The Sweet and Sour Origins of


: : One of the many missions of the Montreal Tiki Appreciation Society is to seek out faux-Polynesian fare and we’re proud to say that we’ve done pretty good so far. Well, I admit that’s only because authentic Polynesian food does not really exist in North America. Every time we visit a Polynesian restaurant, we have come to expect the standard Chinese buffet. Some claim to carry authentic Polynesian specialties but these always turn out to be re-named Chinese food with water chestnuts fired-in to make things a little different. So far, the only significantly different Polynesian dish I’ve seen is the flaming Pu-Pu Platter, and no, I’m not referring to that classic Halloween prank. : :

: : In fact, not even Chinese food itself, as it’s served in North America, is authentic. The recipes used to prepare food in Chinese restaurants do not actually come from China; instead, they are pure Chinese-American inventions. In order to de-mystify this phenomenon, the following is a short and sweet account of the history of Chinese food in North America. : :

: : The Gold Rush of 1849 was responsible for Chinese food as we know it today. ‘Forty-Niners’ by the thousands rushed to California in search of gold, and in order to supply their needs, whole boomtowns were created, including a little tent city called San Francisco. Chinese immigrants also traveled west due to the demand for railroad workers and to fill associated jobs in the service sector. Norman Asing was one such merchant of Chinese-American background who set up shop in San Francisco. One historian described him as a “cadaverous but keen old fellow” with a long ponytail and stovepipe hat. He opened a restaurant offering an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet for which he only charged $1. The restaurant was called ‘The Macao and Woosung’. This first Chinese restaurant in the US was a hit with miners and other San Franciscans. The successful enterprise inspired many other Chinese immigrants to open restaurants, then known as ‘chow chows.’ : :

: : Hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrated to the United States in the following decades. The majority of these people came from the Kwangtung Province, whose capital city was Canton, resulting in American Chinese restaurants serving Cantonese-style food. : :

: : John Mariani, in his book ‘America Eats Out’, says “Going out for Chinese was considered adventurous eating for most white Americans at the turn of the century.” Every part of an animal that could be eaten was used in one dish or other, from giblets to gizzards, to the vast assortment of various innards. “Before long, however,” Mariani writes, “Chinese cooks learned how to modify their dishes to make them more palatable to a wider American audience.” The result was Chinese-American cuisine, food that looked and tasted Chinese but was actually invented in the US and was unknown in China. : :

: : Chop Suey, for example, got its start in 1850 when a bunch of hungry miners busted their way into a chow-chow late at night and demanded to be fed. The chef just stirred all the table scraps and leftovers he could find into a big mess and served it. The miners loved it. When asked what it was, the chef replied, “chop sui” which means “garbage bits” in Cantonese. The dish remained virtually unheard of in China until after World War II; today, it’s advertised as American cuisine! : :

: : It is important to note that most of these Chinese men went west to work on the railroads temporarily and that most did not necessarily know how to cook in the pre-feminist days. As a result, downright culinary mistakes would easily be committed. Fried rice, for example, was never supposed to be brown (and still isn’t in China today). : :

: : Chow Mein was a mixture of noodles and vegetables, probably served to railroad crews in the 1850’s, and stems from a Mandarin dialect word meaning “fried noodles.” Egg Foo Yung is from a Guangdong word meaning “egg white” (translated literally Egg Foo Yung means “egg egg white”). Likewise, Won Ton soup, egg rolls, barbecued spareribs, and sweet-and-sour pork were all concocted to whet American appetites. : :

: : Fortune cookies were invented in 1916 by George Jung, a Los Angeles noodlemaker, who gave them to customers at his Hong Kong Noodle Company to distract them while they waited for their orders. : :

: : By the 1920’s, Chinese restaurants dotted the American landscape, and up until the 1970’s, Chinese-American cuisine remained almost exclusively ‘Cantonese-style’. If you’re a fan of Szechuan or Hunan style cooking, thank Richard Nixon. He opened the People’s Republic of China to the West in the 70’s, and with this new openness came ‘new’ Chinese cuisine. And what about true Polynesian cuisine? Well, I’ll let you know when I get back from the islands of the South Pacific one day. : :

Fred “Dag-Tiki” Sarli © 2000

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