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It was the early to mid-1970s. Bell bottoms were in, the Bee Gees were not yet a disco act, and if it was Sunday night, my family was almost surely at the New Moon Chinese Restaurant on San Diego’s El Cajon Boulevard, just west of the intersection with Montezuma Road.
My sister would order Hot and Sour Soup, I would order Mu Shu Pork, and my parents were only too happy to have the two of us go run around in the parking lot behind the restaurant, playing hide-and-seek with the owner’s kids behind the dumpster.
Those Sunday nights were the starting point of my long-lasting love affair with many Asian cuisines, particularly Chinese. Over the years, that would lead to the recognition that the food at places like the New Moon was not exactly representative of Chinese food as a whole (as if such a thing could exist) or the cuisine of any of China’s culinarily distinct regions. Instead of the American Chinese classics of my childhood, like Moo Goo Gai Pan or Chicken Chop Suey, I sought out Chinese regional cuisines like the numbing heat of Sichuan, the fire of Hunan or Cantonese dim sum. These were “authentic” flavors (a term I now abhor), whereas the American Chinese food I’d grown up on, I became convinced, somehow was not.
How could it have been? What we see today as American Chinese food was born out of the California Gold Rush. Chinese workers and businessmen were encouraged to come over from the environs of Guangdong province (still better known to some Westerners by its anglicized former name, Canton). Some came to do the mining; still more saw the opportunity to support and profit off the miners, whether Chinese or not. Separated from their families, and without access to many foodstuffs they recognized, those workers — and the eateries that catered to them — had to make do with what they could find for facsimiles of the dishes they knew.
What resulted, in some cases, became American Chinese takeout classics. Take, for example, beef with broccoli: It was not a Cantonese dish, because American broccoli did not exist in Guangdong China. The original dish was based on a different member of the brassica family: gai lan, or Chinese broccoli.
But it was not just adaptation in the face of the unavailability of familiar ingredients that resulted in the development of American Chinese cuisine. It also was a matter of who was doing the cooking — not the same ones as in Guangdong. While male Chinese workers were brought over to America to do the mining, their families — and the women who primarily did the cooking at home — were not.
That was not an accident. The Page Act of 1875 prevented Chinese women from entering the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was broader and more explicit: Restrict further immigration from China. It remained the law of this country until its repeal in 1943. That law, though, was hardly the only example of anti-Chinese — or, more broadly, anti-Asian — legal discrimination. Additional anti-Asian measures followed. Among the most egregious was the incarceration of Japanese Americans after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor at “relocation centers” that were, in fact, concentration camps. One of those was Manzanar, just east of the Sierra Nevada. Such systematic discrimination continued unabated, and it is still evident today. Even this year, Texas Senate bill SB 147 was introduced, a measure that would prohibit “certain foreign entities” from acquiring Texas real estate; it failed to advance in the Texas House of Representatives and died.
Few of the Chinese workers brought over had been skilled cooks back home. Ultimately, those miners who could cook did the cooking, and some opened eateries to feed those workers. Following World War II, and even more so in the second half of the 20th century, the primary patterns of Chinese immigration to the United States began to tilt away from Guangdong and toward Taiwan, resulting in non-Cantonese influences on the Chinese eateries. The result, in part, was that Chinese restaurants in America sought to appeal to a broader potential clientele. Notably, that meant sweeter flavor profiles and other tweaks.
The story of that American Chinese classic, General Tso’s Chicken, is instructional. Peng Changgui, a prestigious Hunanese chef trained in Cantonese cuisine, created the dish for the president of the Republic of China (read: Taiwan). When Peng moved to New York, he found that his dish had gotten there before him, courtesy of two of his former employees. What he also discovered, though, was that they had adapted this dish to American tastes. Where the original had been spicy and sour, the new version was sweet. That dish — either version — is almost completely unknown in China, while it is a runaway American Chinese hit.
So, is American Chinese food a Chinese regional cuisine in its own right? In China, not so much. In mid-2018, American Chinese restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s opened its doors in Shanghai. By January of the following year, those doors closed. Perhaps that answers the question.
But controversial as it may be, I am willing to consider American Chinese food to be, at least arguably, another Chinese regional cuisine. Its history is, like most histories of almost everything — culinary and otherwise — significantly less than a story of unmitigated virtue and glory. At times, it was downright ugly. But it is also the version of “Chinese” food most Americans first encounter. It was, no doubt, the gateway drug for me.
I do wish the New Moon Chinese Restaurant was still there. I would love to eat there just one more time. But I definitely would not wear bell bottoms.
Some of the ingredients for the dishes in this article can be difficult to find at many major American supermarket chains like Vons or Albertsons. Fortunately, San Diego has a number of excellent Asian markets. Ingredients like Shaoxing wine, gai lan (Chinese broccoli), spiced dry tofu, dried lily flower, dried wood ear or shiitake mushrooms, and both light and dark soy sauce (and the other ingredients called for in these recipes) can be found at:
Gai Lan Chao Niu Rou
(Beef With Chinese Broccoli)
Makes 24 servings
FOR THE BEEF AND MARINADE:
¾ pound beef flank steak, sliced across the grain ⅛-inch thick
½ teaspoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon Shaoxing wine
2 teaspoons vegetable or canola oil
½ teaspoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
FOR THE SAUCE:
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon cornstarch
FOR THE STIR-FRY:
½ pound gai lan (Chinese broccoli), cut into 3 sections diagonally
2 tablespoons canola, grapeseed or other neutral oil
2 whole shallots, sliced
8 cloves of garlic, chopped very coarsely
In a medium bowl, combine beef with all marinade ingredients. Mix well and let stand for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the sauce ingredients and set aside. Fill a wok halfway with water, season with salt, and bring to a boil. Add the gai lan and cook until just tender, about 1 minute. Set the gai lan aside in a bowl.
Drain and wipe down the wok, returning it to the heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat over high heat until smoking. Add the beef, spreading it out in an even layer with a spatula, and cook without moving until lightly browned on the bottom, about 1 minute. Continue to cook while stirring regularly until about halfway cooked through, about 2 minutes longer. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the wok and heat over high heat until smoking. Add the shallots and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until softened, about 1 minute. Add the gai lan and cook, stirring frequently, for 1 minute. Season with salt.
Return beef to the wok and toss to combine. Stir the sauce and pour it into the center of the wok, stirring to combine. Continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 1 minute. Transfer to a serving platter immediately and serve with white rice.
Hot & Sour Soup
Makes 4 to 6 servings
FOR THE PORK AND MARINADE:
¼ pound pork shoulder, julienned
1 tablespoon water
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
FOR THE SOUP:
1 to 2 dried red chile peppers (optional)
2 tablespoons (about ⅓ ounce) dried lily flower, rehydrated
2 tablespoons (about ⅓ ounce) sliced dried wood ear mushrooms
2 tablespoons (about ⅓ ounce) dried shiitake mushrooms, sliced
¼ pound spiced dry tofu
¼ pound fresh firm tofu
¼ pound bamboo shoots
1 large egg
1 scallion, greens and whites, finely sliced
8 cups chicken stock (or an equivalent amount of chicken bouillon)
½ teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons fresh ground white pepper (or to taste)
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
½ cup white vinegar
⅓ cup cornstarch
¼ cup water
Combine the julienned pork shoulder with 1 tablespoon of water until the meat has absorbed the water. Add a pinch of salt, 2 teaspoons vegetable oil and 1 teaspoon cornstarch and mix until combined. Set aside.
Cut the dried chiles in half, discarding the seeds. Mince the chiles and set aside. In separate bowls, soak the dried lily flowers, wood ears and shiitake mushrooms in 1 cup each of very hot water (start it off boiling) for ½ hour up to 2 hours, until hydrated.
Thinly slice the shiitake mushrooms and roughly chop the wood ears. Trim the tough ends off the lily flowers and cut them in half. Cut both the spiced tofu and the firm tofu into 2-inch-long and ¼-inch-thick pieces. Julienne the bamboo shoots. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Wash and chop the scallion and set aside.
Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a wok or pot. Stir in the pork and quickly break up any clumps that may form. If, however, the pork has clumped and stuck together, add another tablespoon of water to loosen it up before adding it to the soup. Once the soup is simmering again, skim off any foam that floats to the top with a fine-mesh strainer.
Add the salt, sugar, dried chile pepper (if using), white pepper, both soy sauces and sesame oil. Add the lily flowers, wood ears, shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots and bring the soup back to a simmer once again. Add all tofu and vinegar to the soup and continue simmering.
Combine the ⅓ cup cornstarch with ¼ cup water to make a slurry, stirring to make sure none of the cornstarch settles to the bottom of the bowl.
If the soup is not simmering, increase the heat until it does. Once the soup is simmering, use your soup ladle to stir the soup in a steady circular motion to make a whirlpool while slowly drizzling in the cornstarch slurry. This prevents the cornstarch from clumping. Stop when you’re about three-quarters of the way done with your slurry and keep stirring until the soup comes back up to a simmer.
Check the consistency of the soup, as it should be thick enough to coat your spoon or ladle. Add the rest of the cornstarch slurry if you like it thicker.
Once the texture of the soup is to your liking, taste it for seasoning. Add more white pepper if you like it hot and add more vinegar if you like it sour.
Keep the soup simmering and begin stirring in a circular motion with your ladle once again. Once you get the soup moving in a slowly swirling motion, slowly drizzle the beaten egg into the soup.
Garnish the soup with the chopped scallions.
Recipe from Sarah Leung, The Woks of Life blog (thewoksoflife.com/hot-sour-soup); adapted by Michael A. Gardiner.
Gardiner is a freelance food writer and author of the cookbook “Modern Kosher: Global Flavors, New Traditions.” A second book, “Cali-Baja Cuisine: Tijuana Tacos, Ensenada Aguachiles, San Diego Cali Burritos + More,” is expected in September 2023. He lives in La Mesa.