The comfort of strangers
Chinese restaurants began to open in America in the mid-19th century, clustering on the west coast where the first immigrants landed. They mostly served an Americanised version of Cantonese cuisine— chop suey, egg fu yung and the like. In that century and much of the 20th, the immigrants largely came from China’s south-east, mainly Guangdong province.
After the immigration reforms of 1965 removed ethnic quotas that limited non- European inflows, Chinese migrants from other regions started to arrive. Restaurants began calling their food “Hunan” and “Sichuan”, and though it rarely bore much resemblance to what was actually eaten in those regions, it was more diverse and boldly spiced than the sweet, fried stuff that defined the earliest Chinese menus. By the 1990s adventurous diners in cities with sizeable Chinese populations could choose from an array of regional cuisines. A particular favourite was Sichuan food, with its addictively numbing fire (the Sichuan peppercorn has a slightly anaesthetising, tongue- buzzing effect).
Yet over the decades, as Chinese food became ubiquitous, it also—beyond the niche world of connoisseurs—came to be standardised. There are almost three times as many Chinese restaurants in America (41,000) as McDonald’s. Virtually every small town has one and, generally, the menus are consistent: pork dumplings (steamed or fried); the same two soups (hot and sour, wonton); stir-fries listed by main ingredient, with a pepper icon or star indicating a meagre trace of chilli-flakes. Dishes over $10 are grouped under “chef’s specials”. There are modest variations: in Boston, takeaways often come with bread and feature a dark, molasses-sweetened sauce; a Chinese-Latino creole cuisine developed in upper Manhattan. But mostly you can, as at McDonald’s, order the same thing in Minneapolis as in Fort Lauderdale.
Until recently, the prices varied as little as the menus—and they were low. Eddie Huang, a Taiwanese-American restaurateur turned author and presenter, recounts how his newly arrived father kept his prices down because “immigrants can’t sell anything full-price in America.”