Good Ol’ American Chinese Food

Chop suey, moo goo gaipan, subgum chow mein—to the casual reader these words might sound like gibberish, but believe it or not they’re all examples of American culinary classics. American Chinese, that is.

Along with sodium and MSG, these dishes also come with a healthy dose of history, much of it urban legend. Take chop suey for instance, a mixture of meat and vegetables and egg cooked together with sauce. The story goes that this treat, whose name roughly translates to “odds and ends,” was invented during the 1840s California Gold Rush by a resourceful Chinese cook. Supposedly this man was getting ready to close up his shop for the night when a bunch of drunken miners stumbled in, clamoring for a meal. Annoyed, the cook served up a bunch of stir-fried leftovers, but to his surprise the miners actually enjoyed it. They wanted the same thing again the next night, the word gradually spread, and lo and behold, chop suey became a thing.

But some sources disagree with this account. They claim that it was created under entirely different, although also stressful circumstances. Their version of the story goes: a renowned Chinese diplomat comes to visit the US and decides to grab a quick late-night meal at a Chinese restaurant. The cook in the kitchen is at his wits’ end—the pantry is almost empty, the staff have all left. He gathers up what ingredients he has left and whips up something quick for the diplomat, who to his surprise actually likes it. Again, word gets around and chop suey becomes a staple of Chinese restaurants around the country.

Who knows which version is the real one? Actually, it’s likely that both are false; chop suey, or to be more accurate, “shap sui,” most probably originated in Taishan, China. Despite its beginnings, however, along with several other dishes it has since changed, becoming enshrined in thousands of Chinese menus throughout the last one and a half centuries.

By Chinese menus, of course, I mean American Chinese. And chop suey isn’t alone in its journey: egg foo yung, moo goo gaipan, chow mein, lo mein, and the now outdated term “subgum” can all claim Chinese roots but have been altered to cater to the tastes of a new audience. These dishes became saltier and meatier, and the spelling of their names changed as well, presumably to make them easier to pronounce for Americans; rarely will you find anything spelled “moo goo” in China.

You see, back before it was popular to eat “authentic” foreign food in the US, Chinese restaurants had move with the times. And they were pretty good at it: Chinese food went from having only a cult following in the 20s to becoming mainstream in the 60s. This progress was actually pretty impressive considering the early barriers it faced, including racism. There was a widespread perception that Chinese ate rats, for example, or cooked using unsanitary methods. A 1910s “Chinese-Japanese” cookbook reassures readers:

“When it is known how simple and clean are the ingredients used to make up these oriental dishes, the Westerner will cease to feel that natural repugnance which assails one when about to taste a strange dish of a new and strange land.”


By the 40s the repugnance had gone, but some doubts may have remained. Chinese restaurant menus like the one above retained separate sections for Chinese and Western food. For those diners who might feel nervous trying Special Almond Chow Mein for the first time, there’s always the comfort of a familiar Whiskey Sour to wash it down with, or Roast Maryland Turkey for the especially queasy. For connoisseurs, however, the bottom of the menu hints at a “special Cantonese dinner menu” available on request.

In fact, almost all of the dishes mentioned so far could be said to be Cantonese-American rather than just Chinese-American, reflecting the origins of most Chinese in the US during much of the 20th century. In case you’re not familiar with it, the Cantonese culinary tradition is actually a long, rich one emphasizing techniques like braising and steaming, and specializing in seafood and soups. The resulting flavors are well-balanced and delicate. Compare this with your average Chinese takeout in the US today, which contain satisfying yet sometimes overwhelming amounts of soy sauce and grease, and you can see firsthand how those traditions have for the most part been thrown by the wayside.

But in return for “authenticity,” Chinese food in the States gained cultural cachet. Nowadays, there are more “Chinese” restaurants in America than those of McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC all put together. Ironically, Chinese food has become a symbol of Americanness and even the basis of a well-documented Jewish tradition. Some people even speculate that the custom of brunch in the US started after exposure to Cantonese dim sum in the 1800s. However, even if that isn’t true, it’s still safe to say that the impact of American Chinese food has been long and far-ranging.

The cuisine itself has evolved too over the years. Dishes like ma po tofu (from Sichuan province), mu shu pork (from Northern China), and crab rangoons (possibly from Hawaii) began popping up in restaurants, clamoring for the attention of the American public. Chop suey and egg foo young were both eventually outshone by their new competitors and “subgum” is rarely used today, although chow mein and lo mein remain staples of American Chinese cuisine.

Although they may not be as popular as they were in their heyday, it’s still interesting think about all the history that these foods have in the US. Even a simple takeout menu nowadays can span more than a hundred years of immigrant legacy, each dish with its own story waiting to be told.

Click here for a fun food-themed homework assignment.


*Both images in this post are from the same 1940s American Chinese restaurant menu, courtesy of Renee Lajcak, Museum of Chinese in American (MOCA) collection.


Lesson Plan: Amateur Food Historian Project

Objectives: learn about various foods and cultures they’re associated with, study history through a different lens, get practical research experience

Ages: 10-14

Class size: any

Materials: projector and laptop (for powerpoints) OR posterboard, markers, glue, etc.

For this project, students will do their own research into the history of a particular food and then create a presentation to share their findings with the class. After giving them an example or two (try referencing this post), you can either provide them with a list of approved food items to choose from or allow them to pick their own. Students may partner up if they want to cover the same food, but their project should be more thorough and represent equal contributions from both partners.

Set aside a day or two for students to give their presentations. Adjust length and depth of requirements according to students’ ages and/or personal taste.

Suggested guidelines for the project:

  1. Must have a visual aid when presenting to the class. Can be physical (make your own poster, or print one out) or a Powerpoint presentation. Other, more creative ideas are ok, but must be discussed with the teacher first.
  1. Primary questions that must be answered by the presentation: Where did this food originate (make an educated guess if this isn’t available)? What culture(s) is it associated with, and in what capacity (religious, banquet, snack food, etc.)? Where can you find it nowadays?
  1. Secondary lines of inquiry (must pick at least one):
    1. Interview a person who knows a lot about this food, or has many memories associated with it (can’t be someone who just tried it once, for instance) and summarize your findings.
    2. Find a historical event or story associated with your food and tell the class about it. What do you find interesting about this? What conclusions can be drawn about the food or the culture associated with it?
    3. Try making the food yourself and document the process. Was it hard? Did it turn out the way you expected? What have you learned about the food that you didn’t know before? Bring it into class if you can (unless it contains allergens, of course).
  1. Presentation must contain at least five images and information from three sources, not including the ones provided below. Sources must be properly cited in MLA format and provided to the teacher in either electronic or paper format.
  1. After the presentations, submit a short report discussing at least two foods that other students covered. What new fact did you learn from them? What did you find most interesting?

Sample list of foods/beverages in no particular order: challah, chocolate chip cookies, chili peppers, taffy, fortune cookies, fish and chips, baguettes, collard greens, milkshakes, sushi, Tabasco, chocolate, curry powder, tea, hummus, nachos, cheese, Vegemite, etc.

Some helpful sources to start out with: Food Timeline, Wikipedia

The Most Chinese New Year of All

This feature-length post is part of the Chinese New Year blog-hop event hosted by Two Americans in China.

Where in the world can you find a Chinese New Year extravaganza like this? During the huge parade that tops off a whole month of themed events, see: a massive golden dragon with a fierce expression winding its laborious way down the street, legs working overtime; groups of performing children in traditional-looking red satin with gleaming gold embroidery; smiling young women in elaborate headdresses playing drums; and everywhere, tourists taking in the sights of one of the “world’s top ten parades.”


In fact, this gem of a cultural event belongs to none other than San Francisco’s Chinatown.

To figure out how such a loud display of Chinese pride came to exist in the US, we have to travel back to 1953, the Year of the Snake, and also a pretty crappy time to be Chinese in San Francisco.

The US back then isn’t exactly known for its racial tolerance, but Chinese identity had taken two especially big blows in recent years. One happened in 1949, when the Chinese Communist Party officially took over the mainland. Fears of “Red China” threatening American democracy and freedom were only confirmed when it sided with the North during the Korean War, officially making mainland China an enemy of the US.

For the Chinese in America, even Chinese-Americans, things looked very bad. Not so long ago during World War II, people of Japanese ancestry had been discriminated against and even locked up in internment camps; now, hostility against the Chinese was reaching similar levels. At one point, police officers were routinely stopping and interrogating people on the street in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and there had been more than a few cases of suspected Communists being arrested.

This hurt local tourism and business, not to mention morale, and so in the early 50s some community leaders in Chinatown came up with an unconventional solution: turn the mostly private, family-run celebrations for the Chinese New Year into a public festival.

It made sense, in a convoluted way. Residents needed a way to sway public opinion in their favor. Total assimilation was impossible at a time when the US hadn’t even grasped the idea of race relations yet, and so the Chinatown community took the opposite route. Instead of insisting on their American-ness (which no one would have bought anyway), they emphasized how Chinese they were. Not Chinese as in Communist, obviously, but Chinese in a friendly, familiar, exotic, and most importantly, harmless way.

And so San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade was born in 1953 as a kind of defense mechanism for the local population. To emphasize the patriotism aspect, it included Chinese-American vets from the Korean War, many of them proudly showing battle scars, plus representatives of the local Anti-Communist League. To play up the cultural component, there were performances: a dragon dance, a troop of drummer girls dressed in Chinese getup. But the main draw was of course Miss Chinatown, who had been chosen out of a lineup of gorgeous Oriental ladies. Everyone loves a beautiful woman, and it turned out that San Francisco was no exception.

The first event was a success, and it grew quickly—within 4 years, the attendance had doubled to 200,000 people, most of them non-Chinese. Local businesses were benefiting enormously from the extra attention as word of the ethnic celebration spread. By 1958, newspapers were already calling it a “famous and colorful grand parade”. Notable politicians (including a not-yet-President Nixon) made appearances during the event and local organizations took pride in designing their own Chinese-themed floats each year. The Festival and Parade became respected traditions in San Francisco, but ones that also claimed dubious precedent in 5000 years of Chinese history. The website for this year’s Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade declares that “Nowhere in the world will you see a lunar new year parade with more gorgeous floats, elaborate costumes, ferocious lions, exploding firecrackers…” and this might actually be true.

After all, in mainland China, the Spring Festival is a peaceful one mainly celebrated among a close-knit circle of family, neighbors, and loved ones. For many people, highlights of the holiday include stuffing your face, watching the New Year’s Gala on TV with relatives, and receiving/giving gifts of money in red envelopes.

But it turns out San Francisco’s Chinese community isn’t alone in outdoing the traditions of the “homeland,” and sometimes for similar reasons. For example, in the 70s scholars in London observed annual Chinatown celebrations flourishing in response to threats of redevelopment. And although it’s unclear whether they also began or developed in the same way, there’s definitely a plethora of big Chinese New Year parades and celebrations happening every year all over the world, in cities from Vancouver to Mexico City, Paris to Sydney, Singapore to Jakarta, etc., etc.

More than one city’s Chinese community claims to have the biggest celebration outside of China. Strangely enough, they’re usually pretty silent on how they measure up to Chinese celebrations themselves, probably because it’s assumed that the motherland will be the home of the biggest parades, the most skillful lion dances, the most beautiful festival queens, and so on. Or that Chinese celebrations in their native simplicity are more authentic and worthwhile, beyond all comparison.

Or maybe it’s just because they’ve already accepted the fact that Chinese New Year celebrations abroad have already evolved into their own distinct, showy genre, and have moved on. Every year, community organizers around the world continue to plot and dream of how their home cities will host the most Chinese New Year of them all…

Happy holidays, everyone! And click here to find a discussion-based lesson plan for advanced learners.

Also, don’t forget to enter in my giveaway for 5 fabulous red envelopes, and check out other participating bloggers in the list below!

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Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

Photocredit: “Chinatown San Francisco New Year’s Dragon” by Ed SchipulFlickr: new year’s dragon. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Lesson Plan: A Very Chinese New Year Discussion

This discussion is intimately linked to this post on San Francisco Chinatown’s Chinese New Year celebrations.

Objective: learn about history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, think critically about impact of the Chinese New Year Festival on local socio-political dynamics

Ages: high school and above

Class size: preferably small, <10

Materials: paper and pencil if necessary, printed handouts (helpful), coffee (optional)

Assigned reading:

“‘In the Traditions of China and in the Freedom of America’: The Making of San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Festivals” by Chiou-Ling Yeh


Selections from Chiou-Ling Yeh’s full-length book on the same subject, Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Suggested discussion topics:

  1. The author seems to have a negative view towards the ideas of Chinese-ness put forth by the people behind San Francisco’s public Chinese New Year celebrations. Do you agree or disagree: did they act primarily in the interest of cultural survival, or did they go beyond what was called for in resurrecting ethnic stereotypes?
  1. Did the Chinese New Year celebrations and similar measures ultimately benefit the local Chinese community more than they may have hurt it? What are the gains and losses, in both economic and social terms?
  1. Based on the descriptions of the pre-1953 events and those afterwards, how did the new celebrations illustrate a reorganization of public and private space? (for more advanced students, bring up concepts like performativity and Habermas’ public sphere) Were the celebration organizers able to cannily make use of the parade to achieve their ends? In what ways did power dynamics within Chinese community, as well as within San Francisco as a whole, shift?
  1. Check out the website of this year’s San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival/Parade or if possible, organize a field trip to attend the event. How do the descriptions and presentation keep up with that of the past? Are there continuities, or has it changed beyond recognition?
  1. The author devotes particular attention to the beauty pageant associated with the event. Do you agree with the conclusions made about the interplay of gender and ethnicity in the Parade? What different types of roles were assigned to women in the early 50s celebrations, and how did they coincide/conflict with more “traditional” ones? What kind of images of Chinese women did the Parade and Festival create, and how are they reflected in current-day celebrations (again, referencing the website above)?

Event: Holiday Giveaway!

The Chinese New Year is coming up, and we all know what that means: lots and lots of red envelopes (hongbao)!

And for those lucky few who visit this fledgling blog, I’ll be handing 5 of them out in a raffle giveaway starting tomorrow (Feb. 2) and running until the Feb. 15th. Unfortunately they don’t have any money inside, but they do come prepackaged in a nice box and are very pretty to look at. They’re fancy illustrated hongbao with pictures of animals and shiny decorations and stuff like that. Perfect for handing out to relatives, or even just as decoration around the house.

Here’s a picture of the box. As you can see, it has not been opened:


The “hongbao” themselves are actually a variety of colors. They look like this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 11.23.08 AM

This photo is from an online advertisement where you can see more.

Rules for the raffle are pretty simple. Just leave a comment, on this or any other post on the blog. Either 1) tell me something you learned today at The New Chinese School, or if you knew everything already, 2) suggest something you’d like to learn here. I’ll pick the comment I like best and get in touch with the winner to figure out logistics, so be sure to keep checking back to see if you’ve won yet.

This is part of a Chinese New Year-themed blog hop, so look forward to a special CNY post on the February 8th as well!

UPDATE 2/16/16: Now that the giveaway is officially over, I’d like to thank all those wonderful commenters who contributed their thoughtful responses and suggestions to the pages of this blog! Y’all are great.

And without further ado, I’ll announce the winner of my Chinese New Year giveaway: Ray! I appreciated your detailed suggestion to write about Cantonese and other Chinese “dialects,” and would be happy to address that in a future post. Enjoy your hongbao!

Thanks again to everyone who participated, and don’t be afraid to send feedback and suggestions my way anytime you want~

Lesson Plan: Following in their Footsteps

Objective: students explore their family histories, think about world events, and practice connecting the dots

Ages: 10 and up

Class size: preferably small, medium is ok if they split into groups of 5-7 for discussion

Materials: a large world map, drawing utensils

Prep: A few days before the lesson starts, ask students to talk to their parents/relatives/guardians, and trace back all the places their ancestors have been as far as they can. They should try to have at least 3 generations. For the purpose of the lesson, focus on just a single familial line (mother’s mother’s mother, father’s father’s father, etc.).

Pin the map up on the wall. Give each student about 5 minutes (more if required) to briefly explain the places their forebears have been, and why they moved or didn’t move. Then have them plot out the points on the map, drawing lines to connect them into a path.

Have students discuss commonalities among the lines. Do many of the trajectories look the same? Why do you they think that’s the case? What does that say about the composition of the class, and of the town as a whole? Do they think other people’s paths look similar to theirs? How would the map be different if it referred to another side of the family? etc.

Deeper discussion topics: Did they know about the places before talking to their parents/guardians? What do they know about them? What “place” do these places have in their daily lives? Can they name any influences? Why, or why not? Do they think the relatives they may or may not have known have influenced them a lot? Which ones did, and which ones didn’t, and why? How much do parents and relatives influence someone?

Continued: Would their lives have been very different if their ancestors had taken different paths? What kind of place do they live in now, and how does it influence them? How about the people around them? If there’s time, have the students plot out the places they plan to go in the future, to complete the paths. Hang it up somewhere in the classroom.

Note: It may seem like there are a lot of discussion questions, but they’re mainly there to provide suggestions for probing in different places. If the students latch onto something productive, let them follow that line of thought to the end. If it’s not working, move on to the next point.

Associated post here.

Lesson Plan: DIY Moral-political systems

Objective: teach students about Confucianism, create own rules of society, exercise critical thinking skills

Ages: 12-15

Class size: medium to large will do

Materials: paper, writing utensils, whiteboard/blackboard and requisite markers/chalk

Prep: Read up on Confucianism beforehand, referencing this post, the links I’ve put in it, and/or outside sources. Prepare a short and clear explanation of Confucianism’s main principles and its view of the world. If time allows, you can also explain a little of the background behind the movement and name-drop some of its most important contributors. Feel free to supplement this with a Powerpoint presentation, but a whiteboard/blackboard is really all you need. You can also print out handy worksheets for your students with bullets and numbered points, but leave out important words/concepts for maximum efficacy (in other words, make them do all the hard work).

Step one: Tell your students to take out pencil and paper (or, if you’ve prepared worksheets, pass those out) and tell them that they’re expected to write down at least 4 or 5 important points. Deliver your prepared spiel. Unless you have a bunch of philosophers on your hands, try to keep it fairly easy-to-understand. Graphics always help, as does an engaging and lively way of narration.

Step two: Have people compare notes. If you’ve written stuff on the whiteboard/blackboard, erase it and create a numbered list. Call on students until all the main points of your lecture have been covered, adjusting or questioning their suggestions as necessary. Once you’re satisfied, make sure everyone has these main points written down on their paper.

Step three: Have students draw a line under what they’ve written, or flip the page if they’ve run out of room. Tell them that now they’ve gotten the grasp of Confucianism, they should try to make up their own set of social, ethical, or moral rules. There should be at least 3 guidelines for how people should live their lives, and one sentence for the student’s overall view of the world (if they have trouble with this concept, give them an example from Confucianism or something else). Although this requirement may seem small, remind them that their model needs to be able to account for how people live their lives, and that therefore they should be as comprehensive as necessary. Make it clear that what they write will definitely be read, and possibly even questioned.

Step four: After most of the students are done with this, have them partner up and go through the following points together: 1) what you wrote , 2) why you chose these particular rules and viewpoints, 3) where they came from (if you borrowed from Confucianism or religious traditions, or political policies). Then have each student critique their partner’s rules, writing down two pros and two cons on their sheets of paper.

Step five: Once everyone is done with this, ask for volunteers who want to share. Pick a few more people who didn’t volunteer, until you have a respectable number of perspectives. Have the class discuss: did they come up with something better than Confucianism? Which points did most people agree on? Do they think people around them live by these rules? Do they themselves do so?