When I need a fast, tasty, weeknight dinner, Chinese food is one of my favorites. As someone who also loves to cook, I started to wonder how Chinese food became so popular in the United States. I was surprised at the enormous amount of history on the topic.
Chinese food is popular in the United States because it is considered one of the most exotic and diverse cuisines in the world. It is often a cheap and fulfilling option that is readily available in most locations.
If you love Chinese food, you may be interested in knowing where it came from and how it is now one of the most popular menus in the world.
The Popularity of Chinese Food
The first large wave of Chinese immigrants came to the San Francisco and Sacramento areas in 1849 during the Gold Rush era. The prospect of getting rich quickly drew between 20,000 and 30,000 immigrants from across the Pacific Ocean.
Since food is a large part of the Chinese culture, they started opening restaurants, grocery stores, and laundry businesses in their communities.
As their communities became larger and more visible in the non-Chinese neighborhoods, these small “Chinatowns” became a big tourist attraction.
By the end of the 19th Century, Chinatowns were attracting wealthy Americans from large cities to experience exotic entertainment and diverse cuisine. Chinese restaurants were usually independently owned and operated. They were the first to offer take-out and delivery.
These migrations helped shape what we now know as American Chinese food.
American Chinese Food Is Not The Same As Chinese Food Found In China:
The original Chinese food style came from the Southern Province of Guangdong and the District of Toison. Most Chinese immigrants came from these Cantonese regions before the government closed the border to China in 1924.
Although American Chinese food was built on the Cantonese style, the Chinese Americans adapted the menu to their Western customer’s taste buds. Being self-taught family chefs, the Chinese could improvise and make whatever the customers requested with whatever ingredients they had on hand.
Some Chinese immigrants worked as servants in people’s homes, where they learned how to prepare American food.
When Asians started migrating from other parts of China in the 1950s and bringing their food styles with them, the American Chinese cuisine was now expanding from the Cantonese derivative to many different regions of the Continent.
Menu items that are native to China, like dumplings made with sour cabbage and pork, Peking duck, Cumin lamb ribs, and mapo tofu, may be found on some high-end American Chinese restaurant menus, but it is highly unlikely they are prepared exactly the same way here as they are in China.
American Chinese Menu Items Not Found In China:
The items on this list probably look familiar because they are on almost every American Chinese menu that we are used to seeing.
- Beef and Broccoli
- Sesame Chicken
- Chop Suey
- General Tso’s Chicken
- Crab Rangoon
- Chicken Teriyaki
- Chinese Chicken Salad
- Moo Shu Pork
- Fortune Cookies
- Sugar Doughnuts
- Wonton Strips
You can find this list and more information here: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/china/articles/11-chinese-foods-you-wont-find-in-china/
Here are some foods that originated in China that were adapted to American tastes:
- Chow Mein
- Spring Rolls
- Fried Rice
- Kung Pao Chicken
- Sweet and Sour Pork
- Peking Duck
- Hot Pot
A lot of these dishes are on American Chinese menus as well. It is worth noting that the major difference is the ingredients used and how they are prepared that make up the major difference between the US and China native meals.
Just as an example, we tend to use too much soy sauce and spices that the Chinese do not use in China. Even their broccoli is different from ours.
Read more about how the dishes are prepared in China here: https://www.chinatravel.com/facts/typical-chinese-food.htm
Chinese Food Menus Vary By State Or Region:
Check out some of the various Chinese food menus by some areas in the U.S. below!
- New York City:
It should come as no surprise that New York City has the highest Chinese American population in the Country. As such, it has the widest variety of available types of Chinese food.
- Los Angeles County:
Being one of the original hubs for Chinese immigration, Los Angeles County is home to an extremely diverse Chinese population. You can find dozens of regional types of Chinese food to sample.
- San Francisco Bay Area:
Many Chinese restaurants in San Francisco have been influenced by California preferences and are known as “California Chinese.” A lot of the staple menu items are still there but there is also a heavily vegan-friendly style to accommodate that market.
Boston is close to New York so Boston’s Chinatowns are similar to that of New York. Boston differs in that they have a high population of Fujianese immigrants, which comes with the Fuzhou cuisine.
Philadelphia also has similarities to New York and Boston. The three cities share some of the same immigrant populations. Philadelphia has a larger Vietnamese style of food.
Hawaii has adopted its own version of Chinese food. Being its own Pacific Island, it has its own culture that differs slightly from the rest of the United States.
Because China is so close to Hawaii, there is a large Chinese influence in the state. There is somewhat of a fusion of different culinary traditions.
For example, they may serve and plate their Hawaiian Chinese differently or use a different language.
Are Chinese Food Places Open on Christmas?
Yes, the majority of Chinese food places will be open on Christmas day. Many Chinese restaurants consider Christmas to be one of their biggest business days of the year and will serve lots of food to those who choose to skip a traditional Christmas dinner.
While those customers will certainly be people who are not celebrating Christmas, many families have adopted Chinese food over the traditional staples for their Christmas dinner as well. Chinese places also cater to those who cannot attend their family’s dinner, often students or young people living away from home.
Jewish Christmas Tradition
At a time when racial discrimination and Anti-Semitism were high, the Chinese people and the Jewish people had some things in common. The Chinese were barred from working due to the racial discrimination, and the Jews were not welcome in nicer restaurants because of Anti-Semitism.
Although the Jewish people do not celebrate Christmas, they still had the day off like the rest of us. Besides the Chinese restaurants, there are not many eateries open on Christmas, or other Christian holidays, where the Jewish people were always welcome.
From the Jewish immigrant’s point of view, eating Chinese was part of becoming American and joining the middle class. As I said earlier, at that time, Chinese restaurants were only for the affluent.
As most of us are opening our gifts from under the tree, thousands of Jewish families will be out eating Chinese food. It is a long-standing tradition that continues to this day. Interestingly enough, there is also a Kosher-style of Chinese Food.
What To Order If You Are Planning A Trip To China
If you are fortunate enough to vacation or work in China someday, maybe it would be interesting to sample some of the popular menu items in native Chinese form.
Braised Pork Balls in Gravy
- Shrimp With Vermicelli and Garlic
- Chow Mein
- Peking Roasted Duck
- Steamed Vermicelli Rolls
- Fried Shrimp With Cashew Nuts
- Sweet and Sour Pork
- Kung Pao Chicken
- Ma Po Tofu
- Spring Rolls
- Yangchow Fried Rice
Even though we may recognize the names of some of the listed items from our American Chinese menus, they will more than likely be prepared differently than what we are familiar with.
Now that we know the history of where American Chinese food came from and how it has been adapted to our Western culture, we understand a little more about why it is so popular in the US.