Chop Suey’s Next Wave

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For Chinese food, there’s no place in theUnited States like Southern California.

The breadth and depth of Chinese cooking, fromold-fashioned Chinese-American to the newest regional arrival is astonishing.

Chinese food is one of the most beloved cuisinesin 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 Westernpalates? Our journey begins in L.

A.

’s Chinatown with UC Irvine professor Yong Chen, who recentlypublished a book called “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America.

” When Chinese immigrants arrived during the19th 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 aboutold days was food.

And so that’s why you have so many restaurants, so many grocerystores.

But Chinatown’s appeal wasn’t limitedto the immigrant population; non-Chinese began to appreciate its offerings.

And as you can see, looking around, there'sa deliberate effort to create a very sort of exotic Asian, Oriental appearance.

Andthe effort was to capture the tourists.

So it was built to have restaurants, to haveretail.

To have that.

This is very deliberate andwas quite successful for a long time.

It really captured their imagination of Americans.

Right.

The dishes served in Chinatown’s restaurantscatered to many different types of people.

In the 19th century, what we call Chinesefood in the U.

S.

, until the 1970s, remained Cantonese for a long time.

So basically therewas a lot of seafood: shark's fins, bird's nest and a lot of shrimp.

Sea cucumber… Sea cucumber, right? Yeah.

So those dishesrepresented in the minds of the Chinese and American food connoisseurs the sort of finetradition of Chinese cuisine.

But American diners rejected that and they would say, "Ewyuck.

" But big portion dishes caught the attention of American diners at the end of the 19thcentury.

But while Chinese food became more ubiquitous,urban Chinatowns became less significant to their original inhabitants.

Chinatown wasrelocating to the suburbs.

It became a totally different thing there.

We’re in Irvine in Class 302 Cafe, a venuedesigned to resemble a Taiwanese schoolhouse.

It’s part of a chain serving casual Taiwanesefare.

So this is the setting of a classroom.

Oh, that’s what these desks are? So the menus are written in the format ofclassroom assignments.

Then over there, you have the lab.

Post-modern Chinatowns were created by Chinese-Americansover the course of the past couple of decades.

These new Chinatowns are located in mostlyaffluent areas with good schools, high-tech industries and a population eager to samplea range of Asian fare: Japanese, Thai, Korean and more.

Places like Class 302 reflect the changingattitudes 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 Ihave no idea what it is.

Taiwanese oyster is very traditional.

Ok, Taiwanese oyster, BBQ stinky tofu, ricehot dog… The spicy basil chicken is very good.

Ok.

We’ll start with that.

We’ll see howthat goes.

Ok.

In the past, restaurant owners tried veryhard 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’reserving… 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-Americancuisine? Yong Chen thinks it’s possible that more upscale Chinese restaurants willemerge.

He believes they’ll become successful as entrepreneurs open up establishments aimedat 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 foodfor delivery or all-you-can-eat buffets.

One thing is for sure: Chinatown will continueto change.

I love stinky tofu.

Are you serious? It’s not stinky enough, though.

Hahaha!.