Across the Board Culture Food Stories

MOFAD’s ‘Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant’ Showcases the History, Culture, and Ethnic Identity Behind Chinese American Cuisine

The weather was too nice not to go out, I thought on Saturday. But where? Before I realized, I had already winded up in front of the Museum of Food and Drinks (MOFAD) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As I pulled open the door of the museum, the first thing that caught my attention was the floor-to-ceiling Chinese “take-out box curtain” composed of 7,250 boxes. According to MOFAD, “each one represents seven of the nearly 50,000 Chinese American restaurants in the country.” 

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Growing up in Shanghai, where authentic Chinese food is always available at home and at restaurants, I would always hear my parents reminiscing Chinese American cuisine when they told me about their Graduate student life in the U.S. I was dying to know the difference between authentic Chinese food and that of Americanized, and my chance to do so finally came along in 2015. It neither wow-ed me nor disappointed me, however, it did set my impression on Chinese American cuisine – sweet, sour, and cornstarch-y. 

As my interest in food grew in the past few years, I realized a cuisine is not just about taste, but more importantly, it encompasses a specific culture, history and ethnic identity. When I unintentionally found out about “Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant” at MOFAD, I was looking forward to knowing more about the Americanized Chinese cuisine, which is supposedly very different from the kind of food I grew up eating back in Shanghai.

Walking through the “takeout box curtain,” I was presented with the history of Chinese American restaurant that spanned across 170 years. The desire to seek job opportunities along with the promise of the 1849 Gold rush drew the initial Chinese immigration to the U.S. (Wall text, Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, Museum of Food and Drink, New York, NY). However, the shrinking gold supplies in the 1850s forced the Chinese laborers to work for the establishment of transcontinental railroad. Subsequent to the completion of railroad, the lack of job opportunities forced the Chinese population to start their own businesses, such as grocery shops, fisheries, farms and most notably, Chinese American restaurants that would later on significantly impacted the ethnic food scene in America. 

During the 1870s economic downturn, the white community felt threatened by the Chinese laborers, whom the employers could pay less to hire, leading to the government’s decision of implementing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 – the prohibition of Chinese immigration. Even facing the challenge of the Exclusion Act, Chinese entrepreneurs found their way to develop the Chinese American restaurant industry and made it thrive. The number of Chinese restaurants grew tremendously from 1910 to 1930, doubling each year.

Menu Timeline

The dishes served at the early Chinese restaurants were mostly traditional dishes adjusted to cater to the American palate. Dishes such as chop suey and egg foo young were popular among American diners. Even though these dishes had roots in Cantonese cuisine, the ingredients and gravy used would be considered non-authentic in Chinese culture. 

During the Cold War, the U.S. enacted the anti-discrimination laws, opening up career, housing, and education opportunities for all Americans. With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, new immigrants from regions all over China contributed to diversifying Chinese American cuisine. More traditional and authentic Chinese regional dishes were incorporated to the menus, substituting the Chinese American classics. Well-known chefs and restaurateurs, like Johnny Kan, Joyce Chen and Cecilia Chiang, introduced  “a new face of Chinese American cuisine” (Wall text, Chow: Making the Chinese American Restaurant, Museum of Food and Drink, New York, NY). 

The menu timeline in the middle of the gallery was another highlight of the exhibition. The menus traced back to the 1910s, not only presenting the dishes offered at the time, but also demonstrating the gorgeous menu covers and printings. The aesthetics of the menus impressed me the most: the covers were typically water-colorings or illustrations with iconic Chinese elements, and the elegant fonts and colors of the contents were carefully selected to match the style of the cover. Following the menu timeline, we were able to see the development of Chinese American cuisine from mainly serving chop suey and egg foo young to offering various regional, somewhat more authentic Chinese . dishes.

As the exhibition came to an end, the most exciting highlight “the tasting” helped complete my Chinese American culinary tour. Sitting in front of the counter at the KitchenAid Culinary Studio, the chef demonstrated the essential frying skills employed in making sweet and sour chicken in the Chinese American manner, which would result in the extra crispy chicken and prevent it from becoming too soggy in the sauce. Within 5 minutes, I was served with the freshly made sweet and sour fried chicken. Savoring this dish brought back memories about my first time tasting Chinese American food. However, this time, I was tasting it with an entirely different attitude, along with a deeper understanding of the culture and history behind it. 

Essential Cooking Skills in Chinese American Cuisine


Photos: Tiffany Wei 

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