Culture Swap: When Did Chinese Food First Become Popular in America


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Today’s Chinese food, which we all know and love, is a bit different than the version first served many years ago when Chinese immigrants first came to this country. You can actually follow the evolution of Chinese food in the United States dating back to when the first Americans traveled to China in 1784 all the way to the emergence of New York’s Chinatown in the 1880s, when the cuisine initially gained widespread popularity on the east coast. Since then, chefs combining traditional dishes with new culinary inventions have transformed Americanized Chinese food into its own unique cuisine.

Americans began to develop a taste for Chinese cuisine when they started traveling to China in the late 18th century. It was their experience with the ingredients and the different flavors that sparked an interest in how the food was prepared. Americans sharing stories of their travels east also spurred an interest in Chinese culture and etiquette.

Thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States between 1882 and 1943, and this time frame was when Chinese food took off as a trend.

In 19th century, San Francisco — the place where the majority of Chinese immigrants entered the United States — became a hub for Chinese culture. When the immigrants first settled in California, some families opened restaurants to earn extra income since immigrant wages were relatively low. Food at these family-owned restaurants was prepared to suit the tastes of the customers, many of whom were Chinese. However, inexpensive menu items also made America’s earliest Chinese restaurants go-to eateries for cash-strapped 49-ers — Americans who went west in search of gold.

It was in these smaller restaurants where chefs began to develop what’s known today as American Chinese cuisine. The tweaking of traditional flavors and cooking styles was the way chefs adapted to the needs (and the taste buds) of customers which expanded to include more and more Americans over time.

Places like New York saw a spicier version of Szechuan style cuisine take off, which solidified appreciation for the different tastes of China, as immigrants from various regions settled throughout the United States.

Through geographic expansion, fresh flavors and experimental recipes came into the picture and eventually dishes such as chop suey, not found in China, took America by storm.

In the 1960s, dishes such as mushu pork, General Tso’s chicken, and hot-and-sour soup made the list of what quickly became one of America’s top fares. By 1965, cuisine from locations such as Hong Kong and Taiwan appeared on Chinese food menus due to immigrants from these places opening restaurants. President Nixon’s highly publicized, 1972 visit to China seemed to be the tipping point that won over many Americans, as people nationwide embraced the cuisine.

For well over a century, the coming together of historical events and cooking traditions transformed Chinese food into one of America’s most popular and preferred cuisines. The dishes served in restaurants and featured in popular cookbooks represent a rich history and culture tweaked with brilliant culinary adaptations that have made Chinese cuisine an entirely separate style of food — one which is utterly delicious.

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