If you're ordering pizza, the biggest debate might be, "I know a better place." Or you might get into a debate about Chicago versus thin crust, or something like that. You won't have people jumping out of the bushes yelling about Italian pizza, or how this pizza is not real Italian or whatever. It's not 'Americanized' pizza.
But if you're talking about Chinese food, it's more than likely that someone will say, "That's not really Chinese food," that they know a place that's more 'real.' People feel like American Chinese food is not the real deal, and they're looking for authenticity.
But the truth of the matter is that it is authentic, and when you call it inauthentic, you're ignoring a lot of history and devaluing a little bit the food and the people who brought it here.
I run a project called the Sweet and Sour Initiative for the Smithsonian, which takes a look at Chinese food in America, and how we can talk about what it means to be an American through a takeout menu. The dishes on the menu are like little time capsules. They can tell you a lot about the immigrants who were coming at the time, the communities they were entering, how the United States felt about those immigrants, and how those immigrants adapted to the new country they came to.
Chinese food has been in this country for about 160 years, and even from the beginning, immigrants were never accepted, but the food was. When the first immigrants arrived in the 1850s and they needed to feed themselves, they didn't have access to recipes; they weren't even cooks. Most of them were bachelors. It was all men who came over at first, and men didn't cook; women cooked. So you were getting some strange versions of the quote-unquote traditional dishes to begin with.
My father came to America after the post-'65 immigration rule changes, and it was the Hard-Celler Act that opened immigration from across the globe, especially for the Chinese. He worked in New York City's Chinatown. He noticed a lot of the dishes were the Cantonese food symbolic of the earlier immigrants that had come to America from China. He thought—like many immigrants coming from across the globe from places like Taiwan and Singapore—that some Northern dishes might be a good choice, and eventually opened up a restaurant in New England called Peking Restaurant.
Growing up in a small town in Western Massachusetts in the seventies, we were practically the only Chinese family. While it's sometimes odd to find one Chinese restaurant in the middle of nowhere, it's still part of a community, and it's a place where people come to meet and engage, and customers are probably discovering all these Chinese foods, and for the families running those restaurants, like my own, it's nice to be part of that community.
It's a story that plays out pretty much the same for many immigrants to find out one of the few opportunities of making a living here is the restaurant. My father had degrees in mathematics and politics. He wasn't a cook. My parents had to send me away because a newborn child with a restaurant is not exactly the best option. This is normal for Chinese families—they send their children away to be able to keep overhead low, so they can keep working 24-7, and the children are sent to relatives until they can get their feet under them and everything up and running.
What i'm trying to do with The Sweet and Sour Initiative is increase diversity to bring about a prouder storytelling inclusion about how in America, not everybody gets a voice. I talk about fortune cookies and I talk about chop suey and I talk about General Tso's—things that people immediately recognize. Whether they are aware or not, these dishes represent important turning points in American history, in immigration history, in how America interacted with the rest of the world.
In the middle of the Chinese exclusion act—which was the only time the United States ever told one particular group of people they weren't allowed in the country—somehow chop suey was the trendiest thing that could have possibly come out. People were going crazy about it. It allowed Chinese restaurant owners to just open up restaurants left and right.
America said, "No more. You're dirty. You're unchristian. We don't like you. But this food is fantastic. We love it and we're just going to keep on eating it, and opening up more and more restaurants." Chop suey helped the community get a leg up and helped them weather the storm until '43, when the U.S. needed allies to fight Japan and they lifted the Exclusion Act.
For a long time people felt chop suey wasn't Chinese, that it was an American creation. But my research points that there is probably origins in China. Chop suey basically translates as leftovers, and who doesn't have leftovers? It just means randoms parts. Chop suey restaurants kept spreading across the country, and this lasted until probably 1965 when the new dishes started showing up, and new flavors from places like Sichuan and Hunan started to dominate the landscape, and still do.
When I was doing my research, there were 42,000 Chinese restaurants in America. I think it's much more than that now. But the last time I confirmed the number, it was in 2011. According to Jennifer 8. Lee, in her book The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, there are more Chinese restaurants than there are Mcdonald's and Burger King and Wendy's combined. So please think of it as American food.
Perhaps calling it American-Chinese is fine, as long as people aren't doing it because they think that by eating it or enjoying it, you're devaluing 'real' Chinese food. We have this thing that keeps coming up where people keep referring to it as 'not authentic' like it's a problem. It's not a problem. It's actually quite OK. You're not missing out on anything. You're actually enjoying a distinct and different cuisine.
As told to Brad Cohen. This interview was edited for length and clarity.