American Chinese food: More than “just takeout”

By Cathy Erway, The New York Times

In 1983, Tim Ma’s parents opened Bamboo Garden in Conway, Arkansas. It was a side hustle — his mother was in graduate school, and his father worked full time as a medical technician. As owners of the only Chinese restaurant in their small town, the Mas made good money in their first year. But it wasn’t without setbacks. There was the brick hurled into their family’s home, the drunken driver who crashed into the restaurant’s dining room and the eventual arrival of competition, when their talented chef opened his own restaurant across the street.

The struggles the Mas endured informed their son’s future career in food, and his new restaurant, Lucky Danger. The Washington, D.C., takeout spot, which he opened with Andrew Chiou in November, is a reflection of the Asian American experience, he said.

“It is a kind of respect for our elders,” Ma said of Lucky Danger. “That’s a little bit of the mission here.”

Tim Ma, right, and Andrew Chiou, ...
Shuran Huang, The New York Times

Tim Ma, right, and Andrew Chiou, the owners of the Lucky Danger takeout restaurant in Washington, May 8, 2021. A new generation of Chinese American chefs is celebrating the inventiveness, resourcefulness and deliciousness of American Chinese food with menus dedicated to the classics.

Billed as “American Chinese by a Chinese American,” Lucky Danger serves many of the American Chinese classics that Bamboo Garden once did — lo mein and fried rice dishes, orange beef, cashew chicken — as well as less conventional offerings inspired by the chef’s personal tastes and experiences, including a Taiwanese-style omelet with dried radish and a whole branzino dish.

Lucky Danger joins a new generation of American Chinese takeout restaurants redefining how this food is regarded. Historically, “most Chinese eaters have really disdained Americanized Chinese food,” said David R. Chan, a historian and archivist of Chinese food in America. Intimately aware of Chinese food’s long and complicated history in the United States, the owners and chefs behind this new crop of restaurants are proud of their Americanized offerings. With a more modern emphasis on branding, marketing and operations, they’re transforming what Chinese takeout can be.

“American Chinese food is a really great case study in how cultures come together,” said Lucas Sin, the executive chef and co-owner of Nice Day Chinese Takeout, which opened in New York City’s West Village last summer. Having grown up in Hong Kong and attended college in the United States, Sin is fascinated by the cuisine’s ability to absorb influences from all over. Nice Day’s website describes American Chinese food as “a wonderfully inventive and flavorful regional Chinese cuisine.”

The notion of American Chinese food as a legitimate subcategory of Chinese cooking is a fairly recent and radical idea, according to Chan. That sensibility is on full display at Lucky Danger and Nice Day, as well as at San Francisco takeout shops Mamahuhu and Lazy Susan, where the owners are committed to the classics — at least from a culinary standpoint.

“People chalk it up to ‘just takeout,’ but what I see is a lot of ingenuity, observation and a lot of skill,” said Brandon Jew, the chef-owner at San Francisco’s lauded Mister Jiu’s and the owner of Mamahuhu, a casual American Chinese restaurant that opened in January 2020. “No question, that is why people love it so much — because there was so much thoughtfulness in how it was done.”

Traditionally, meat is used sparingly to stretch across vegetables and rice, a resourceful hallmark of the cuisine. Even the precise way the chicken is cut for a sweet-and-sour dish contributes to the overall experience of eating it, Jew said. Inspired by historical recipes, the sweet-and-sour sauce at Mamahuhu is made with pineapple juice, honey and hawthorn berries, which impart an earthy flavor and reddish tint.

Hanson Li, left, and Tiffany Yam, ...
Aaron Wojack, The New York Times

Hanson Li, left, and Tiffany Yam, center, the co-owners of the Lazy Susan takeout-only restaurant in San Francisco, June 8, 2021. A new generation of Chinese American chefs is celebrating the inventiveness, resourcefulness and deliciousness of American Chinese food with menus dedicated to the classics.

“As much as I am interested in Chinese food on the mainland, because I’m cooking for an American audience, I’m interested in what Chinese chefs have done here, too,” he said.

Chinese food’s evolution in America goes back more than 150 years, and can be traced to the first wave of immigration in the 19th century, when mostly Taishan men found work in the United States as laborers. After taxes aimed at foreign workers and violent attacks effectively barred many immigrants from holding jobs, some of them opened restaurants, offering humble stir-fries with no direct parallels in China, said Jennifer 8. Lee, the author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” a history of Chinese food in America. The cooking was improvisational, a means of survival rather than a point of pride. Dishes like moo goo gai pan and chop suey — which roughly translates to “odds and ends” — were the beginnings of a culinary tradition.

“The recipes that are American Chinese were created by people who were forced to cook for a living,” Lee said, “and they developed a series of dishes that served the American palate.” Many of the dishes followed a formula: a protein that was familiar to American eaters with quickly stir-fried vegetables, covered in a thick sauce and served with rice. The addition of bean sprouts, water chestnuts and baby corn provided texture, and was seen as an exciting novelty for non-Chinese eaters, Lee said.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 largely limited mainland China’s influence on the cuisine. But it did not stymie the expansion of Chinese restaurants in America, which continued to proliferate in cities and suburbs. Chinese chefs adopted ingredients that had become fashionable in the United States, such as broccoli. The Tiki-bar craze of the mid-20th century, which fetishized an imagined South Pacific landscape, trickled into American Chinese restaurants by way of appetizers like crab Rangoon.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ushered in a new wave of immigrants from China and Taiwan, including trained cooks who introduced American diners to a broader variety of regional cuisines, and expanded the repertoire of Chinese food enjoyed in the United States.

“All the sudden you’re getting what you might call authentic Cantonese food from Hong Kong,” Chan said. Yet even as they introduced dishes from provinces like Hunan and Sichuan (and opened restaurants bearing those names), catering to local palates often meant adapting them beyond recognition — a kung pao chicken that’s more sweet than spicy, or a deep-fried cashew chicken born out of a Springfield, Missouri, restaurateur’s failure to tempt residents with Cantonese seafood dishes.

“Chinese restaurant owners are very resourceful,” said Chan. “They were able to find their niche quickly and roll with the times.”

The emphasis on takeout and delivery was just another way these restaurateurs’ tried to “meet Americans where they were,” Lee said. In the 1970s and ’80s, the American family increasingly consisted of two working parents who sought convenient meals. While takeout options were largely limited to pizza and fast food, Chinese restaurants offered families more variety and healthier options, like shrimp with snow peas and beef with broccoli, Lee said.

With the cuisine’s growth came backlash. The “Chinese-restaurant syndrome” hoax has long fueled stigma regarding the consumption of Chinese food and monosodium glutamate (MSG) — a flavor enhancer used in most processed foods. While some Chinese American restaurateurs have struggled to shake off assumptions of American Chinese food as cheap and inauthentic, and others have chosen to break from the takeout model and go upscale, the owners and chefs at Lazy Susan, Lucky Danger, Mamahuhu and Nice Day are proud of the cuisine’s affordable and accessible legacy.

Hanson Li, a co-founder of Lazy Susan, recalled the Chinese restaurant he frequented growing up in Rochester, New York. It served home style Chinese dishes, like zha cai rou si mian — noodles with shredded pork and pickled mustard greens — as well as dishes his immigrant parents would not have recognized as Chinese. But each “was delicious in its own way,” Li said.

Glazed and fried dishes like General Tso’s chicken felt indulgent by contrast.

“Eating that crab Rangoon was a childhood treat for a lot of us,” Li said.

The takeout-only menu at Lazy Susan, which opened in February, was designed by Eric Ehler, a chef and consultant, and celebrates that duality. The contrast of American and Chinese influences on the cuisine may be best showcased by the “garlic broccolis” dish featuring sautéed Chinese and broad-crown varieties.

Lazy Susan and Nice Day hope to expand their businesses with more locations. The biggest challenge to growth is training cooks who can master the fast wok cooking the cuisine requires — a skill not taught by American culinary institutions. According to Yong Zhao, a co-founder and CEO of Nice Day, America’s Chinese restaurants are facing a “generational cliff” as older operators retire and their children climb the economic ladder. But there hasn’t been a commensurate decline in demand for American Chinese food.

“I think people should continue to crave it and get it, but without a new generation of stewards it won’t be sustainable,” Zhao said.

Sweet-and-sour chicken at Mamahuhu, a takeout ...
Peter Prato, The New York Times

Sweet-and-sour chicken at Mamahuhu, a takeout shop in San Francisco, June 6, 2021. A new generation of Chinese American chefs is celebrating the inventiveness, resourcefulness and deliciousness of American Chinese food with menus dedicated to the classics.

Lazy Susan, Lucky Danger, Mamahuhu and Nice Day look a lot like the beginnings of that new guard. And their owners are only learning from their predecessors — like Ma from his parents, or Tiffany Yam, a co-founder of Lazy Susan, from her father, David Yam, who has owned Chinese restaurants in the United States for nearly 30 years.

“I think a lot of Asian restaurants in general serve a big menu and they can’t handle it,” said David Yam. “Doing well on each thing and improving it is better.”

Consistency is key, he said, something these newer restaurants have taken to heart. All four businesses offer much leaner menus than those at the typical American Chinese restaurant, which can often list more than 100 items. Tiffany Yam’s Lazy Susan has a more pared-down menu than any of her father’s restaurants ever did.

Despite the many challenges a nascent takeout spot can face — opening during a pandemic among the toughest of them — David Yam is proud that his daughter chose to get into the business of making Chinese food, and is happy to share trade secrets.

“He’s really happy now because I’m calling him like, ‘Dad, how did you make your crab Rangoon?’” Tiffany Yam said.

Cashew Chicken

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Total time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

For the Chicken and Batter:

  • 1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine

For the Breading:

  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda

For the Dish:

  • 2 cups canola or peanut oil
  • 1/2 yellow onion, cut into 1-inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 small carrot, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 celery stalk, cut into 1-inch dice
  • 4 ounces (drained) canned whole water chestnuts or peeled jicama, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 2 ounces (drained) canned whole straw mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon minced rehydrated garlic (or 4 fresh garlic cloves, minced)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1 cup whole roasted cashews
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 pinch MSG (optional), such as Aji-No-Moto brand seasoning
  • Steamed rice (optional), for serving

Preparation

1. In a medium bowl, combine the chicken, batter ingredients and 2 tablespoons water. Mix them by hand until the dry ingredients are evenly distributed.

2. In a separate medium bowl, sift together the breading ingredients.

3. Working with one piece of chicken at a time, drop each battered piece into the breading and lightly toss it to coat. (Do not press the breading onto the chicken.) Shake the excess breading off, then place the breaded chicken onto a wire rack-lined baking sheet, leaving space between each piece.

4. Heat the oil in a large wok or skillet to 325 degrees. Gently drop the chicken into the oil one piece at a time, spacing them out evenly. Let them fry, undisturbed, for 7 to 8 minutes, until the pieces are deeply golden brown, then remove them with a spider or slotted spoon and transfer to a paper towel-lined tray to drain.

5. Turn off the heat and carefully pour out oil into a heatproof container or pot to discard once it cools. Carefully scrape out any specks from the wok or pan with a paper towel held by tongs. Do not rinse the wok.

6. Heat the wok over medium-high. Add the onion, carrot, celery, water chestnuts, mushrooms and garlic. Stir-fry until the garlic and celery become aromatic, about 2 minutes.

7. Push the vegetables to one side of the wok. Add the sugar to the center of the wok and don’t stir it for several seconds, to encourage it to caramelize a little. Then add the soy sauce and oyster sauce, and stir until the sugar has dissolved into the liquids. Toss the vegetables into the sauce. Let the sauce come up to a full boil and stir occasionally for 2 minutes, allowing it to slightly reduce and thicken.

8. Stir in the fried chicken and cashews. Give the cornstarch-slurry a stir and add it to the sauce, stirring as it thickens. Remove from heat.

9. Stir in the sesame oil and MSG (if using), and transfer to a serving platter. Serve with rice, if desired.

Sweet and Sour Pork

Yield: 4 servings

Total time: 45 minutes, plus at least 2 hours’ marinating

Ingredients

For the Pork and Marinade:

  • 3/4 pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1 1/4-inch chunks
  • 3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

For the Sweet-and-Sour Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as rice bran or canola
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 1/4 cups rice vinegar
  • 1 cup pineapple juice
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon dried hawthorn berries (can be purchased in Asian groceries or online)
  • 2 teaspoons sambal oelek
  • 1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch

For Frying:

  • 1 quart neutral oil, such as rice bran, for deep-frying
  • 1 bell pepper (any color), cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 8 ounces fresh pineapple, cut into 1-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Steamed rice, for serving

For the Batter:

  • 1/3 cup sweet rice flour (preferably Mochiko brand)
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Preparation

1. Prepare the pork: Combine the pork with all the marinade ingredients, mixing well. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

2. Make the sweet-and-sour sauce: Heat the oil, ginger and garlic in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another minute, stirring. Add the rice vinegar, pineapple juice, honey, hawthorn berries, sambal oelek and five-spice powder; stir to combine while bringing to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve and discard the solids; return to the saucepan.

3. Reduce the sauce to about 1 3/4 cups over medium-high heat, uncovered, about 5 minutes. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt, adding more as desired.

4. In a small bowl, combine cornstarch with 2 tablespoons water. Bring the sauce up to a boil again, then stir in the cornstarch slurry. Stir as it thickens and bubbles, about 1 minute, then remove from heat. (Note: This sauce recipe may produce more than needed for your pork stir-fry; use as much as you desire and the rest can be saved for another use, such as a dipping sauce for crab Rangoon.)

5. Prepare to deep-fry: In a large wok (or deep skillet), heat the quart of oil to 350 degrees.

6. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients for the batter; add 1/2 cup water and whisk to combine. Drain any excess liquid from the marinated pork and discard. Working quickly in two batches, carefully dip each piece of pork into the batter one at a time, shaking off any excess, and drop into the oil. Fry the first batch of pork until golden brown, about 6 to 7 minutes. Using a spider or slotted spoon, transfer the fried pork to a wire rack-lined baking sheet to drain. Repeat with the remaining pork, mixing the batter thoroughly before coating the meat. After frying, carefully discard the oil, reserving 1 tablespoon.

7. Return the reserved 1 tablespoon of oil to the wok or pan and heat over high. Once the oil is popping, about 1 minute, add the bell pepper, onion, pineapple and a pinch of salt. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, until the vegetables are lightly charred in spots.

8. Scrape the vegetables into a large bowl and toss with the fried pork and enough sweet-and-sour sauce to coat (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups). Arrange on a serving dish and serve with steamed rice.

Crab Rangoon

Yield: 42 to 50 pieces

Total time: 1 hour, plus softening

Ingredients

For the Crab Rangoon:

  • 2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese
  • 3 tablespoons sliced scallion greens
  • 1/2 lemon, zested
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups/7.5 ounces lump crab meat (preferably Dungeness, or substitute with imitation crab)
  • 1 (12-ounce) package yellow square (about 3 1/2-inch) wonton wrappers (about 50)
  • All-purpose flour, for dusting
  • 3 quarts rice bran or canola oil

For the Dipping Sauce (optional):

  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar

Preparation

1. Remove the cream cheese from its packaging, set it in a large bowl and let it soften at room temperature for at least 1 hour.

2. Make the dipping sauce, if desired: Stir the ketchup, sugar and rice vinegar in a small saucepan over medium-high heat and bring it just to a boil, whisking until the sugar dissolves. Set aside to cool completely.

3. Add the scallions, lemon zest, sugar and salt to the softened cream cheese. Using clean hands, gently flake the crab meat into a separate bowl; pick out any shell fragments. Using a silicone spatula, mix the shredded crab into the cream cheese mixture until evenly incorporated.

4. Unwrap the wonton wrappers from their packaging and separate them from one another. (This will speed up the process when filling them.) Stack them loosely and completely cover with a damp paper towel to keep them moist. Place 1 cup water in a nearby bowl.

5. Place a wrapper on a flat surface, rotated in a diamond position. Spoon 2 to 3 teaspoons of the filling into its center, using another small spoon to assist scraping it off the teaspoon. Dip your index finger into the water, then use it to moisten the entire edge of the wrapper. To make a simple Rangoon, fold the wrapper into a triangle by pulling one corner to its opposite corner, pressing out any air and sealing the wonton shut. To make a star-shaped Rangoon, lift the left and right corners underneath between your index fingers and thumbs, and lift them up toward the center, pinching your index fingers and thumbs along the seams to fold each tip as you do it, so that a four-pointed star shape forms. Squeeze out any air, then seal the wrapper along the other two tips so the filling is entirely encased.

6. Place the sealed Rangoon on a sheet pan or flat surface dusted with flour as you repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. Freeze them for at least 15 minutes (or up to 2 weeks in an airtight container) before cooking to ensure that they leak less during frying.

7. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven to 350 degrees. (The temperature will fluctuate when frying, but make sure the oil doesn’t smoke or dip below 300 degrees.) Keep the oil over a medium flame or half power on an electric range to help maintain the temperature. Working in batches, fry the Rangoons until golden brown and crispy, about 3 to 4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a paper towel-lined baking sheet.

8. Let cool a few minutes before enjoying, as they will be lava-hot out of the fryer. Enjoy with the optional dipping sauce or another sauce of your choice.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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