In contemporary America, Chinese cuisine has become an important component of the food culture. Since its first introduction in 1849, Chinese restaurants in America have thrived, transformed, and adapted, forming a distinct culinary style which is vastly different from its origin. Now, Chinese restaurants in America typically represent a much broader variety of regional cuisines than before and offers a much wider range of options for eaters.
Along with its evolution, the history of Chinese food in America has also faded and are rarely mentioned. The look, taste, and style of the very first Chinese food in America are now a mystery for most people, even for many current Chinese restaurant owners. Nevertheless, this article will guide you back to the past and uncover the starting point and the path of Chinese food in America.
In 1848, California, an abundant gold reserve was found at Sutter’s Mill. This breaking discovery immediately drove a huge number of opportunists and gold-seekers to rush to California in seek of quick money. At the same time, on the other side of the globe, merchants in Canton, China, also saw this lucrative opportunity. In 1849, a group of courageous Cantonese merchants sailed to San Francisco, marking the start of Chinese immigration to America. Equipped with abundant business experience, this group of merchants quickly found their own ways of generating profits as traders, grocers, herbalists, warehouse owners, and restaurant operators.
Among all these occupations, restaurant operator was the most popular one. A number of Chinese restaurants were quickly built and assumed the role of providing tasty Chinese food to gold miners for very low charge. As a result of the owners’ diligent work, Chinese restaurants soon became a popular dining option in California.
The success of the first group of immigrants motivated more and more Chinese citizens to move to America. Supported and backed by the pioneers, waves of Chinese workers immigrated to America, seeking a new life. Most of them engaged in mining, while a few of them worked as agricultural laborers. As more and more people of different social classes immigrated to America from China, they spread to different regions and explored new business opportunities. The upsurge of immigration to America brought two profound impacts to Chinese restaurants. First, the cooking style became more diverse. While Cantonese cuisine remained the most prevalent culinary style, Sichuan, Hunan, and Peking cuisines began to emerge in metropolitan cities. Second, by the end of the 19th century, Chinese restaurants had entered many small cities and towns, serving a more local community.
In the 19th century, the most popular Chinese dining places were the small, cheap Chop Suey houses. Chop Suey, a combination of cheap meat and vegetables, was the most recognizable symbol of Chinese restaurants at that time. For miners and workers at that time, a plate of warm, delicious, and cheap Chop Suey was a delight in their day.
Due to the prevalence of Chop Suey houses in America, Chinese restaurant was perceived as a cheap dining option. Despite many Chinese restaurants provided good service, their status remained unmatched with their quality. However, moving into the 20th century, people’s attitude toward Chinese food changed dramatically and Chinese restaurant industry faced its second bloom.
LIU, HAIMING, and Huping Ling. “CANTON RESTAURANT AND CHINESE FORTY-NINERS.” From Canton Restaurant to Panda Express: A History of Chinese Food in the United States, Rutgers University Press, 2015, pp. 8–17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt16nzfbd.6