According to the Smithsonian Institute “Chinese” food was first made available for sale to the public in San Francisco, when the first recorded Chinese restaurant on United States territory opened in 1849. The first Chinese restaurant was called Macao and Woosung and was founded by Norman Asing, who developed what was the first Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet, for which he charged the princely sum of One Dollar. $1 in 1849 would be the equivalent of $29.41 today.
As with any successful enterprise a number of imitators followed. Asing’s success inspired dozens of other Chinese immigrants to open new restaurants. These new restaurants would soon become known as “chow chows.” One of the legacies of the time was the American invention of a new Chinese dish which got the spur-of-the-moment name of “Chop Suey.” Chop Suey as a dish had its birth in 1850 when a bunch of hungry miners busted their way into a chow-chow late at night and demanded to be fed. The chef just stirred all the table scraps and leftovers he could find into a big mess and served it to the miners, and they loved it. When asked what it was, the chef replied, “Chop Sui” which means “garbage bits” in Cantonese. The dish remained virtually unheard of in China until after World War II. Today it’s advertised as American cuisine and not found in today’s Chinese restaurants.
Another “American invention” of Chinese food was “Chow Mein”. Chow Mein was a mixture of noodles and vegetables and it was probably served to railroad crews in the 1850’s. It has its origin from a Mandarin dialect word meaning “fried noodles.” Still another creation was Egg Foo Yung, which is from a Guangdong word meaning “egg white”. If translated literally Egg Foo Yung means “egg egg white”. Other American creations are Won Ton soup, egg rolls, barbecued spareribs, and sweet-and-sour pork. These were all created in the United States by enterprising Chinese restaurant owners and chefs for American tastes.
And what about fortune cookies? Did these originated in China? Not hardly, fortune cookies were invented in 1916 by George Jung, a Los Angeles noodle maker, who gave them to customers at his Hong Kong Noodle Company to distract them while they waited for their orders. This was another example of the uniqueness of the Chinese cuisine. Who was to say that this was not an imported part of the Chinese eating experience?
Over the next three decades, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrated to the United States. In 1882 the United States Congress put restrictions on Chinese immigration, but by then there were more than 300,000 Chinese nationals living on the West Coast. And, most of those came from the Kwangtung Province, whose capital city was Canton. So most Chinese restaurants carried Cantonese-style food. In Cantonese cuisine, very little goes to waste. As one historian said, with Cantonese preparations “Nearly every part of an animal that can be eaten is used in one dish or another.”
In the early days, at the beginning of the 1900’s, across the U.S., eating Chinese food was considered adventurous eating for most white Americans. John Mariani, in his book America Eats Out, said “Going out for Chinese was considered adventurous eating for most white Americans at the turn of the century.” Before long, however, Chinese cooks learned how to modify their dishes to make them more palatable to a wider American audience. The result was “Chinese-American” styled cuisine. This Chinese-American food looked and tasted “Chinese” but was actually invented in the United States and was unknown in China.
By the 1920’s Chinese restaurants could be found across most of the United States and up until the 1970’s, Chinese-American cuisine remained almost exclusively “Cantonese” style Chinese restaurants. We can thank the 37th president of the United States, Richard Nixon, for Szechuan or Hunan style Chinese cooking. President Nixon is credited with opening the People’s Republic of China to the West in the 70’s, and with this new openness came “new” Chinese cuisine.
Today, Chinese Americans make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, but roughly one-third of all ethnic restaurants in the United States are “Chinese Restaurants”, and every supermarket carries a line of “Chinese” food. There are currently over 45,000 Chinese-American restaurants in North America alone. Nearly every small town has at least one “Chinese” restaurant.
The Chinese American Restaurant Association (CA-RA) is proud to represent our members in all we do. Everyone at CA-RA sincerely hopes that our presence and the combined voice and collective power of our members will make the years to come the best and most profitable for our members as they work individually to provide the best food and service possible.