10 little-known historical facts about American Chinese food

Chinese American food
Adam Lapetina
Adam Lapetina

If you've ever been to a Chinese restaurant in any suburb in America, you know the joys of crab rangoon, chicken fingers, and sweet & sour everything. But where do they come from? Turns out it's definitely not China: most of what we eat today from paper takeout boxes would confuse the living hell out of a person in Beijing, and not just because they can't see it clearly through the smog.

America's got a type of Chinese food all its own, and it's super different from what they've got across the pond. It's mysterious, it's delicious, and it's been evolving ever since the California Gold Rush. Here's what you might not have known about it.

chinese american immigrant woman with child

It started in California
The foundations for what we know as Chinese food were laid in the mid-1800s, when a huge influx of Chinese immigrants came to California during the Gold Rush, mostly from Canton (today known as Guangzhou). The newcomers started opening restaurants, and eventually began settling elsewhere thanks to the railroad expansion. That resulted in the establishment of Chinatowns all over the place (never forget, Jack Nicholson!).

chinese food on a lazy susan

Hipsters contributed to its Americanization
In the 1920s, Chinese food started to catch on among the bohemians (who sometimes ate the food before it was cool... and burned the roofs of their mouths). It wasn't until after World War II that it started to become more mainstream. Chinese chefs would often have two menus: one for Chinese people and one for Americans... but as its popularity grew, the American-tailored menu came to dominate.

canned foods

Its divergence was fueled by America's canned food industry
The reason the Americanized menu was so popular? It used super-sweet, syrupy sauces as opposed to traditional ones, mostly due to the cheap, widespread availability of canned fruits like pineapple and cherries, the use of which ended up creating an entirely new type of cuisine Americans couldn't get enough of. Chefs didn't skimp on the sugar and salt, and the public didn't skimp on the eating. It was a good arrangement.

chinese takeout box
Flickr/Gabriel Saldana

It started being served in oyster pails in the 1950s
Chinese takeout became a staple of city life and then expanded to the suburbs. The folded paper boxes that were traditionally used to transport oysters also began transporting chop suey and Mongolian beef.


It uses vegetables that aren't even available in China
Despite their ubiquity in American Chinese restaurants, broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, and yellow onions aren't typically found in actual Chinese restaurants, mostly because none of these things are native to China. Chinese cuisine usually uses green onions and daikon, as well leafier, more bitter broccoli that's probably just that way because the government won't let it use Facebook.

general tso's chicken

It has some basis in Chinese history
General Tso/Gau/Gao actually existed! His name in Chinese was Zuo Zongtang, and he was a military man during the Qing dynasty. Dude quelled the Dungan revolt in the 1800s (that was huge), but it's not known whether he's the one who first made the chicken, or whether some admirer of his just wanted to name a hot dish after him.

Also, sweet & sour sauce isn't truly Chinese. But they do have claim to an older, less potent, more vinegary version that's straight outta Hunan province. Bizarrely, ours is more popular in China today.

chop suey
Flickr/Gaurav Vaidya

Most menus feature dishes that aren't present in China at all
Chop suey is an almost entirely American invention. It was born in California and translates to "odds and ends" -- basically, it was a bunch of foods thrown together in a pinch, and ended up becoming one of the most popular dishes of all time. General Tso would be pissed!

St. paul sandwich
Wikipedia/Adam Michalski

It has some regional variations around the United States
True to American form, folks in different regions started making new, more Americanized versions of "Chinese" food.  In Massachusetts and Rhode Island, you can score chop suey and chow mein sandwiches. In Missouri you can get a St. Paul sandwich (egg foo young patty on white bread), while you can thank New England for the deep-fried pu pu platter.

fortune cookie

It's a mix of Chinese, Japanese, American, Italian... pretty much everything, kinda
The fortune cookie's recipe, for example, was based on a traditional Japanese cracker, which was then used by Chinese restaurants... for an American appetite. Crab rangoon was first served by a French dude running a Polynesian restaurant in San Francisco in the 1950s. He also would go on to invent the Mai Tai. He is the most heroic Frenchman in history.

chinese KFC
Flickr/Kyle Taylor

Meanwhile, in China, American food pretty much means KFC
There's a KFC on almost every block in every major city in China. It's like their Starbucks, apparently, except they don't mess up your name all the time. Also, the whole chicken-instead-of-coffee thing.

Adam Lapetina is a food/drink staff writer at Thrillist, and enjoys long woks on the beach, as well as normal woks in normal places. Read his musings on Twitter at @adamlapetina.