Kung pao chicken, General Tso’s chicken, pad thai, sushi, banh mi, chicken tikka masala — dishes that are rooted in Asia and the Asian diaspora are now firmly a part of America’s multicultural cuisine. But how did that come to be the case?
“Asian American food is as complicated and diverse as Asian American people because the category itself, Asian American, is very broad,” said Robert Ji-Song Ku, associate professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at Binghamton University. “It’s hard to generalize about Asian Americans and how different cuisines become mainstream because they really all had different processes and different developments.”
No story can be told about Asian food in America without acknowledging the influence that Chinese immigrants and their descendants had, not just on Chinese American food, but on American food. Consider the fact that people of Chinese descent currently make up about 1.6% of the American population, yet there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants and most people across demographics in the country have eaten or are familiar with Chinese food, particularly takeout.
The Chinese restaurateurs dressed up their restaurants to look like some sort of theme park that was very Chinese-y, because that's what the audience wanted. They had to perform their exoticness, but at the same time, they couldn't serve food that was too unfamiliar.
Robert Ji-Song Ku, associate professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at Binghamton University
While volumes could be written about how this came to be, the short version is that the Chinese faced intense racism as the first Asian immigrants in the U.S. They were barred from owning businesses or getting jobs after the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. But they were able to own restaurants and laundromats — businesses that Jennifer 8. Lee, a journalist and producer of the documentary “The Search for General Tso,” says were traditionally considered women’s work, and were non-threatening to white men.
What started in ethnic enclaves soon attracted white Americans who wanted to have an “exotic” experience eating out, explained Ku.
“The Chinese restaurateurs dressed up their restaurants to look like some sort of theme park that was very Chinese-y, because that's what the audience wanted. They had to perform their exoticness, but at the same time, they couldn't serve food that was too unfamiliar,” said Ku, author of “Dubious Gastronomy: Eating Asian in the USA.” “So they basically took American-style food — meat, gravy, starch, some vegetables — and they designed a cuisine that was consistent with the American way of eating.”
Additionally, Chinese restaurateurs had to adapt recipes for the ingredients that were available to them in America.
This is what Ku calls “the chop suey tradition” the rise of a distinctly Chinese American cuisine. Chop suey, essentially a vegetable medley with meat, was the first such dish to become an American sensation, and other stir-fry and gravy-based dishes soon followed. Coincidentally, what we now know as the Chinese takeout container was patented in 1894, just in time for the rise of Chinese cuisine (though the iconic red pagoda graphic and “Thank you” script weren’t added until the 1970s.)
In the early 1900s, the first Japanese and Indian restaurants started opening in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
Fueled by a series of events, like the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which opened the doors to many more Asian immigrants and the Vietnam War, which led to waves of refugees from Southeast Asia, the diversity of Asian cultures in America brought with it more types of cuisine. These later waves of immigrants didn’t have to tweak their recipes or make new dishes to suit white Americans the way Chinese immigrants did, as they were mostly feeding their own.
For example, Ku explained, “In the 1970s Koreans established these enclaves and the primary customers of their restaurants were always Korean. There was very little need to tweak the recipes. So American diners caught up to Korean food as opposed to Korean food changing to make it more accessible to Americans.” (That’s also why it took until the 2000s for dishes like Korean bulgogi and Vietnamese pho to become mainstream and eventually hot culinary “trends.”)
Thai restaurants popped up all over the country as Thai students came to study in the U.S. and started opening restaurants. By the 1990s and 2000s, Thai food could be found everywhere in the U.S., thanks to a plan by the Thai government.
“The reason why Thai restaurants are so ubiquitous in America is because the Thai government back in the ‘90s had an economic agenda to open up Thai restaurants around the world as a way to bring money back to Thailand,” said Ku.
Americans’ interest in Chinese cuisine was piqued in 1972 when President Richard Nixon visited China and was seen on TV enjoying Chinese food. “That opened up curiosity for many regarding regional Chinese food,” said Ku. That’s when Chinese restaurants started advertising that they were Hunanese, Sichuan, or Cantonese.
That’s also when Americans started questioning the authenticity of Chinese American dishes — a conversation that still happens today for many ethnic cuisines. But, says Ku and a slew of Asian American chefs, that view is misguided.
“Talking about authenticity becomes very tricky because the kung pao chicken you might pick up at the corner takeout is an authentic American Chinese food,” said Ku. “It may not be found in China, but that doesn't make it somehow not Chinese. There are a lot of examples of Chinese food around the world that you can't find in China, and China itself undergoes so much change that to talk about Chinese food as something that is stable and fixed and has lasted for generations is fiction.”
“There was no headquarters. There were no recipes or blueprint for scaling passed down from headquarters. There was no franchisee model,” said Lucas Sin, chef and owner of New York City’s Nice Day Chinese Takeout who has spent a lot of time studying Chinese food in the diaspora. “These immigrants just figured out what worked and there’s a lot we can learn from an efficiency standpoint, from a culinary technique standpoint, from a temperature and texture preservation standpoint.”
With that context in mind, check out the origin stories behind some of the most popular Asian takeout dishes in America:
This Vietnamese sandwich, a combination of colonial French and Vietnamese traditions, typically features minced meat, pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, and aromatics like lemongrass and garlic. It’s believed to have been invented in the 1950s in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) by restaurant owners Mr. and Mrs. Le, who still run a restaurant there today called Banh Mi Hoa Ma.
This is a classic Korean dish of marinated grilled beef that is thinly sliced and served over rice or in lettuce wraps. The origins of this dish actually date way back to 37 BC, and it was originally cooked using skewers, a preparation called maekjeok. Bulgogi fluctuated in popularity in Korea, gaining a resurgence in the ‘80s and ‘90s and making its way to the U.S. In 2008, the Kogi BBQ truck launched in Los Angeles, creating a bulgogi taco that put a new spotlight on the Korean dish.
Chicken tikka masala
This dish is one of the most well-known Indian takeout dishes, featuring yogurt-marinated chicken in a rich spiced tomato-and-cream sauce. Stories suggest that it was actually invented in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1970s by a Bangladeshi chef (many Indian restaurants both in the U.K. and in the U.S. were actually run by people from Bangladesh). It is believed that the chef added the gravy to the chicken tikka, a traditional North Indian dish that featured just the yogurt-marinated chicken, in order to please a customer who claimed it was dry. Others see it as a variation on a Northern Indian dish called butter chicken. In any case, it’s now Britain’s national dish and wildly popular around the world.
General Tso’s chicken
This popular Chinese takeout dish was actually invented in Taiwan by Peng Chang-kuei, a chef from the Hunan province, in the 1950s. However, the dish that’s served in most Chinese American restaurants today is very different than his original — it’s much sweeter, it’s deep fried and it’s unrecognizable to many people in China. Today, different restaurants all have their own secrets for making it.
“I called no less than 10 chefs who are operating Chinese mom-and-pop restaurants and asked them what goes into the General Tso's and nobody can give me a straight answer,” said Sin, who added his own version to his restaurant’s menu. “Some guy will say, hey, oyster sauce is the most important; someone else will say ketchup; a third person will say maltose. And it seems like there are like 200 ingredients in General Tso’s. Nobody really knows what it is. It's a sweet, sticky, slightly spicy chicken, but everyone has their own approach to it.”
Kung pao chicken
Originally called gong bao, this spicy, saucy chicken stir-fry with peanuts comes from Sichuan province in southern China. There are regional variations, but what’s found in China is very different from the Chinese American version, which is much sweeter and often includes ingredients like orange juice, sugar, and cornstarch, in addition to the chicken, vegetables and chilies.
“Mapo tofu is a regional Sichuan dish that was invented a couple hundred years ago in Chengdu,” explained Sin. “It was originally a beef dish with tofu, garlic and scallions, and finished with Chinese chives and fermented bean paste. One of the versions that's evolved out of this original Sichuan version is a Cantonese American version of mapo tofu. It's not as spicy, it's made out of pork instead of beef, and it’s more braisey — there's a little bit more liquid to it.”
The stir-fried noodle dish with vegetables and protein is found on almost every Thai restaurant menu. It turns out, this dish was introduced by the Thai government in the 1930s under the leadership of Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsonggram. The government launched several measures to modernize the country, and created the dish as a way to improve nutrition and to rally people around a national dish. To make this happen, the government shared the recipe and encouraged street vendors to make and popularize the dish. The catch? Other than the chilies, none of the ingredients were native to Thailand, and in fact the dish is more rooted in Chinese cuisine.
This sweet sauce, used at Japanese restaurants as a marinade on meats and fish, is said to have been created by Japanese immigrants in Hawaii who originally made it by blending pineapple juice and soy sauce. Today, teriyaki sauce is usually made with soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, mirin and sake.