Chop Suey’s Next Wave


For Chinese food, there’s no place in the
United States like Southern California. The breadth and depth of Chinese cooking, from
old-fashioned Chinese-American to the newest regional arrival is astonishing. Chinese food is one of the most beloved cuisines
in the United States. I love it, too, and I’m not alone. According to recent estimates,
there’s roughly 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America: more than the number of McDonald’s,
Burger Kings and KFCs combined. And almost all of them remain independent operations.
So how did Chop Suey, fried rice and Kung Pao chicken become so popular with Western
palates? Our journey begins in L.A.’s Chinatown with UC Irvine professor Yong Chen, who recently
published a book called “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America.” When Chinese immigrants arrived during the
19th century, they worked in California’s gold mines, then helped to build railroads.
They settled in smaller, rural communities that were the first incarnations of Chinatown. So when the first wave of Chinese came… It was the gateway for Chinese-Americans. I call Chinatowns in those days “food towns.”
You know, when immigrants came from China, right. one of the first things they miss about
old days was food. And so that’s why you have so many restaurants, so many grocery
stores. But Chinatown’s appeal wasn’t limited
to the immigrant population; non-Chinese began to appreciate its offerings. And as you can see, looking around, there’s
a deliberate effort to create a very sort of exotic Asian, Oriental appearance. And
the effort was to capture the tourists. So it was built to have restaurants, to have
retail… …to have that. This is very deliberate and
was quite successful for a long time. It really captured their imagination of Americans. Right. The dishes served in Chinatown’s restaurants
catered to many different types of people. In the 19th century, what we call Chinese
food in the U.S., until the 1970s, remained Cantonese for a long time. So basically there
was a lot of seafood: shark’s fins, bird’s nest and a lot of shrimp. Sea cucumber… Sea cucumber, right? Yeah. So those dishes
represented in the minds of the Chinese and American food connoisseurs the sort of fine
tradition of Chinese cuisine. But American diners rejected that and they would say, “Ew
yuck.” But big portion dishes caught the attention of American diners at the end of the 19th
century. But while Chinese food became more ubiquitous,
urban Chinatowns became less significant to their original inhabitants. Chinatown was
relocating to the suburbs. It became a totally different thing there. We’re in Irvine in Class 302 Cafe, a venue
designed to resemble a Taiwanese schoolhouse. It’s part of a chain serving casual Taiwanese
fare. So this is the setting of a classroom. Oh, that’s what these desks are? So the menus are written in the format of
classroom assignments. Then over there, you have the lab. Post-modern Chinatowns were created by Chinese-Americans
over the course of the past couple of decades. These new Chinatowns are located in mostly
affluent areas with good schools, high-tech industries and a population eager to sample
a range of Asian fare: Japanese, Thai, Korean and more. Places like Class 302 reflect the changing
attitudes of the residents of the new Chinatown. Take a look. Having said that you’re going to do this,
maybe I’m gonna to do it. I’m more adventurous than you are. Fish cake? You do whatever you want, sir. Oh, I have to have rice hot dog, because I
have no idea what it is. Taiwanese oyster is very traditional. Ok, Taiwanese oyster, BBQ stinky tofu, rice
hot dog… The spicy basil chicken is very good. Ok. We’ll start with that. We’ll see how
that goes. Ok. In the past, restaurant owners tried very
hard to tailor to the taste of Americans. The intention: ”If you like my food, please,
you’re welcome. But if you don’t, that’s fine,” yeah. But we’re not going to change what we’re
serving… We’re not going to change… …for non-Chinese people. …to make you come, yeah. This is a new concept. This is a new concept. So what’s the next phase of Chinese-American
cuisine? Yong Chen thinks it’s possible that more upscale Chinese restaurants will
emerge. He believes they’ll become successful as entrepreneurs open up establishments aimed
at the fine dining crowd, the one that seems willing to pay more for so-called ethnic food.
And this may help counteract the image of Chinese food as an inexpensive, fast food
for delivery or all-you-can-eat buffets. One thing is for sure: Chinatown will continue
to change. I love stinky tofu. Are you serious? It’s not stinky enough, though. Hahaha!

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