Why were we so confused about authentic Chinese food?

Chop Suey

David Chan on the Menuism blog has an illuminating article on how American Chinese food came to be – and why it took us so long to appreciate diverse and authentic Chinese food. It turns out to be a combination of geographical and political factors. Chinese immigration began with the California gold rush and virtually all the travelers came from one small part of China, the rural districts of Toishan outside of the city formerly known as Canton. Then, due to racial enmity, the United States passed a series of laws that made it illegal for most residents of China to come to the United States between 1882 and 1943. So the representative sampling of Chinese culinary tradition was very small and rural. Further, this was modified by the need to substitute ingredients and alter the food for taste preferences. Presto, we had chop suey, chow mein, moo goo gai pan, won ton soup, and egg foo yung.

For the complete story, check out his article here. And if you’re looking for a good book to explore Chinese cooking, one approach is to research the most popular Chinese cookbooks in the EYB community. It’s easy, just go to the Library, and make certain “Books” is chosen at the top. Then, in the right-hand column under “Only Show,” click under “ethnicity,” then “Asia,” then “Chinese. Now sort by popularity.  You’ll find this list. And the most popular book owned by EYB members? It’s China Moon Cookbook by Barbara Tropp.

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  • lizziewiltshire  on  October 10, 2012

    Interesting article!

    I've got to say though that having lived in Toishan (the current transliteration is Taishan) back in 1998 or thereabouts, the Chinese food that we get in England, which I'm presuming is akin to the American Chinese food, is actually NOTHING like the food that I ate and loved in Taishan. I used to like chinese food in the UK before living in Taishan, but really couldn't eat it when I got back. It took me a long time to just accept that it wasn't chinese food, but something different, and so can sometimes now eat some dishes if I think of it like that! I really miss the food in Taishan though which is really some of the best in the world! Interestingly, the emigration from Taishan to California was still happening then, and I taught lots of people who were going there to join their husband, brother, son, daughter etc, who in turn had gone there to join their relative etc etc.


  • geoff@kupesoftware.com  on  October 14, 2012

    Not only is Americanized Chinese food largely Toishanese in origin, but we're talking early 20th century Toishanese food. Any evolution which occurred in Toishan itself after that date was not reflected in Toishanese-American food.

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