This week, SAPL is extremely excited to feature UCI Professor Yong Chen, who is the star of an upcoming episode of “California Matters with Mark Bittman” on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 (CA Food Matters). Professor Chen is the author of “Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America,” which details the rise of Chinese food as a classic American story of immigrant entrepreneurship and perseverance.
In “Chop Suey’s Next Wave,” we learn a great deal about the storied history of urban “food towns” like those in Los Angeles, Westminster, San Francisco, Houston, and New York. While strolling through Los Angeles, Yong talks about everything from the past century of Asian food in America, including the current wave of Chinese cuisine. It’s a must watch if you want to learn about #10 Boba, stinky tofu (coming soon), and all of those colorful Taiwanese cafés out there!
It’s also very encouraging to see more Asian representation in the media– with John Cho’s #Selfie and ABC’s hit series “Fresh off the Boat” leading the way. For example, Louis Huang (played by Randall Park) runs a texas-style restaurant called Cattleman’s Ranch. In search of the “American Dream,” FOTB’s satirical and sometimes gut-wrenchingly true(ish) accounts got us thinking about why for over 150 years, Asians have been opening and managing their own restaurants. We asked Professor Chen for his views about the almost 40,000 Chinese restaurants in America– outnumbering McDonald’s, KFC, and Burger King combined! Without further adieu:
1. When did the first Chinese restaurants open in the United States?
At the end of the 1840s. In 1849 there were three of them in San Francisco.
2. Who ran these restaurants? Where were they located? How were they funded?
Chinese owners ran these establishments. They were in San Francisco, and were clearly funded by the Chinese owners themselves.
Fires. Some establishments were damaged in fires. Racism was another difficulty that the restaurants faced. Initially, they were also frequented by non-Chinese customers but soon the non-Chinese clientele disappeared as anti-Chinese sentiments intensified.
4. What are some trials and tribulations they have today?
How to climb up in the gastronomical hierarchy of America. For the most part, Chinese food has remained at the lower end of that hierarchy for more than a century. Many restaurants have relied on the hard work of family members, relatives and friends.
5. Are restaurants a lucrative endeavor? What are immigrant populations’ motivations for opening restaurants?
Some owners made money. But that was often the result of a lot of sacrifice and hard work. For Chinese restaurants to become a lucrative business, they must turn Chinese food into a fine dining cuisine. Many immigrants, Chinese and non-Chinese, have chosen to open a small restaurant as a way to make a living because the threshold to do so is generally not very high in terms of money, skills, and education.
6. Is Chinese food in America authentic?
This depends on who you ask and where you are. People from China, especially visitors or newcomers, would say that the food they found in restaurants located in non-Chinese neighborhoods is not authentic. Longstanding non-Chinese diners in old-style Chinese restaurants located in non-Chinese communities, however, would find the food in China not matching their idea of authentic Chinese food. Increasingly in recent years, restaurants in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China have opened branches in the United States, offering fabulous Chinese food.
What are some examples of real authentic Chinese food you would like to see in a restaurant?
Local foods from different regions of China; a growing number of them are not found in Chinese communities across the country, from Flushing, New York to Monterey Park in California. I would love to see more local foods from gastronomically less famous regions become available in America’s Chinese restaurants such as reganmian or hot-dry-noodles and doupi, namely, a pan cake made with a variety of stuffings wrapped in pan-fried tofu skins.
7. What are your favorite Chinese Dishes? What are your favorite non-Chinese dishes?
There are many of them in both categories. Among the the countless Chinese dishes that I love are as follows:
1. a famous dish from Fujian Province called “buddha jumps over the wall”, which is made with fowl and over ten best kinds of seafood such as abalone in a broth contained in earthen jar.
2. American diners are familiar with Cantonese and Sichuan (Szechuan) cuisine. Although it is relatively less known in America, Huaiyang is one of the oldest and finest regional cuisines of China , known for the exquisite craftsmanship in preparation and delicate and artful combination of ingredients. Even simple fried dishes can be an unforgettable experience. Lovers of Chinese ought to visit the city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province, the birth of Huaiyang cuisine.
3. Among the many non-Chinese dishes, I love paella, jambalaya, and bibimbap kaiseki is not a singular dish but a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. Such a dinner prepared by a fine chef can be a trip to gastronomical paradise.
8. What do you see as the next frontier for Chinese entrepreneurs?
There are frontiers:
- First: Bold fusion, artistic presentation, and impeccable service.
- Second, streamline and simplify the food on the menu, and franchise.
We would like to thank Professor Chen for taking the time to answer our 8 questions (Check out #88 Numbers (8-8-08) if you don’t know why we chose this number). It’s very important to learn about the past to understand and predict the future.
Yong Chen is a history professor in UC Irvine’s school of humanities. His research interests include food, Asian-American history, immigration History, and China-U.S. economic and cultural interactions.
For More Information about CA Food Matters:
- New episodes of our web series “California Matters with Mark Bittman” launch on KCET.org/CAFoodMatters every other Tuesday
- The ten part web series will culminate in a television broadcast special airing on KCET in Southern California this fall.
-Series Summary: “California Matters with Mark Bittman” is an online series that explores the world of food, sustainable agriculture, policy and health through the lens of the University of California.
-Mark Bittman Bio: Cookbook author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has come west to explore California and the food that’s grown and made here. In this 10-part series he’ll visit oyster farms in Northern California, Chinese restaurants in Southern California, and farmers in the Central Valley, stopping at points in between to talk to urban foragers and kids eating school lunches, among others.
-To learn more, please visit kcet.org/CAFoodMatters. Join the conversation on social media using #CAMatters
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