Chinese Food Essay

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Although I grew up with both Chinese and Vietnamese parents, my life is heavily influenced by Chinese culture and traditions. I always take off my shoes before walking into someone’s home, and I go to every Chinese New Year dinner expecting to eat the traditional Peking duck and roasted pig. I am very fortunate to have grown up in the San Gabriel Valley, which boasts one of the largest arrays of authentic Chinese restaurants in the United States. A variety of places, such as Luscious Dumplings in San Gabriel, or Atlantic Seafood in Monterey Park, are just a few examples of the many restaurants that serve authentic Chinese food. Chinese food is available everywhere, with over 45,000 Chinese restaurants currently operating within the United States—more than all the McDonald’s, KFCs, and Burger Kings combined. Although most of these Chinese restaurants are independently owned, they share similar menus that bear little resemblance to the food available in the San Gabriel Valley. After all, for many Americans, a typical Chinese meal means a plateful of orange chicken, chow-mein from the takeaway down the street, or even dining at P.F. Chang’s. How did a food culture with more than 5,000 named dishes, one of the richest and most diverse food heritages in the world, blend into a homogenous brand of American-Chinese fusion? The choices that immigrant restaurant owners were forced to make to stay in business changed the way Chinese food is made. These changes represent the marginalization of Chinese culture as American societies see Chinese food as convenient and inexpensive, rather than as an appreciation of China’s long and rich culinary traditions, which is crucial to their identity. However, over time, Chinese food has evolved into dishes that incorporate new flavors and techniques that are influential towards the popularity of Chinese cuisine today, and for the future.

Chinese food made its way to America during the first wave of Chinese immigration in the mid-nineteenth century when more than 2.3 million Chinese laborers and skilled workers settled in the Pacific United States, mostly in California. Most of these workers, also known as the Chinese 49ers, came during the Gold Rush era. These Chinese 49ers came to America by way of San Francisco, and nearly all of them were men and from a single province in China, Guangdong. To these laborers, traditional food was “important not only because of its familiar tastes but also because of the memories it carried.” The idea of food “carrying memories,” or acting as a transporter of culture, is a theme that is frequently repeated throughout the history of Chinese immigrants to America. Chinese people insisted on bringing their food to the New World not because they wanted to share their cuisine with the Westerners or adapt it to Western tastes, but because food played a crucial role in defining their community and was a hub connecting many elements of Chinese culture, including aesthetic beauty, family culture, gender roles, and crucially, the ancient system of Chinese medicine.

The long hours worked by many Chinese laborers meant that they would not have the time to cook their food, quickly making restaurants a daily necessity in Chinese communities. Furthermore, there was an imbalance in the gender ratio amongst the immigrant communities who came to the United States. For example, in 1852, only 19 out of 2,954 Chinese people who lived in San Francisco were female, and in Chinese culture, the females had the traditional role of cooking. This meant that very few males had the opportunity to have home cooking as part of their daily lives, so they sought restaurants instead. In cities in California, such as Sacramento and San Francisco, these restaurants became a major representation of the growing Chinese “ethnic economy.” Also important were the numerous Chinese grocery stores, which sold everything from bamboo shoots, conch, Sichuan peppers, and sea cucumbers, all of which were imported directly from China to ensure authentic Chinese cuisine in the New World. In San Francisco in 1856, the “thirty-three Chinese grocery stores, five restaurants, and five meat shops represented almost half of all the businesses in San Francisco’s Chinese community.” The availability of these ingredients allowed for the expansion of authentic restaurants, which often marked the beginnings of a community. Chinese food rapidly attracted a growing non-Chinese population of clientele, which led to the creation of Chinese communities in major cities across the nation by the end of the 19th century.

The growing Chinese population coincided with a growth in people who despised the Chinese laborers and saw them as competition in the job market. The laborers were willing to work for longer hours and cheaper pay. Anti-Chinese violence intensified during the 1870s, destroying many Chinese communities and starting the trend of driving people from smaller settlements into urban centers. For example, in 1880, Chinese communities with at least 100,000 people represented 21.6 percent of Chinese Americans, but in 1940, that same number represented 70 percent. These tensions led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which restricted immigration from China and prevented immigrants already in the United States from becoming citizens. Many Chinese people lost their jobs and moved to the East Coast, where they rebuilt their lives, frequently around the presence of a restaurant and a grocery store. Desperate to make a living, more and more people resorted to running restaurants, which marked the beginning of an expansion of Chinese culture in the United States.

Chinese food during the early 1900s was still largely unpopular in America. Chinese immigrants were continually marginalized by society because they were foreign. Authentic Chinese establishments depended on native Chinese clientele and were offered lavish foods such as shark fin soup and bird’s nests. However, there were differences between the Chinese food that was served in restaurants in Chinese communities and non-Chinese neighborhoods. These other Chinese restaurants served food that appealed to a new type of customer—Americans who were on the “margins of society,” such as African Americans, bohemians, the working class, and immigrants, all dined at Chinese restaurants out of necessity, due to their low cost. A newspaper from the New York Tribune in 1901 discussed Chinese food’s popularity among the less fortunate by noting, “So many, who, while possessed of a small share of this world’s goods, still affect ‘sportiness’ frequent the restaurant for its cheapness and grow to enjoy.” This new urge for the “highly flavored dishes” available in America’s Chinatowns soon led to the creation of popular dishes such as crab rangoons, chop suey, and kung pao chicken, none of which are found in China. The dishes are examples of how “Chinese” cuisine became sweeter, boneless, and more heavily deep-fried.

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Despite many cultural setbacks, the popularity of Chinese food began to rise, hitting a new peak after World War II, when “going for Chinese” became a weekly ritual of people within American communities. After World War II, prejudice against Asians began to decrease, and Chinese immigrants were able to share their culinary foods more freely through restaurants. During this same period, America saw a growth in middle-class and suburban families, who regularly used Chinese restaurants as a source of fast food, that was both affordable and convenient for them. Chefs recognized that to stay in business, appealing to the general American population was the only way to make a living. Among all the dishes that became popular during the mid-1900s, the invention of chop suey, which means “of odds and ends” was a clear representation of an invented Chinese dish. Most people believed that chop suey was China’s national dish, and to them, it was exotic and unique. But in fact, chop suey is just scraps of ingredients tossed together that were created because Chinese chefs knew authentic dishes like chicken feet and pig's ear could not be served to the American population. Since then, Chinese chefs made dishes that consist the sweet and sour elements like the famous kung pao chicken.

Another important time during the 20th century that changed the course of Chinese cuisine was President Nixon’s visit to Beijing, China in 1972. This, in addition to the 1965 immigration reform, which abolished the Immigration Act of 1924 and allowed immigrants to become citizens, drastically increased the Chinese population and caused the restaurant business to grow exponentially. Instead of the Chinese-American foods that people were normally used to, Americans wanted to eat the authentic Chinese delicacies, such as dim sum and Peking duck, that they had seen the President eating on television. The media coverage of Nixon’s visit to Beijing led Americans to emulate his culinary adventures, including popularizing the Chinese famous Peking duck. Peking duck in the United States is seen as an exotic dish that only Chinese people desire to eat. But after the world witnessed Nixon eating Peking Duck for the first time, Chinese restaurants across the nation began serving it and people started expanding their horizons in trying new foods. Michael Tong, the owner of a restaurant called, Shun Lee Palace in Manhattan, New York, used the menu from Nixon’s Beijing visit in his menu. In less than 24 hours after the historic visit, Tong recreated that exact menu in his restaurant and customers poured in. Tong’s restaurant is just one of the many Chinese restaurants that thrived from Nixon’s visit. His visit represented a shift in the perception of what authentic Chinese food means to America.

In the last few decades, Chinese food began to evolve in the United States as people’s taste in the cuisine also began to change. Chinese food in the United States is stimulating new appetites, with more emphasis on taste and preparation to please, and tease the palate. Food connoisseurs are exploring what “authentic” Chinese food means, and whether Chinese food in non-Chinese neighborhoods is authentic. Andrew Coe, in his book, Chop Suey, A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, argues that even in Chinese communities, like Chinatown in Los Angeles, authentic Chinese food is still very difficult to find. This can be said the same for many other Chinese communities across the United States. However, it would be a “historical and gastronomical mistake to deny that American Chinese food has been deeply rooted in China’s long gastronomical tradition.” For example, when looking at chop suey, is widely regarded as a Chinese-American invention by both Chinese and non-Chinese people. But the method of cooking the dish is called chao or “stir-fry,” which is deeply rooted in China.

Chinese culture will always be a crucial part of my identity, defining who I am through its traditions, family, culture, and especially cuisine. Chinese cuisine is unique in itself where each dish is made from an array of spices and ingredients, different cooking techniques, and ways they are presented. Over the years, Chinese cuisine has played a huge role in bringing my family together where we learn to cook together and enjoy delicacies from a culture that we have all come to appreciate. However, my experience with Chinese cuisine and the impact it has on my life is not the same for many people. Most never come to appreciate Chinese food, and this has shown within America through its many years of marginalizing Chinese immigrants. The marginalization of Chinese food does not simply just mean changing cooking styles or using ingredients that make dishes more Westernized, but it cuts deeper into how poorly Chinese people were treated in the past, which forced them to make these drastic changes in their foods. The cultural aspect that food has on the Chinese culture is so much more than how it is made, it delves deeper into which region it derives from and which communities it serves. Taking that aspect away from Chinese immigrants is equivalent to erasing memories of their origin and rooted traditions. However, I do admire how people are developing an appreciation for a new style of Chinese food, whether it is authentic or not.

Chinese restaurants now are trying to redefine Chinese cuisine by implementing new flavors and fusions inspired by their homeland. Tong Chen, a professor from the University of California-Irvine says that “more professionally trained chefs and more affluent and more informed diners in Chinese restaurants' are helping drive the trend. Chinese companies and wealthy individuals from overseas are pouring money into buying properties around the world and developing restaurants and plazas that turn into heavily Chinese-influenced communities. California is known for its authentic, diverse Chinese food because the city is mainly driven by the Chinese immigrant population. In places like Highland Park, the San Gabriel Valley, Arcadia, and Diamond Bar- all of which are Asian-dominant communities, you easily can find restaurants from any of China’s regions. Even in caucasian dominant communities such as Beverly Hills and Hollywood, you do not see a great variety of Asian restaurants, but that is changing as Chinese chefs are aiming to open restaurants that make Chinese food seem fun and appealing to Westerners. Meizhou Dongpo is a famous Chinese restaurant that recently opened in the Westfield Century Mall and when creating the menu, Chef Wang Gang said, “We decided that our rule was picking what Americans would like from our traditional Meizhou Dongpo dishes. That way, they would not sacrifice authenticity in making dishes appealing to Americans.” Soon, dishes like popping fiery Szechuan dumplings became extremely popular, and even though this dish is not served in China, the Chinese aspects are still present in its Szechuan flavors.

Chinese cuisine has always been changing since its introduction in the United States. From authentic food cooked by the Chinese 49ers to the rise of chop suey and egg foo young in the early 1900s, and Peking duck during the 1950s, Chinese food is rapidly evolving, but at the same time, it is growing in popularity. The presence of native foods has always been so prevalent amongst Chinese immigrants as it serves as a reminder of their home.

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Chinese Food Essay. (2024, February 28). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
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