Sunday, October 21, 2012

How Americanized Food Came To Be (My Huffington Post Article)

If you visit any of today's modern Chinese American communities, such as the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles, Flushing in New York, or numerous areas around San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and even Houston, you will find an interesting array of wonderful and delicious Chinese food. Yet when you compare that to what most 20th century Americans believed to be Chinese food, (and what still passes as Chinese food in many parts of the country to this day), there's absolutely no comparison. So what happened?

Of course, this is a complicated question with many factors at play. But the leading cause is the little known history of the immigration patterns from China to the United States. The Chinese first came to the United States during the Gold Rush, went on to build the railroads, then developed the agricultural industry. But few people realize that virtually all these Chinese came from one small part of China: the rural districts of Toishan outside of the city formerly known as Canton. The Toishanese came to America because of a combination of dire circumstances at home and easy access to the seaport of Canton.

Now everything else being equal, people from other parts of China would have eventually started coming to America. However, due to the racial enmity that built among the American populace, the United States passed a series of laws that made it illegal for most residents of China to come to the United States between 1882 and 1943. In 1943, China was given an annual quota of 105 legal immigrants. This is not to say that all of the Chinese who were in the U.S. were the descendents of pre-1882 immigrants. Rather, as the only nationality barred from coming to the United States, the Chinese resorted to various forms of illegal entry to come here anyway. But those who came surreptitiously were exclusively relatives or neighbors of Chinese already here, keeping the population homogenously Toishanese. Indeed, despite the Chinese exclusion laws, it was said that in many Toishanese villages, virtually all of the adult males were in the United States.

Suddenly, the difference between what Americans believed to be Chinese food, such as chop suey, chow mein, moo goo gai pan, won ton soup, and egg foo yung and what we know today as authentic Chinese food, becomes easy to explain. The Chinese who were resident in America until changes in American immigration policy in the 1960s were not geographically representative of the people of China, and furthermore, were rural, not urban, in origin. I like to make the analog that it's the same as if all of the Americans living in China came from someplace like Victorville, California. From this starting point, factor in the lack of availability of popular Chinese ingredients here in the United States, and on top of that throw in the need to adapt the food to make it palatable to Americans. Mix these all together and core 20th century Chinese food becomes understandable as a combination of authentic and modified food prepared by immigrants who came from a single small area of China.

Of course, not all Americanized Chinese food is traceable to Toishanese food and mutations thereof. A new wave of dishes destined to become Americanized Chinese standards arrived on the scene in the late 1960s with dishes such as kung pao chicken, mushu pork, General Tso's chicken, and hot and sour soup joining the pantheon. Once again, immigration was the key to these dishes, as America's doors opened up to more categories of Chinese immigrants beginning in 1965. The first wave of new Chinese immigrants came primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan, as immigration from mainland China would be years away, not until after President Nixon's historic China visit in 1972. But many of the Taiwanese newcomers were Nationalists who fled from the mainland, bringing with them their penchant for a spicier Chinese cuisine than that of the Toishanese or the Hong Kong peoples. Branding this new, spicy regime as Hunan or Szechwan style, and significantly tweaking the food to suit the locals, Taiwanese chefs took New York by storm and captured the imagination of Manhattan. But this was faux Hunan- and faux Szechwan-style food adapted to New York tastes, as true Hunan and Szechwan food from immigrants from those regions bringing their native foods to America would not arrive on our shores for decades. So once again, even these new style Chinese dishes were not particularly representative of the food actually found in China, but that didn't stop it from sweeping across the entire United States.

So really, what America has come to know as Chinese food for 150 years is really a combination of historical accidents and adaptation to American tastes. In contrast, today's authentic Chinese food in the United States represents not only advances in culinary sophistication, but more importantly, reflects that Chinese and their food from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and all regions of mainland China are now represented in the United States. And that's quite a difference.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Californians Are Special

As a proud Californian, I like to think we're ahead of the curve on a lot of things. This is the land of innovation where many national and international trends get started, so indeed we here in California are special. But not everything about being special is good. Last week I was in Las Vegas, where I paid about $3.60 for a gallon of gasoline. Then I come back to Los Angeles to find gasoline priced a dollar higher at $4.60 per gallon. Besides hearing rightfully outraged consumers being interviewed on the radio and television, the airwaves have also been full of politicians expressing their outrage and promising to get to the bottom of the mess, implying collusion, profiteering, and other dastardly behavior could be to blame.

However, there is no conspiracy theory to be proved. This is just a matter of California being special. Specifically, the problem is California special blend gasoline. California has mandated that only special blends of gasoline may be sold within the state to minimize air pollution. Indeed, there are two special blends, one for winter and one for summer use. Gasoline sold in most of the rest of the United States is unfit for use in California. What this means is that California gasoline is a specialty product, which is only manufactured by a small number of refiners. So if the regular source of gasoline sold in Nevada is knocked off line, it can be easily replaced by other gasoline on the market, with little disruption in supply or price. But when one California gasoline refinery goes off line, like the Chevron refinery in Richmond which has been closed for months by a fire, there is a measurable effect on supply and price. And when there is a second disruption like the Exxon plant power failure last week, the effect is magnified. So it's no mystery what caused the price spike in California gasoline--it's the mandatory special California gasoline requirements imposed by the state of California. The politicians all know this is what is going on, and they are just pandering to the public who is unaware of the economics involved.

Now given the precarious supply situation in California, the conspiracy theorists strongly suggest that California gasoline refinery problems are actually orchestrated to restrict supply and jack up prices. However, the fallacy in this assertion can be easily demonstrated by the fact that the producer whose facility goes off line does not benefit from the higher prices, since the producer doesn't have any gasoline to sell at the higher price. Does anybody really think Chevron is happy that their refinery is going to be closed for several months before reopening while everybody else's refinery is in full operation? [Update: Chevron's quarterly earnings were down 33 percent.} But everybody loves a conspiracy so this point is never raised.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Road To 6,000 Chinese Restaurants

The original L.A. Weekly/Huffington Post/ item on my visits to over 6,000 Chinese restaurants has generated all sorts of comments. One common reaction has been disbelief, with a number of commenters actually trying to do the math. How could I possibly have eaten at 6,000 different Chinese restaurants, since that would require trying a new Chinese restaurant every day for over 16 years? And even if you did one a day, wouldn't you run out of new Chinese restaurants to try?

Well the question is a valid one, but there really is an explanation. First of all, I've been doing this for more than 16 years, more like 35 years, though in the older days there weren't that many places worth trying. But more importantly, a good chunk of those 6,000 restaurants are located outside of my Los Angeles home base. When I'm home, I probably average at most maybe just two or three new Chinese restaurants a week, a pace which would indeed take forever to reach 6,000. However when I'm out of town I literally eat four or even five meals a day, each at a different restaurant. Consequently a four day trip to New York or San Francisco can easily add 20 restaurants to the listing, with most of my non-work hours devoted to scouting for food. I've perfected the breakfast and lunchtime subway dash between Midtown Manhattan and Chinatown (take the B or D train from under the Sheraton Hotel to Grand Ave.). And San Francisco is an especially fruitful destination, since besides the large quantity of good Chinese restaurants there, if I order a bad dish somewhere I don't have to finish it, but rather I can pack it up and give it to one of the homeless people that are ubiquitous around San Francisco Chinatown at night (where I always stay, though do not necessarily eat). That's what I call a win-win situation--leftovers for the homeless and I don't have to fill myself up on something that's not very good.

Once in a while I get even more ambitious, like the dim sum crawl through the suburbs of Toronto that I previously blogged about two years ago, where I hit up six dim sum restaurants one Sunday between 9 am and 3 pm. Or similarly the eight hour drive I took from Miami to Boca Raton (a straight line distance of less than 50 miles) as I zig zagged across South Florida to the scattered Chinese restaurants I had located in the Miami area Chinese newspaper.

Sometimes I'll drive, rather than fly to meetings in places like San Francisco, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Phoenix to sample Chinese restaurants on the way to my destination. (When else would I get a chance to try the dim sum in Palm Springs, Fresno or Bakersfield?) And when I do fly into the Bay Area for a meeting in San Francisco, I often fly into San Jose instead, so I may eat at restaurants in Silicon Valley or somewhere else between San Jose and San Francisco before making my way into the City. Attending a meeting in Washington D.C.? A couple of times I flew to New York and then rented a car, so I could sample some of the eateries between New York and D.C. Another out of town strategy is that I often make it a point to stay in a hotel closer to the focal point of Chinese food than my business site to maximize my access to Chinese restaurants. Also, that makes me feel more like a local as I drive 20 miles to my work destination, rather than staying on premises. Things like that are a necessary part of getting to 6,000.

A corollary to these rules is that when scheduled for a trip to one city, if that city doesn't have a large representation of Chinese restaurants, I'll look for relatively nearby (by my standards) localities that expand the pool. For example, after attending numerous meetings in Orlando and pretty much trying all of the worthwhile Chinese food there, I've driven at dinnertime to Tampa, St. Petersburg and even Gainesville and Cocoa Beach. A trip to San Antonio meant arriving in town two days early to enable side trips to Austin and Houston. And of course there were my driving marathons mentioned in previous blog posts, such as from Dallas to Houston and back the same day after taking the early morning flight from Los Angeles to Dallas. Or Monterey to Silicon Valley, twice--in the same day.

A corollary to the corollary is that aside from the Chinese food, my side excursions also provide an opportunity to see sights that I wouldn't otherwise get to visit, and which I have found to be quite enjoyable. Yes, that was a circuitous trip around South Florida, but I got to drive along the other Hollywood Blvd., and rode the entire length of Hypoluxo Road asking myself why would they name a major street after a chemical process? (Hypoluxo turned out to be a Native American chieftain.) And I saw how the urban area abruptly ended at the Everglades, and how they built way too many new houses in that metro area. I learned that most businesses in the Chinese suburbs of Toronto were not located in storefronts on the streets, but in giant shopping malls, often largely obscured from street view. So while the food was the immediate goal, there are definitely major non-culinary benefits.

And don't forget the phone books. Each year when the new Los Angeles Yellow Pages come out I check the restaurant listings to see if there are any new neighborhood restaurants I may have missed.

So yes, the road to 6,000 was real, but you just have to work extra hard to make it happen.