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An Illustrated History of Americanized Chinese Food

Chinese cuisine, like that of any country, consists of a wide variety of available foods turned into dinner with a wide variety of recipe the family cook -or restaurant cook- knows. America has a tendency to adapt and change world cuisines to suit our own tastes. That’s not always a bad thing. As we saw in a recent video, just because a recipe isn’t “authentic” doesn’t mean it isn’t good. So there’s Chinese food and there’s Americanized Chinese food. How did they come to be so different? It was a series of steps over a long period of time.   

The first Chinese restaurants in America served authentic Chinese dishes with modifications borne from necessity. They were known as “chow chow” restaurants, marked by triangular yellow flags and known for their cheap prix-fixe specials and all-you-can-eat dollar menus. The eateries were created by the Chinese for the Chinese, using local ingredients that were available to them. These substitutions occurred mostly in the vegetable department: broccoli for kailan; carrots, peas, and white button mushrooms in place of mustard greens or shiitakes.

The restaurants became a target of ridicule by Westerners who cringed at the thought of eating whole animals, poultry feet, and bird’s nest. Rumors spread that the Chinese were consuming rats and dogs. The restaurants were quickly dismissed as barbaric. The tide eventually shifted. Around the 1880s in New York City, a growing community of bohemian writers and intellectuals began to embrace the exoticism of the food (and readily welcomed chop suey’s 63-cent price tag).

But that’s just part of the story in An Illustrated History of Americanized Chinese Food. Even the fairly short article at First We Feast doesn’t tell the whole story, although it’s a good overview of a long process.

(Image credit: Albert Hsu)

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There's a long, long history of foods getting their start as sustenance for only the very-poor, then becoming popular as those same poor people become more successful yet continue to enjoy the cheap foods:

Potatoes, tomatoes, hot dogs, pizza, chop suey, and so many more.
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