Watch: Chop Suey's Next Wave
Since the days of the Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants have always dreamed of succeeding and prospering in "Gold Mountain." Though the U.S. was their new home, the Chinese were in hostile territory. Chinatowns thrived as communities established for support and protection.
Eventually Chinatowns became a place to gorge on chow mein and chop suey. And thirty years ago, it was the only place for dim sum on the weekends. But now that a new wave of Chinese immigration has pushed out of urban centers and into the suburbs, eating in Chinatown is an act of nostalgia, or more likely, convenience.
In the latest California Matters episode, Mark Bittman visits L.A.'s Chinatown and Irvine, a growing Asian enclave (with more than 40% and growing Asian population). He's accompanied by Yong Chen, the author of "Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America" and a history professor at UC Irvine. Here Chen talks about the new Chinese American communities and their (along with his) love for Chinese food.
Can you settle this once and for all -- where does one find the best, most authentic Chinese food in the U.S.?
Yong Chen: Given my personal bias, the best Chinese food is found in Southern California. The climate, the long history of Chinese Americans, the geographical location, the vibrant and diverse economy, and the lifestyle all contribute to the desirability of the region as a destination for immigration and travel. All those factors have enhanced the gastronomical development of Chinese food in the Greater Los Angeles Area and Orange County.
We know about the Chinese suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley, Irvine, and Silicon Valley. Are there new and growing enclaves in other parts of the U.S. that aren't getting as much attention but are just as vibrant?
Chen: The number of growing Chinese communities is increasing. A few have already become quite famous, such as Flushing in New York. Others cities like Sacramento, Seattle, San Diego, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Diego are also sizable but have not attracted much national attention in part because the old urban Chinatowns there are diminishing or disappearing. The Chinese populations in such areas are increasingly integrated with the rest of the general population.
Up until recently, opening a Chinese restaurant was a way for many Chinese to survive. Has that changed and if so, how?
Chen: Until the 1970s, restaurant work was one of the main occupations for the Chinese. The situation has changed quite a bit, especially for the well-educated. Those who are trained in science and technology fields can join the middle class right after graduation and obtain a job in the high tech industry. By comparison, it would take at least a generation for many European immigrants to move from working class to the middle class.
But many new Chinese immigrants, especially those who do not have a good education and who came to the U.S. illegally still tend to find employment in Chinese restaurants. This explains the multiplication of the inexpensive all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurants that have mushroomed throughout the United States in recent years.
For Chinese food to climb up in the gastronomical hierarchy, there needs to be more well-trained professionals, and we need more celebrity Chinese chefs. But many people who work in the Chinese restaurant kitchen in the United States have limited professional training beforehand. Equally important, most of them remain anonymous, which is also true in China.
When most Americans experience Chinese food for the first time, they're probably eating Cantonese food. But do you think Cantonese cuisine is on its way out now that Americans are starting to embrace flavors and dishes from other Chinese regions?
Chen: While non-Cantonese food, such as Szechuan, Hunan, and Shanghai cuisines, is becoming more and more popular in major metropolitan areas from Los Angeles to New York, Cantonese food remains influential and popular among both non-Chinese and Chinese diners. This is because of the fine quality of the ingredients in Cantonese cuisine. The large establishments tend to be Cantonese, which shows its continued popularity.
Do you think Americans' taste for Chinese food is finally adapting to the way Chinese people actually eat?
Chen: Like most habits, taste is difficult to change. The transformation of Americans' taste in Chinese food is slowly happening and is confined mostly to metropolitan areas and suburbs with large Chinese populations.
What are some of your favorite Chinese dishes?
Chen: Like the taste of most people and cultures, mine keep changing over time. I have enjoyed many different dishes. In recent years, I have added new dishes, such as fresh matsutake mushrooms stirred fried with thinly sliced meat or boiled as a soup dish, to the list of my favorites. There is also a delicious local food from Wuhan called doupi, a pancake (wrapped in tofu skin and pan-fried on both sides), and simple everyday dishes like Yangzhou fried rice and fish-flavored eggplant -- my book, "Chop Suey, USA," includes recipes for fried rice and eggplant.