The Chinese have settled around the world, bringing their cuisine with them. And wherever they open a restaurant, they adapt their dishes to the taste of the locals. In the United States, General Tso’s chicken is one of the most iconic American Chinese dishes: crispy deep-fried chicken covered in a sweet, slightly spicy sauce. The feature documentary The Search for General Tso beautifully captures the way Chinese immigrants turned Chinese food – authentic or not – into comfort food for the American people.
1850’s: the Chinese come to America
The first Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the 1850’s through the port of San Francisco as labourers. Even now, over 21% of the city’s population is Chinese American. Back in the day, Chinatowns were seen as slums filled with prostitution, opium dens, generally degrading the American culture. On top of that, there was fear that the cheap Chinese labourers were taking away jobs from the local Americans. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed, which tightly restricted immigration from China and prohibited Chinese from becoming US citizens. The Exclusion Act forced them out of labour, and to survive, they had to become self-employed.
Wherever you go, you don’t cook for yourself. You have to cook what the local people like.
Making food became one of the most important ways the first Chinese immigrants could survive, and with their pragmatic, entrepreneurial spirit they quickly noticed that they could make money by adapting their cooking to the American tastes. Chinese American cuisine was born, and it became the way Chinese Americans gained social and cultural acceptance in the US.
Unfortunately, as communism rose in China and the Chinese became an enemy to the US, life became difficult again for Chinese immigrants as the Americans no longer wanted the chop suey they once loved. It wasn’t until president Nixon visited China in 1972 and raised the Bamboo Curtain that the turning point came for Chinese immigrants as Americans embraced Chinese food into their culture.
Nowadays, you can find a Chinese restaurant wherever you go. I personally don’t eat this type of Westernised Chinese food very often, but that’s not to say I don’t like it. It might not be the most refined food out there, but deliciously crispy, deep-fried chicken smothered in a glossy, sweet, spicy sauce? I’m in!
The feature documentary The Search for General Tso is well worth watching (available on Netflix and Amazon) if you want to know how Chinese food became an essential part of American culture. But be warned: don’t watch it on an empty stomach.