Friday, November 25, 2011

Chinese Food Comes To America

There are several versions of the story of how chop suey originated in America. According to one, some hungry miners in San Francisco were looking for a place to eat late one night. All the restaurants were closed except for a Chinese restaurant where only Chinese ate. At this time few Americans had ever had the courage or foresight to try Chinese food. The miners demanded to be fed, and the chef took what was left over, put it together with sauces and served it. The hungry miners enjoyed the meal so much that they wanted to know what the dish was called. The only name which the 'chef could give the leftovers was "chop suey" which means hash. The miners came back for more and the news spread and soon all Chinese restaurants served chop suey for Americans.

The other story of the origin of chop suey is told about His Excellency Li Hung-Chang, the premier of China who visited this country on a good-will tour in 1896. Many ban­quets and receptions were given in his honour and in order to reciprocate he brought his own chef to entertain his hosts. But the premier being a wise man wasn't sure that his guests would enjoy such Chinese delicacies as bird's nest, shark's fin, bear's paw and others. He therefore had his chef prepare American meats and vegetables in the Chinese man­ner with the appropriate sauces and chopping. He named it "chop suey" because it was a combination of chopped mixed foods.

Once Americans were introduced to Chinese cooking, even though it was only Chinese-style American food in the be­ginning, they kept coming back for more and so created a greater and greater demand for Chinese food. The more ad­venturous Americans went down to the Chinatowns and ate at the restaurants which only the Chinese had patronized. Authentic dishes became popular.

One of the early peaks in the Chinese restaurant business was reached in the early twenties, coinciding with the Mah Jong craze. Two brothers named White had introduced the game with simplified rules to the English-speaking clubs in Shanghai, where it became popular. The game met with such success in America that by 1923 the Chinese makers of Mah Jong sets could no longer keep up with the demand and American manufacture was in full swing. A Mah Jong League of America was formed.

The Roaring Twenties and the age of prohibition brought with it dozens of huge, magnificent Chinese restaurants with dance floors and entertainment. In the larger cities where night-clubbing was prevalent, it became a fad to eat down in Chinatown at some wee hour in the morning after a whole evening of night clubbing. The Chinese-restaurants were among the few open at this time of night. It was a romantic idea to wander through the little streets of Chinatown at some unearthly hour and then sober up with fine Chinese food.

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