When is a Chinese dish not a Chinese dish?
The history of your favourite Chinese dishes may not be all that it seems…
General Tso’s chicken. Sweet and sour pork. Chop suey. Hands up if you’ve ordered one of those dishes at a Chinese Restaurant? Little do you perhaps know, they’re not actually Chinese. Take a seat at any restaurant in China and it’s unlikely you’ll spot them on the menu.
So how did these crowd-pleasing Chinese dishes come to be such beloved favourites? It all started in the late 19th century when Chinese people migrated to the West, settling in cities like New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Living together in Chinatown communities, restaurants began to open catering for locals’ palate as well at the Chinese community’s own.
Recipes were adapted to create sweeter, milder dishes. A simple stir-fry of meat, vegetables and noodles, chop suey (literally translating to ‘mixed small bits’) has misty origins. Some claim it was invented in San Francisco in the 1960s as a dish to serve drunken miners while another account suggests it was created for Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang’s American visit in 1896 by his chef, who tried to create a meal suitable for both Chinese and American palates. What’s clear is that it’s popularity spread like wildfire and was the dish of choice for cosmopolitan Americans by the 1920s.
Taking its name from a formidable nineteenth-century general, General Tso’s chicken, like chop suey, is a Western creation. Initially conceived by chef Peng Chang-kuei in Taiwain in the 1950s based on Hunanese cuisine (hot, sour and salty), New York based chef, Tsung Ting Wang visited Peng’s Taiwan restaurant, poaching the recipe himself. He adapted it for Americans adding a crispier batter. Eventually Peng moved to New York in the 1970s and served a revised recipe himself which included sugar to make it sweeter. As we know it today, General Tso’s chicken is deep fried in a sweet n’ sour sauce served with broccoli, and much-loved across America and the UK.
As for Britain, similarly to America, restaurants started opening in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Chinatown was originally in Limehouse. Chop suey and simple dishes were served. As more Chinese ingredients became available, slowly more fancy restaurants joined the chop suey houses. In the 1950s you’d find chops, pies and buttered bread served with Anglicised Chinese food!
Chinese cuisine took off in the 1960s, with Chinatown London (now in the West End) being the hub for this exotic and tasty food. Crispy won-tons, sweet and sour pork all you can eat buffets, Londoners couldn’t get enough. As Londoner’s palates have broadened and their tastes become more adventurous, Chinatown’s welcomed and incredible array of diverse Asian cuisines. Today, you’ll still find your General Tso’s chicken and chop sueys but you’ll also get to taste authentic mouth-numbing Sichuan, fresh Japanese sushi, fragrant Vietnamese and plenty more besides.
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