How American Chinese Food Became Its Own Cuisine

evemilla/E+/Getty Images (takeout container), amtitus/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

Tso Tsung-t’ang (now written as Zuo Zongtang) was a Hunanese military leader during the Qing Dynasty. He led several successful military campaigns, but today most people know him for a chicken dish involving nuggets of fried meat coated in a sweet and spicy sauce.

Though General Tso’s chicken was named after Tso, he didn’t invent it. In fact, when chef Peng Chang-kuei developed an early version of the recipe in Taiwan around 1955, Tso had already been dead for 70 years. Peng named the dish after the war hero because they both hailed from Hunan. It never caught on there, but today, you can find General Tso’s chicken on thousands of menus across North America.

Over the past 150 years, American Chinese food has grown into one of the most popular cuisines in the country. Dishes like egg rolls, chop suey, and beef and broccoli aren’t widely consumed in China, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect. The histories behind the dishes tell the story of the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States, from the Gold Rush to the Chinese Exclusion Act and beyond. Open your takeout containers and break apart your disposable chopsticks—let’s dig into the cuisine of the Chinese diaspora, from the birth of Chinese food in America to a new generation of immigrants who are reevaluating what Chinese food outside of China can be. 

China’s Culinary Diversity

China’s fourth most populous city is Tianjin, a metropolis with about a millennium of history and more people living in it than New York City. The cuisine of Tianjin is renowned in China: There are famous banquet dishes like the “Eight Great Bowls” and humbler-yet-still-beloved snacks like Goubuli Baozi, a type of stuffed steamed bun with a name translating to something like “even dogs will not pay attention to it.” As a port city, seafood plays a prominent part in Tianjin’s food scene. There are also long-standing influences from European cuisine, thanks to a treaty foisted on the region in the aftermath of the Opium Wars more than 150 years ago.

But most people living outside of China have probably never thought about Tianjin cuisine (with the obvious exception of some Chinese immigrants, and a hat tip to the food writer Robert Sietsema, who did profile the growing number of New York restaurants representing Tianjin in this 2018 piece for Eater). It would probably seem strange to an American to lump bagels, barbecue, and lobster rolls into one big “American food” bucket, and yet that’s often how we approach the food of a country with more than four times our population.

Jason Wang, owner and operator of Xi’an Famous Foods—a restaurant chain based in New York that focuses on the food of his family’s original hometown in Northwest China—says that when he and his father built their company, they were faced with the question of how much to adapt the cuisine of Xi’an to suit American palates. Initially, “it was all about feeding fellow immigrants,” he tells Mental Floss. “For my father it was more about his homesickness from our hometown of Xi’an, and just wanting to recreate that experience for himself, and also to share with fellow immigrants like himself. So that was really his motivation, his passion.

“Of course, that passion has changed over the years,” he adds. “Since I joined in 2009, it was more of sharing this food with everyone, because when foodies such as the late Anthony Bourdain went to our restaurant, it really opened everyone’s eyes to this type of food—and that opened our eyes to the possibility of our food being acceptable to people from all walks of life.”

The Origin of General Tso’s Chicken

When we say “Chinese food” here in the west, we’re usually talking about products of Chinese immigrants tailoring their cooking to suit local palates. General Tso’s chicken is the perfect example.

A dish of General Tso's chicken.
General Tso's Chicken. / The Culinary Geek, Flickr // CC by 2.0

The dish’s inventor had been a chef for the Chinese Nationalist government, and he fled to Taiwan with his employers following the Communist revolution in 1949. The original General Tso’s chicken that Peng cooked six years later borrowed heavily from his Hunanese roots. He described the recipe as heavy, sour, hot, and salty—all flavors characteristic of Hunan cuisine. This early General Tso’s wasn’t fried, and it was sometimes served on the bone instead of cut into bite-sized chunks. It bore only a superficial resemblance to the sticky-sweet concoction that’s served in American Chinese restaurants today. 

That version didn’t hit menus until the 1970s. That’s when, according to the most popular story, Chinese-American chef T.T. Wang began serving his take on General Tso’s chicken at the trendy Hunam Restaurant in New York City. His recipe was directly inspired by a visit he took to Peng’s restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan. He wanted to introduce Peng’s famous chicken to the U.S., and he had some ideas for how to make it his own. By frying the meat in batter and drenching it in a sweet, sticky sauce, he was able to adapt the dish to America’s idea of Chinese cuisine.

People loved his Americanized General Tso’s chicken—well, most of them did. One person who was quite irritated by the dish was Peng. He opened his own New York City restaurant in 1973 and wasn’t thrilled to find that diners had already fallen in love with a bastardized version of his specialty. His authentic chicken dish didn’t stand a chance against the sweet and crispy variety in the U.S., and he was forced to adapt his recipe to be closer to Wang’s version. (Some versions of the story, however, have Peng himself taking the initiative and adapting the dish without interference from Wang.)

From the Gold Rush to the Chinese Exclusion Act

General Tso’s chicken has its roots in Hunan, but most American Chinese food originates from a different part of the country. The Guangdong province, formerly known as Canton, is located on China’s southeastern coast. By the mid-19th century, wars and economic crises plaguing the region had pushed many immigrants to search for better lives elsewhere. Thousands of them ended up in California with dreams of striking gold. 

California’s Gold Rush wasn’t as lucrative as those immigrants may have been led to believe, and the situation was made worse by discriminatory taxes and unwelcoming (and, indeed, sometimes violent) locals

Still, many transplants eventually found success as business owners—and opening a restaurant became a fairly common career choice. The majority of Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. were single men who didn’t necessarily know how to cook for themselves. This created a market for Cantonese restaurants that could offer an affordable meal and reminder of home.

Street in San Francisco's Chinatown
Street in San Francisco's Chinatown. / George Rinhart/GettyImages

As the years went on, in the largest Chinese-American communities, like San Francisco’s Chinatown, these establishments served authentic fare that catered exclusively to immigrants. Chinese restaurants in smaller towns didn’t have that luxury and had to find ways to appeal to local tastes as well. They also lacked access to Chinese products and were forced to replace familiar ingredients with whatever was available. This led to American-Chinese food that wasn’t exactly faithful to Cantonese cuisine but still felt novel to American diners. 

The food that best captures this era is probably chop suey. The name comes from the Cantonese tsap sui, which roughly translates to “mixed bits.” Recipes vary, but today the dish is generally a mixture of meat, eggs, bean sprouts, and other vegetables stir-fried in a thick sauce.

Chop suey is the dish that kicked off non-Chinese Americans’ love affair with Chinese food. In the late 19th century, it became the favorite meal of poor white artists living in New York City. New York’s creative types were known to seek out immigrant-run restaurants that were affordable and outside the mainstream.

In the 1880s, a lawyer of reportedly Bohemian tendencies invited journalist Allan Forman to a meal in Chinatown. Forman described the chop suey they ate there as “a toothsome stew, composed of bean sprouts, chicken’s gizzards and livers, calfe’s tripe, dragon fish, dried and imported from China, pork, chicken, and various other ingredients which I was unable to make out.” Forman wrote in his article: “The meal was not only novel, but it was good, and to cap the climax the bill was only sixty-three cents!” Proto-foodies were soon telling everyone they knew about this little-known, 4000-year-old cuisine they had just “discovered.” 

Chinese restaurant owners welcomed the new business. These establishments became trendy places to eat, and chop suey was the hottest dish on the menu. It was so popular that many Chinese-American restaurants at the turn of the 20th century were known as chop suey houses.

Despite the acceptance of Chinese food into the broader culture, racism against Chinese immigrants was still prevalent in America. Ironically, anti-Chinese xenophobia contributed to the Chinese restaurant boom of this period. The U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring Chinese laborers from immigrating to the country and residents from becoming citizens. The law impacted a huge number of Chinese immigrants working as farmers, miners, and railroad and factory workers—all jobs considered laborers. 

There was a loophole, however. Some Chinese business owners were eligible for merchant visas created as part of the Chinese Exclusion Act. This gave them permission to travel to and from China and sponsor employees from their home country [PDF]. In 1915, restaurants became one of the few businesses that qualified Chinese entrepreneurs for merchant visas.

Working in the restaurant industry was suddenly one of the only legal ways to live in the U.S. as a Chinese immigrant while having the freedom to visit home, and the Chinese restaurant industry exploded in America as a result. Between 1910 and 1920, the number of Chinese restaurants in New York City alone quadrupled. The major catch was that restaurants had to be “high grade” to win approval from the Immigration Bureau. Chinese restaurant owners were quick to adapt, transforming their chop suey houses into “chop suey palaces” with gilded moldings and other nods to fine dining. 

The Evolution of American Chinese Food

With the Chinese restaurant boom came the invention of many “Chinese” dishes on American soil. Modern egg rolls likely appeared in New York City restaurants in the 1930s. The American egg roll has a thicker skin and is substantially bigger than Chinese spring rolls.

Beef and broccoli was borne out of resourcefulness. While a stir fry of beef and vegetables would have been right at home on a Cantonese dinner table, it would have looked a little different than what you usually see here in the States. The traditional version of the dish uses gai lan, or Chinese broccoli. The item wasn’t easy to find in the U.S., so chefs swapped it for a different green vegetable that was readily available at local markets. 

Chinese-American kung pao chicken is another product of compromise. The recipe originated in China’s Sichuan province. There, the Sichuan peppercorns in gong bao ji ding give the chicken dish a spicy, mouth-numbing quality known as málà.

Sichuan peppercorns were outlawed in the U.S. from 1968 to 2005 because they were potential carriers of a disease called canker. While not dangerous to humans, it was considered a danger to citrus trees at the time. That meant Chinese-American chefs in the late 20th century had to get creative when adapting gong bao ji ding. Their take on the dish was much less spicy, with bell peppers and a slightly-sweet sauce.

Nixon at Chinese Banquet
Nixon at Chinese Banquet. / Historical/GettyImages

Not long after the peppercorn ban went into effect, Richard Nixon made his historic 1972 visit to China. The trip marked the first time a United States president stepped foot in the People’s Republic of China since the country was founded in 1949, and it sparked a new fascination with Chinese culture in the States. The American public was suddenly interested in trying Chinese cuisine beyond the westernized Cantonese food they knew, and Sichuan fare rose in popularity. This in turn helped make kung pao chicken a Chinese menu mainstay in the U.S., even amongst restaurateurs hailing from different regions of China. 

Modern American Chinese food came from Chinese cooks of different backgrounds borrowing dishes from their competitors and perfecting them. This is how crab rangoon ended up in Chinese restaurants even though the dish wasn’t invented in one. Victor Bergeron conceived the appetizer, consisting of fried wontons stuffed with crab or imitation crab meat and cream cheese, for his American tiki bar chain Trader Vic’s in the 1940s.

Trader Vic’s food and aesthetic emulated the American public’s fairly uninformed idea of Polynesian culture while sharing few similarities with that part of the world. Instead of drawing inspiration from Polynesian cuisine, the chain’s founder invented new cocktails and dishes from scratch that would feel vaguely exotic to his American clientele. Sometimes, it worked: Trader Vic’s was probably the birthplace of now-classic tiki cocktails like the Mai Tai—a mixture of rum, lime, orgeat, orange curaçao, and simple syrup. 

The food offerings diverged from the cocktail menu’s tropical island theme. A Chinese-American barback at Trader Vic’s named Joe Young influenced the restaurant’s cuisine, which is why the food skewed more Chinese than Polynesian.

According to Bergeron’s granddaughter Eve, “Trader” Vic came up with crab rangoon while experimenting with wonton wrappers in the 1940s. Even by the standards of American Chinese food at the time, the recipe stretched any ties it had to Chinese cuisine.

Pieces of crab rangoon on a dish
Crab rangoon. / Joshua Resnick/500px Plus/Getty Images

Even the name betrayed its confused identity. At the time, Rangoon was the name of present-day Yangon in Myanmar—which has nothing to do with China, Polynesia, or cream cheese. Crab Philadelphia would have been a more appropriate title. Despite all this, crab rangoon was a hit with Trader Vic’s customers. The cream cheese and crab dumpling was so popular that it spread beyond the chain and ended up on Chinese restaurant menus across the country, where it remains today.

How much have the intervening years changed the landscape for Chinese food here in the States? As part of a new generation of Chinese-American restaurateurs, Jason Wang has a unique perspective. “I grew up in a small town in Michigan, when I was first there after immigrating to the U.S.,” he says. “There was no black vinegar in the stalls, there was barely soy sauce. There was no lamb, there was no cumin. So you had to get that from the nearest big city.”

Thankfully, a lot has changed. “I’m happy to say things are much more accessible now, things are online now,” he says. “So we’re definitely heading toward the right direction where things are more accessible, people can become more sophisticated with their palates. And being able to enjoy more than just chicken and broccoli.”

The Influence of Chinese Cuisine Around the World

The influence of Chinese cuisine outside of China isn’t limited to the U.S. Ramen, for example, comes from the alkaline lamian noodles that Chinese immigrants brought to the country. It’s believed that Chinese cooks in Japan first had the idea to serve the noodles in a salty broth with pork, fish cake, and nori seaweed in the year 1910.

In India, Kolkata is famous for its Indian Chinese food. Hakka Chinese traders traveled to the city in the late 18th century and brought their cooking with them. Centuries later, India is home to Chinese-inspired dishes like Manchurian, which consists of fried chicken or vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce. India also has Schezwan sauce made from shallots, garlic, and dried chilies instead of Sichuan peppercorns. 

Australia is home to a brand of Chinese food all its own. A major wave of Chinese migrants came to the country in the mid-19th century to work in the cookhouses that serviced the goldfields. This is where the cuisine first changed to suit Anglo-Australian tastes. Today, Chinese restaurants Down Under serve many foods that are nearly unique to the country, including lemon chicken, mango pancakes, and ham and chicken rolls

While these dishes weren’t an “authentic” representation of Chinese food when they first appeared, today they’re surely an authentic part of the story of China and its people.

“Authenticity, for me, is about paying respects to the origins of the food, the culture of the food. It’s not as if everything has to stay exactly the same,” Wang says. “My father and I, we’re different in many ways. We do things differently when operating the business, we think about things differently, we talk differently.

“But there is one thing we agree on: Food is a universal language. Food should be enjoyed by everyone. There should be no barriers when it comes to enjoying food. Our store is authentic to us because we’re an American business serving Chinese food in New York City, so that’s very authentic as well. The word authenticity is about an identity, an homage, and giving honor to that with every dish that you serve.”

This story was adapted from an episode of Food History on YouTube.