Talk of the Table
Jews & Chinese Food: A Love Story
Senior Editor Nonna Gorilovskaya interviews food writer Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States
Twas the night before Christmas and there was hardly a sound,
As Jews jumped in their cars and drove to Chinatown.
Their orders were given to waiters with care,
In hopes that wonton soup soon would be there.
The children finished their noodles and nestled in their beds,
While visions of fortune cookies danced in their heads.
Now, Moment takes an inquiring look,
At how this love affair with Chinese food took.—NG
When and where did the first Chinese restaurants in the United States open?
The first Chinese restaurants appeared in San Francisco at the very beginning of the Gold Rush in 1849. They were owned by Chinese from ports like Shanghai who had a history of dealing with Americans and knew what they liked. On one side of the menu, there were Western dishes like steak and potatoes, and on the other, Chinese dishes that Americans called “the curries, hashes and fricassees.”
When did Chinese restaurants migrate to New York City?
The Chinese came to New York City in the 1870s and 1880s because of the violence and discriminatory laws against them in the American West. At the same time, New York was in the midst of much larger waves of immigration of Irish, Germans, Italians and East European, German and Russian Jews and was just teeming with all these strange people. There was a group of early American foodies who called themselves “bohemians” and searched out exotic experiences in the immigrant quarters in the Lower Manhattan tenement districts. These writers and artists became interested in the tiny little Chinatown that was opening up at the base of Mott Street in Manhattan. There, they fell in love with chop suey, which became the great crossover food that initiated Americans into Chinese food.
What is chop suey?
Chop suey is a cross between a stew and a stir fry. There’s a meat in it, usually chicken or roast pork, or shrimp, but the principal flavoring ingredients are bean sprouts, onions, celery, maybe water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. It’s all cooked in a thick sauce and served over rice. Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries loved it, and it was up there with hot dogs and apple pie as one of the most commonly eaten dishes across the country.
Was chop suey an American invention?
I believe that chop suey is a real Chinese dish. It’s a farm-country stir fry that was cooked around the town of Taishan in the Pearl River Delta of Guangdong province. In the 19th century, the vast majority of the Chinese immigrants to the United States were from Taishan, and this was a local specialty that they had. People from the rest of China would have called it a really low-class country peasant food and not even recognized it as Chinese. But the Taishanese brought it to the United States, and as more New Yorkers began to eat it, the Chinese restaurant owners realized that if they got rid of black bean sauce, pieces of dried seafood and other ingredients about which the Americans were squeamish, it would be more to American taste. They Americanized it.