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Chinese Food in the US

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Winter Volume: 2017 Issue: 25(4) page(s): 22

When the first wave of Chinese immigrants come to the United States (U.S.), most did arrive in San Francisco, their ‘Gold Mountain’. If any came before this large group, there are few if any, records about them. They may have come as individuals or in very small groups, surely by boat, and from China; though maybe some did trek up the Baja Peninsula from Mexico or Peru, a few may have even trekked south from Canada were poor men; who came to the U.S. facing racial hatred, language barriers, and/or other barriers in the US.

Most may have remained on the West Coast taking jobs at low pay running laundries, tailor shops, fruit stands, and some menial tasks; though not all did. A few eventually opened restaurants or worked in them. Some of these did serve dollar dinners and inexpensive foods first attracting a mostly male clientele.

As more and more Americans did discover these eateries, they learned mostly about Cantonese food and liked it. These were exciting new foods. Eventually, they brought friends and family to them. As their numbers grew, these restaurants expanded.

The earliest dishes might have included steaks and hamburgers. Many soon added Chinese dishes including fried rice, chop suey, and chow mein. Their Chinese chefs added other items. A few reporters did write about them and this did increase interest in them. A few local churches also did include recipes for some of their dishes in fund-raising cook books. A few did use a Chun King ingredient in them.

Their few dishes did use an ingredient or two started by Jeno Paulucci, an Italian in middle America that was thought to be Chinese. Maybe they became popular because a New York City restaurant famous for its cheesecake used them. These dishes included Chow Mein Reubenola, a recipe that used two non-Chinese ingredients, butter and sour cream. They also had a dish with seven vegetables including bean sprouts, onions, celery, mushrooms, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and tomatoes. This and their other dishes did gain a following. After World War II, this and other Chinese dishes actually lost popularity as soldiers stationed in Asia knew better. Authentic Chinese dishes took their place. Other Chinese restaurants opened and served newer-to-Americans-Chinese-dishes that were more exotic or more recognized.

The fear of the thousands of Chinese who fled communism after 1943 did abate thanks to the ten thousand Chinese war-brides of American servicemen allowed to enter the US (between 1945 and 1952). Married to American GIs who fought the Japanese during World War II, they joined the thousands of Chinese after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the late 1940s and 1950s.

Many of the newer Chinese immigrants did open Chinese restaurants serving regional Chinese foods unknown in the US. They quickly became popular and the returning GIs and others had no fear of trying them. They went with their families and friends and found that they loved Chinese foods. They also made some of them at home thanks to books such as those by Helen Brown’s West Coast Cookbook (1952), and Buwei Yang Chao’s How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (1945). These and others had a huge impact on Chinese food consumption.

As more Americans were exposed to better Chinese food, the Chinese dishes in Chinese eateries did improve. The number of Chinese restaurants did increase, too. The Brown book was written by a West Coast American living where half the Chinese population in the US lived then. The Chao book was written by a Chinese lady on the East Coast who spoke little English but her eldest daughter helped with it. Her book received frequent and excellent reviews though few knew it was published by Pearl Buck’s company, an author whose own books were adored. This may have helped as did the explosion of interest in Chinese food and places that served it.

New Chinese immigrants also helped as their American neighbors did see, smell, and savor some of their aromas and cooking. These did impact their local communities, their foods, and culinary exposure. These new immigrants were highly literate, and they used and/or joined Chinese and American organizations to help them advance personally and economically. All together, these did changes their lives and those of work places, their work mates and did help increase consumption of Chinese food in the US. Some Chinese food in the US was Americanized; that also made more people eat their food as did other Chinese cookbooks and their content.

The recipes that follow are typical of both classic and Americanized Chinese food. The first recipe is in a style of the Brown book. The second one is word-for word from the Chow one. Enjoy both, and the picture, one of four, depicting a Chinese wood-cut view of the effects of Chinese food.

Beef and Snow Peas in XO Sauce

2 Tablespoons dried shrimp, simmered for one hour
10 dry scallops, soaked for fifteen minutes in hot water, then simmered for half an hour
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup minced peeled onion
3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and minced
1 small chili pepper, seeds discarded, then minced
2 Tablespoons minced Smithfield ham
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 pound sirloin steak, cut into small cubes
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
3 Tablespoons mushroom soy sauce
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
½ pound snow peas, ends and stings discarded, each cut in half on an angle


1. Dice shrimp and shred the scallops, then mix them together.
2. Heat a wok or fry pan, add both, and stir-fry the onion and the garlic for two minutes, then add the chili pepper and stir fry for half af minute.
3. Next, add ham, black pepper, and the steak cubes and stir fry for two minutes, than add the rice wine, soy sauce, cornstarch, and sugar and stir-fry an additional minute before tossing in the snow peas. Stir-fry this for two minutes; then serve in a pre-heated bowl.

Wine Smothered Meat Slices

2 pounds pork chops, boned
½ cup sherry or 3/4 cup white wine
3 Tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
½ scallion, chopped
2 slices ginger “if available”


Cut meat into ½-inch-long and 1/16-in-thick slices. Mix in the seasoning. Start with low fire and simmer ½ hour. If you are careful to keep lid fairly tight, the flavor will puff out impressively when swerved. With rice and a green, this will serve six. The juice on the rice, yes. Soy sauce on the rice, never!

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