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Who was General Tso? When did America become obsessed with Chinese takeout? And what's the difference between Chinese food in America and Chinese food in... China?

With unique insight from CEO of Xi'an Famous Foods, Jason Wang. Seriously, if you're in New York you have to try it, the food is unreal.

Food History is a show all about... well, the history of food. Join host Justin Dodd as he brings you the stories of how your favorite meals ended up on your plate. Today, we're talking about Americanized Chinese cuisine, from General Tso to crab rangoon.

Special thanks to Jason Wang and Xi'an Famous Foods.

To read Robert Sietsema's Tianjin cuisine article, click here:


Zuo Zongtang was a Hunanese military leader  during the Qing Dynasty.

He led several successful military campaigns, but today most people  know him for a chicken dish involving nuggets of fried meat coated in a sweet and spicy sauce. Though General Tso’s chicken was named after Tso, he didn’t invent it.

In fact, when chef  Peng Chang-kuei developed an early version of the recipe in Taiwan around 1955, Tso had  already been dead for 70 years. Peng named the dish after the war hero because they both  hailed from Hunan. It never caught on there, but today you can find General Tso’s chicken  on thousands of menus across North America.

Why are so many “Chinese food” dishes more at  home in strip malls abroad than they are in China? What does “Chinese food” even mean for a  country so vast and culinarily diverse? Open your takeout containers and break  apart your disposable chopsticks: Today, we’re digging into the cuisine of the Chinese  diaspora, from the birth of Chinese Food in America to a new generation of immigrants who  are reevaluating what Chinese food outside of China can be.

Hi, I’m Justin Dodd. Welcome to Food History. Do  you know what the 4th most populous city in China is?

It’s got about a millennium of history and  more people living in it than New York City, so you might think it’d be common knowledge. The answer is Tianjin, but don’t feel too bad if that didn’t immediately  spring to mind—I had to look it up.   (Or maybe we should both feel  bad. Or just buy an almanac.) The cuisine of Tianjin is renowned in China.

It  boasts of famous banquet dishes like the “Eight Great Bowls'' and humbler-yet-still-beloved snacks  like Goubuli Baozi, a type of stuffed steamed bun with a name translating to something like  “even dogs will not pay attention to it.” As a port city, seafood plays a prominent part in  Tianjin’s food scene. There are also long-standing influences from European cuisine, thanks to a  treaty foisted on the region in the aftermath of the Opium Wars more than 150 years ago. I’ll venture a guess that most people living outside of China have never thought about  Tianjin cuisine (with the obvious exception of some Chinese immigrants, and a hat tip to the food  writer Robert Sietsma, who did profile the growing number of New York restaurants representing  Tianjin in a piece that we’ve linked to below).

It would probably seem strange  to an American to lump bagels, barbecue, and lobster rolls into  one big “American food” bucket, and yet that’s often how we approach the food of a  country with more than four times our population. Jason Wang is the owner and operator of Xian  Famous Foods, a restaurant chain based in New York that focuses on the food of his family’s original  hometown in Northwest China. In building their company, Jason and his father were faced with the  question of how much to adapt the cuisine of Xian to suit American palates.

Originally, when the restaurant was founded, it was all about feeding fellow immigrants. It wasn't about feeding everyone, even though anyone is welcome to eat, but for my father it was more about his homesickness from our hometown of Xi'an, and just wanting to recreate that experience for himself, and also to share with fellow immigrants like himself. So that's really his motivation, his passion.

Of course that passion has changed over the years, since I joined in 2009 it was more of sharing this food with everyone, because when foodies such as the late Anthony Bourdain went to our restaurant, it really opened everyone's eyes to this type of food. And that opened our eyes to the possibility of our food being acceptable to people from all walks of life. When we say “Chinese food” here in the west,  we’re usually talking about products of Chinese immigrants tailoring their cooking to suit  local palates.

General Tso’s chicken is the perfect example. The dish’s inventor had been  a chef for the Chinese Nationalist government, and he fled to Taiwan with his employers following  the Communist revolution in 1949. The original General Tso’s chicken Peng cooked six years  later borrowed heavily from his Hunanese roots.

He described the recipe as heavy, sour, hot, and  salty—all flavors characteristic of Hunan cuisine. This early General Tso’s wasn’t fried, and it  was sometimes served on the bone instead of cut into bite-sized chunks. It bore only a superficial  resemblance to the sticky-sweet concoction that’s served in American Chinese restaurants today.

That version didn’t hit menus until the 1970s. That’s when, according to the most popular story,  Chinese-American chef Tsung Ting Wang (sung ting wang) began serving his take on General Tso’s  chicken at the trendy Hunan Restaurant in New York City. His recipe was directly inspired by a visit  he took to Peng’s restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan.

He wanted to introduce Peng’s famous chicken to the  U. S., and he had some ideas for how to make it his own. By frying the meat in batter and drenching it  in a sweet, sticky sauce, he was able to adapt the dish to America’s idea of Chinese cuisine.

People loved his Americanized General Tso’s chicken—well, most of them did. One person  who was quite irritated by the dish was Peng. He opened his own New York City restaurant  in 1973 and wasn't thrilled to find that diners had already fallen in love with a bastardized  version of his specialty.

His authentic chicken dish didn’t stand a chance against the sweet and  crispy variety in the U. S., and he was forced to adapt his recipe to be closer to Wang’s version.  (Though I will point out that some versions of the story have Peng himself taking the initiative and  adapting the dish without interference from Wang.) General Tso’s chicken has its roots in  Hunan, but most American Chinese food originates from a different part of  the country. The Guangdong province, formerly known as Canton (can-ton), is located  on China’s southeastern coast.

By the mid-19th century, wars and economic crises plaguing the  region had pushed many immigrants to search for better lives elsewhere. Thousands of them ended  up in California with dreams of striking gold. California’s Gold Rush wasn’t as lucrative as  those immigrants may have been led to believe, and the situation was made worse by  discriminatory taxes and unwelcoming (and, indeed, sometimes violent) locals.

Still, many transplants eventually found success as business owners. Opening a restaurant  became a fairly common career choice. The majority of Chinese immigrants who came to  the U.

S. were single men who didn’t necessarily know how to cook for themselves. This created a  market for Cantonese restaurants that could offer an affordable meal and reminder of home. As the years went on, in the largest Chinese-American communities, like San Francisco’s  Chinatown, these establishments served authentic fare that catered exclusively to immigrants.

Chinese restaurants in smaller towns didn’t have that luxury and had to find ways to  appeal to local tastes as well. They also lacked access to Chinese products and were forced  to replace familiar ingredients with whatever was available. This led to American-Chinese food that  wasn’t exactly faithful to Cantonese cuisine but still felt novel to American diners.

The food that best captures this era is probably chop suey. The name comes from the  Cantonese tsap sui, which roughly translates to   “mixed bits.” Recipes vary, but today the dish is  generally a mixture of meat, eggs, bean sprouts, and other vegetables stir-fried in a thick sauce. Chop suey is the dish that kicked off non-Chinese Americans’ love affair with Chinese food.

In  the late 19th century, it became the favorite meal of poor white artists living in New York  City. New York's creative types were known to seek out immigrant-run restaurants that  were affordable and outside the mainstream. In the 1880s, a lawyer of reportedly Bohemian  tendencies invited journalist Allan Forman to a meal in Chinatown.

Forman described the  chop suey they ate there as “a toothsome stew, composed of bean sprouts, chicken’s gizzards  and livers, calf's tripe, dragonfish, dried and imported from China, pork, chicken, and various  other ingredients which I was unable to make out.” Forman wrote in his article: “The meal was  not only novel, but it was good, and to cap the climax the bill was only sixty-three cents!”  Proto-foodies were soon telling everyone they knew about this little-known, 4000-year-old  cuisine they had just “discovered.” Chinese restaurant owners welcomed the new  business. These establishments became trendy places to eat and chop suey was the hottest  dish on the menu. It was so popular that many Chinese-American restaurants at the turn of the  20th century were known as chop suey houses.

Despite the acceptance of Chinese  food into the broader culture, racism against Chinese immigrants was still  prevalent in America. Ironically, anti-Chinese xenophobia contributed to the Chinese restaurant  boom of this period. The U.

S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring Chinese  laborers from immigrating to the country and residents from becoming citizens. The law  impacted a huge number of Chinese immigrants working as farmers, miners, and railroad and  factory workers—all jobs considered laborers. There was a loophole, however.

Some Chinese  business owners were eligible for merchant visas created as part of the Chinese Exclusion  Act. This gave them permission to travel to and from China and sponsor employees from their  home country. In 1915, restaurants became one of the few businesses that qualified  Chinese entrepreneurs for merchant visas.

Working in the restaurant industry was suddenly  one of the only legal ways to live in the U. S. as a Chinese immigrant while having the freedom to  visit home, and the Chinese restaurant industry exploded in America as a result. Between 1910  and 1920, the number of Chinese restaurants in New York City quadrupled.

The major catch was that  restaurants had to be "high grade" to win approval from the Immigration Bureau. Chinese restaurant  owners were quick to adapt, transforming their chop suey houses into "chop suey palaces" with  gilded moldings and other nods to fine dining. With the Chinese restaurant boom came the  invention of many “Chinese” dishes on American soil.

Modern egg rolls likely appeared in  New York City restaurants in the 1930s. The American egg roll has a thicker skin and is  substantially bigger than Chinese spring rolls. Beef and broccoli was borne out of  resourcefulness.

While a stir fry of beef and vegetables would've been right at  home on a Cantonese dinner table, it would've looked a little different than what you usually  see here in the States. The traditional version of the dish uses gai lan or Chinese broccoli. The item wasn’t easy to find in the U.

S., so chefs swapped it for a different green vegetable  that was readily available at local markets. Chinese-American kung pao chicken  is another product of compromise. The recipe originates in China’s Sichuan  province.

There, the Sichuan peppercorns in gong bao ji ding give the chicken dish a  spicy, mouth-numbing quality known as málà. Sichuan peppercorns were outlawed in the U. S.  from 1968 to 2005 because they were potential carriers of a disease called canker.

While  not dangerous to humans, it was considered a danger to citrus trees at the time. That meant  Chinese-American chefs in the late 20th century had to get creative when adapting gong bao ji  ding. Their take on the dish was much less spicy, with bell peppers and a slightly-sweet sauce.

Not long after the peppercorn ban went into effect, Richard Nixon made his historic 1972 visit  to China. The trip marked the first time a United States president stepped foot in the People's  Republic of China since the country was founded in 1949, and it sparked a new fascination with  Chinese culture in the States. The American public was suddenly interested in trying Chinese cuisine  beyond the Westernized Cantonese food they knew, and Sichuan fare rose in popularity.

This in  turn helped make kung pao chicken a Chinese menu mainstay in the U. S., even amongst restaurateurs  hailing from different regions of China. Modern American Chinese food came from Chinese  cooks of different backgrounds borrowing dishes from their competitors and perfecting them.

This is how crab rangoon ended up in Chinese restaurants even though the dish wasn't invented  in one. Victor Bergeron conceived the appetizer, consisting of fried wontons stuffed with  crab or imitation crab meat and cream cheese, for his American tiki bar chain  Trader Vic’s in the 1940s. Trader Vic’s food and aesthetic emulated the  American public’s fairly uninformed idea of Polynesian culture while sharing few similarities  with that part of the world.

Instead of drawing inspiration from Polynesian cuisine, the chain’s  founder invented new cocktails and dishes from scratch that would feel vaguely exotic to his  American clientele. Sometimes, it worked: Trader Vic's was probably the birthplace of now-classic  tiki cocktails like the Mai Tai—a mixture of rum, lime, orgeat,, orange curaçao, and simple syrup. The food offerings diverged from the cocktail menu's tropical island theme.

A Chinese-American  barback at Trader Vic’s named Joe Young influenced the restaurant's cuisine, which is why  the food skewed more Chinese than Polynesian. According to Victor Bergeron’s granddaughter  Eve, “Trader” Vic came up with crab rangoon while experimenting with wonton wrappers  in the 1940s. Even by the standards of American Chinese food at the time, the recipe  stretched any ties it had to Chinese cuisine.

Even the name betrayed its confused identity. At the time, Rangoon was the name of present-day Yangon in Myanmar—which has nothing to do  with China, Polynesia, or cream cheese. Crab Philadelphia would have been a more appropriate  title.

Despite all this, crab rangoon was a hit with Trader Vic’s customers. The cream cheese and  crab dumpling was so popular that it spread beyond the chain and ended up on Chinese restaurant  menus across the country, where it remains today. How much have the intervening years changed  the landscape for Chinese food here in the States?

As part of a new generation  of Chinese-American restaurateurs, Jason Wang has a unique perspective: I grew up in a small town in Michigan, when I was first there after immigrating to the US, there was no black vinegar in the stalls, there was barely soy sauce. There's no lamb, there's no cumin. So you had to get that from the nearest big city.

But I'm happy to say things are much more accessible now, things are online now. So we're definitely heading toward the right direction where things are more accessible, people can become more sophisticated with their palettes. And being able to enjoy more than just chicken and broccoli.

The influence of Chinese cuisine outside  of China isn’t limited to the U. S. As I covered  in our episode on ramen, the noodle soup comes from the alkaline lamian noodles that Chinese  immigrants brought to the country.

It’s believed that Chinese cooks in Japan first had the idea  to serve the noodles in a salty broth with pork, fish cake, and nori seaweed in the year 1910. In India, Kolkata is famous for its Indian Chinese food. Hakka Chinese traders traveled to  the city in the late 18th century and brought their cooking with them.

Centuries later, India is  home to Chinese-inspired dishes like Manchurian, which consists of fried chicken or vegetables in  a sweet and sour sauce. India also has Schezwan sauce made from shallots, garlic, and dried  chilies instead of Sichuan peppercorns. Australia is home to a brand of Chinese food  all its own.

A major wave of Chinese migrants came to the country in the mid-19th century  to work in the cookhouses that serviced the goldfields. This is where the cuisine first  changed to suit Anglo-Australian tastes. Today, Chinese restaurants down under  serve many foods that are nearly unique to the country, including lemon chicken,  mango pancakes, and ham and chicken rolls.

Maybe these dishes weren’t an “authentic”  representation of Chinese food when they first appeared. But surely they’re an authentic part of  the story of China and its people. I’ll give the last word to

Jason: There's nothing wrong with a little beef and broccoli, General Tso's chicken, shrimp with lobster sauce every now and then. There's always a place for Americanized Chinese food. But for our food from Xi'an, we have these strong flavors, we use a lot of different spices that people don't think are usually in Chinese Food, like cumin, cardamom. It's really different than what people expect.

Authenticity for me is about paying respects to the origins of the food, the culture of the food. It's not as if everything has to stay exactly the same. My father and I, we're different in many ways.

We do things differently when operating the business, we think about things differently, we talk differently. But there is one thing we agree on, food is a universal language. Food should be enjoyed by everyone.

There should be no barriers when it comes to enjoying food. Our store is authentic to us because we're an American business serving Chinese food in New York city, so that's very authentic as well. So the word authenticity, it's about an identity, an homage, and giving honor to that with every dish that you serve.