’s exactly what they did. The merchants financed a lot of the immigrants and helped them start businesses. Many of them had no special skills but they sure knew how to cook. So they opened food services and dining establishments for the workers and would supply them with their native cuisine. By the late 19th century, the culinary industry in America was still a novelty, with many having to import French and Italian cooks to serve their clientele. However, the Chinese people had centuries of “hospitality” under their belts and excelled in the restaurant business. Their cheap prices appealed to the young, poor and hungry “49ers” of all backgrounds. Many of their San Francisco patrons remarked at how clean the dining areas were and how professional and polite the staff were. An 1850 news article described the Chinese-owned eating houses as “the best food in the city.” It went on to state that, “The best restaurants were kept by the Chinese and the poorest by Americans.” As the gold mines ran dry and money was no longer plentiful, the local population became hostile to the Asian immigrants, unfairly denigrating their clothing, their speech and their culture. Harsh new laws were passed which began with California’s mining tax against foreigners. In 1852, there was an effort to restrict immigration of “Chinese and other Asians” and ended with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all Chinese laborers from entering the United States. This act was not repealed until 1943. The numerous “Chinatowns” springing up in major cities were called “nuisances” and people complained of the “stench” from the kitchens as a health hazard. In an 1879 speech, Sen. James G. Blaine stated, “You cannot work a man who must have beef and bread alongside a man who can live on rice.” The fear was that this would “bring down the beef-and-bread man to the rice standard.” It was no surprise when Blaine became one of the staunchest supporters of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In spite of the backlash, no one could deny that the food was really good, as well as cheap. Although it may not have been the type of food you were used to, you could fill your stomach for half the price of an American meal. Over the next few decades, Americans finally warmed up to the idea of eating Asian cuisine regularly. By the 1920s, there were “Chop Suey joints” scattered around every major city in the nation. These were places where the new “urbanites” could sample a delicacy of meat, eggs and vegetables. Most people at that time were shocked to find that the average Chinese native knew nothing of such a dish. The words “chop suey” in Chinese mean “odds and ends” or, more commonly known as “leftovers.” This was a meal specifically concocted to placate an ignorant populace. Jennifer 8.Lee (a modern American journalist of Asian descent) called it ?”he biggest culinary prank one culture has ever pulled on another.” In the early 20th century, the dishes became sweeter, boneless and more heavily deep-fried to suit American palates. There was also a new ingredient that had never been used in China before that time – broccoli. It was very easy to add and began to appear in numerous dishes. The fortune cookie arrived in America during this time. Although it originated in Japan, the fortune cookie was added to a “typical” Chinese meal. Until the 1960s, what we called “Chinese food” was actually American derivatives of meals cooked in Canton, one of eight broad regional cuisines markets of China. When the United States liberalized its immigration policy in 1965, this allowed new arrivals in from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland. They brought their different styles of cooking from Hunan, Sichuan, Taipei and Shanghai. This was the first time that Americans had their first taste of “authentic” Chinese food. The Asian market and food industries flourished across the nation as New Yorkers, San Franciscans and metropolitan residents enjoyed this “new” treat. In 1972, President Richard Nixon visited Beijing and the demand for “everything Asian” exploded. Television viewers frequented these restaurants wanting “one of those dishes the president ate on TV.” Today, according to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, there are over 46,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States. That is more than McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Wendy’s combined. The Asian food business is very much alive and doing great in this country. And I couldn’t be happier. When people are asked what their favorite food is, most of them say “Chinese.” No matter who they are, what color their skin, or what their socio-economic background, there seems to be one thing we all agree on – Asian food is fantastic! And now I’m hungry again.

Author: Stephan Drew

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