From the Homestead Kitchen: American Chinese Cuisine

by Alexandra Rasic

The first memory I have of eating Chinese food was being about 5 or 6 years old and going to the Farmer’s Market in the Fairfax District. That place was, and still is, quite magical with a great variety of food vendors located steps away from each other in one lively place. We’d go once or twice a year, and after that first visit, I always wanted to eat the same food from the same vendor. My go-to dish was Egg Foo Young, an egg-based pancake made with vegetables that can include meat and/or seafood, and is covered in a savory brown sauce. As I grew older, and was blessed with a Chinese best friend whose mother and brother are phenomenal cooks of their family’s cuisine, I learned that the kind of food I ate at the Farmer’s Market, and still love on occasion, was American Chinese cuisine: food that had origins in China, but was adapted for American palates. Think of the hugely popular Panda Express as an example of this style of food today. Chinese food has a long, complex, and fascinating history in the US filled with stories of opportunity, xenophobia, resilience, and more. Let’s explore some of that history before digging into a 1920s recipe for Egg Foo Young.  

While a little over 300 Chinese men were known to have arrived in the US before the Gold Rush began in 1848, by 1852 there were 25,000 Chinese immigrants, and over 100,000 by 1880. Eager to escape economic hardship in China, these immigrants often worked less desirable jobs for lower wages and were soon perceived as a threat by American workers. Journalist Maria Godoy explains, “Amid mounting social tensions, the U.S. passed immigration laws [culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882] that explicitly barred Chinese laborers from immigrating or becoming U.S. citizens, and made it extremely difficult for even legal residents to re-enter the U.S. after a visit home to China.” However, some Chinese business owners in the US could obtain special merchant visas that enabled them to travel to China and bring back Chinese employees. “Only a few types of businesses qualified for this status,” she explains, and “In 1915, a federal court added restaurants to that list. Voila! A restaurant boom was born.” Godoy cites the research of Heather Lee, who explains that as a result of what has come to be known as the “lo mein loophole,” the number of Chinese restaurants in the US doubled between 1910 and 1920, and doubled again from 1920 to 1940.

So what about here in Los Angeles? Food historian Charles Perry believes the city’s first Chinese restaurants probably opened in the 1860s, staffed by cooks who had come to California to be gold miners or railroad workers, but eventually settled on opening “chow-chows,” or cook shacks. The earliest known Chinese restaurant in LA known by name is Man Jen Low, or House of 10,000 Treasures, founded by Lee Woo Hoy in 1878. The restaurant stayed in the hands of his family until it closed in 1985, and by then was known as General Lee’s.

It’s remarkable to think about all that the Hoy family witnessed and experienced here in the City of Angels, a place that had much distrust and hatred of the Chinese around the time that the family’s restaurant opened, as seen in events such as the Chinese Massacre of 1871 and the displacement of the city’s original Chinatown for the construction of Union Station, which opened in 1939. Following the creation of the new and current Chinatown, the restaurant moved to the area’s main square, between Hill Street and Broadway. (Today the location is home to a new General Lee’s: a modern east-meets-west-themed bar named in honor of the restaurant!)  

Citing a drop in patronage by their mostly Anglo clientele as the main reason for closing, family member Curtis Lee said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, that people living in the suburbs didn’t need to come to Chinatown for Chinese food any more. “You can find Chinese restaurants as prevalent as you find gas stations.” This was true. Following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, many Chinese immigrated to LA, with a great number settling in the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. 

Before Chinese cuisine became mainstream, it was exotic. Perry explains that “During the 1920s, there was a general craze for ethnic food, and more Chinese restaurants opened than any other kind. For the novice, their menus offered set dinners with, say, egg drop soup, chow mein, a meat dish such as pork stir-fried with snow peas, rounded out with fried shrimp, rice and egg foo yung.” The Homestead’s collection includes a cookbook and booklet from the late 1920s meant to demystify and promote Chinese cooking at home. “How many times have you eaten a meal of that appetizing Chinese food which only an experienced Chinese chef knows how to prepare and wished that you knew the secret of those delightful Oriental dishes so that you could prepare them in your own kitchen? The art of Chinese cookery always has been surrounded with a sort of an air of mystery–in the minds of the average American,” but the Mandarin Chop Suey Cook Book published by the Pacific Trading Company of Chicago, Illinois, was prepared to make Chinese food accessible. It’s no accident that Chop Suey is the dish featured in the name of the book. This was one of the first American Chinese food dishes to capture the hearts of Americans. Like many iconic dishes, its exact origin story is unknown, but according to food writer Justine Sterling (and many others!), “Chinese Americans invented the dish based on tsap seui, a Cantonese dish that translates to ‘miscellaneous leftovers.'”

The second object in our collection, a booklet titled La Choy Book of Chinese Recipes, is the source of this week’s featured recipe for Egg Foo Young. If the La Choy name sounds familiar, it’s because they still exist. Here in Southern California, the brand is carried by Ralph’s grocery stores. La Choy was founded in Detroit, MI, in 1922 by Korean immigrant Dr. Ilhan New and Wally Smith who met and became friends as students at the University of Michigan. New left La Choy by 1930 (you can read more about his accomplished life here), and Smith was killed by lightning in 1937, but the company continued to thrive.

Recipes in the booklet highlighted eight of La Choy’s products: Sub Kum (a canned mixture of sprouts, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots), crunchy chow mein noodles that can be “Eaten like potato chips,” water chestnuts, soy sauce, sprouts, bamboo shoots, brown sauce, and minced kumquats.

In writing about negotiating Asian culinary identities in America, Crystal Rie explains “Even though Asian people were excluded from American society, ‘exotic’ Chinese-style food became a part of the American palate… La Choy’s New engaged in this Chinese-style food trend using the fluidity of Asian identities. In order to overcome social challenges arising from his own Asian identity, he partnered with an Anglo-American college classmate, Wallace Smith.” She cites the work of Dr. Anne Soon Choi who argues that “Smith’s Anglo-American background enabled New to appeal to the mainstream food market beyond the ethnic enclave, and New’s “Asian” appearance also helped to authenticate the company’s Chinese food products. The conflation of diverse Asian groups in the American cultural mind enabled New to apply his Korean ethnicity to Chinese culinary identity interchangeably.” See what I mean about this history being complex and fascinating?

Like the Mandarin cookbook, the authors of the La Choy booklet note their desire to reveal the secrets of Chinese cooking so that anyone could be successful: “Now Chop Suey and other Chinese dishes can be quickly and easily prepared in every American household with La Choy genuine imported products, which constitute the basis, and the secrets as well, of these justly famed and flavorous foods.” Additionally, they highlight another popular concern of the day: health. “Leading dieticians acclaim the healthfulness of these foods. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg [yes…that Kellogg] has found La Choy Sprouts particularly rich in the recently discovered and life-giving vitamins.” (You can read about the discovery of vitamins in 1912 in a previous post in this series).

Canned sprouts were the first product that La Choy took to market, and they are a key ingredient in the Egg Foo Young recipe that I made…and yes…you can still buy canned bean sprouts produced by La Choy! This was a somewhat surprising, but great discovery for the purpose of this post. I can see needing canned bean sprouts in remote or rural areas. Skagway, AK, sure. Bismark, ND, maybe. But Los Angeles? I was thankful to use self check out so that no produce-loving Angeleno could judge me.

Egg Foo Young is another dish whose origins are hard to nail down. Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Louisa Chu sums it up nicely, explaining the dish is said to originate in the southern Chinese coastal province of Guangdong, formerly known as Canton, but “The dish can now be found as a Cantonese hybrid not only in this country, but across Asia too.” One thing she took issue with, however, which I understand on a whole new level having made the recipe, is that the sauce can make or break the dish. “…the reputation of the Chinese-American restaurant dish has been unjustly smeared with poorly made gravy, often nothing more than a cornstarch thickened, soy sauce-colored nightmare.” It is true that not all sauces are created equal.

The full page of featured dishes to make with La Choy’s canned sprouts. Scalloped Sprouts, anyone?

The recipe was very easy to follow. It did not specify what kind of onion to use, so I used green onions. We had leftover ham on hand, so that went into the mixture, as well. I fried one pancake at a time using less oil than suggested in the recipe and they turned out great. Now let’s talk about the gravy. I followed the recipe for Chinese Brown Gravy as noted in the booklet, but I did not have brown sauce (La Choy does not make it any more). Instead, I used oyster sauce. I looked for recipes for brown sauce online and found quite a few like this one, which, surprise, surprise, attributed its origins to Western Chinese food restaurants. What did I end up with? What Ms. Chu described as “poorly made gravy.” It lacked depth. It was runny. It was not how it should be, so I tweaked it. I added 6 tablespoons more of chicken stock, 1 1/2 more teaspoons of corn starch, and 1 teaspoon of nutritional yeast, a deactivated yeast often used in vegetarian recipes and used as a condiment (my family loves it on popcorn). Bingo! It genuinely came to taste like the brown sauce I’d expect to be served with the dish.

After making this first pancake, I reduced the amount of cooking oil to less than a teaspoon.

I tried the canned bean sprouts before adding them to the mixture and they were quite limp and flavorless, as you might expect. We could not really taste them in the dish, but we liked the crunch of all the water chestnuts. All in all, we really enjoyed this 1920s recipe, which we served with a side of fresh bok choy.

Learning the history behind dishes we love can reveal stories we never imagined. Do you have any to share? We’d love to hear from you.

P.S. A huge thanks to the unnamed writer at the now defunct Absolute Michigan website who shared this delightful La Choy Chow Mein commercial from the 1960s. Turns out that Jim Henson produced 11 commercials for the company in the latter half of the decade.

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