There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wendy's, combined — 40,000, actually. Chinese restaurants have played an important role in American history, as a matter of fact. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved in a Chinese restaurant called Yenching Palace in Washington, DC, which unfortunately is closed now, and about to be turned into Walgreen's. And the house where John Wilkes Booth planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is also now a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll, on H Street in Washington.
And it's not completely gratuitous, because "wok" and "roll" — Chinese food and Japanese foods, so it kind of works out. And Americans love their Chinese food so much, they've actually brought it into space. NASA, for example, serves thermostabilized sweet-and-sour pork on its shuttle menu for its astronauts.
So, let me present the question to you: If our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie, you should ask yourself: how often do you eat apple pie, versus how often do you eat Chinese food?
And if you think about it, a lot of the foods that we or Americans think of as Chinese food are barely recognizable to Chinese. For example: beef with broccoli, egg rolls, General Tso's Chicken, fortune cookies, chop suey, the take-out boxes. For example, I took a whole bunch of fortune cookies back to China, gave them to Chinese to see how they would react.
[What is this?]
[Should I try it?]
[What is this called?]
[There's a piece of paper inside!]
[What is this?]
[You've won a prize!]
[What is this?]
[It's a fortune!]
So where are they from? The short answer is, actually, they're from Japan. And in Kyoto, outside, there are still small family-run bakeries that make fortune cookies, as they did over 100 years ago, 30 years before fortune cookies were introduced in the United States. If you see them side by side, there's yellow and brown. Theirs are actually flavored with miso and sesame paste, so they're not as sweet as our version. So how did they get to the US? Well, the short answer is, the Japanese immigrants came over, and a bunch of the bakers introduced them — including at least one in Los Angeles, and one here in San Francisco, called Benkyodo, which is on the corner of Sutter and Buchanan. Back then, they made fortune cookies using very much the similar kind of irons that we saw back in Kyoto.
The interesting question is: How do you go from fortune cookies being something that is Japanese to being something that is Chinese? Well, we locked up all the Japanese during World War II, including those that made fortune cookies. So that's when the Chinese moved in, saw a market opportunity and took over.
So, fortune cookies: invented by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese, but ultimately consumed by Americans. They're more American than anything else.
Another of my favorite dishes: General Tso's Chicken — which, by the way, in the US Naval Academy is called Admiral Tso's Chicken.
I love this dish. The original name of my book was "The Long March of General Tso." And he has marched very far indeed, because he is sweet, he is fried, and he is chicken — all things that Americans love.
He has marched so far, actually, that the chef who originally invented the dish doesn't recognize it; he's kind of horrified.
Video: (In Chinese)
He's in Taiwan right now. He's retired, deaf and plays a lot of mah–jongg. After I showed him this, he got up, and says, "mòmíngqímiào," which means, "This is all nonsense," and goes back to play his mah-jongg game during the afternoon.
Another dish, one of my favorites: beef with broccoli. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable; in fact, it is originally an Italian vegetable. It was introduced into the United States in the 1800s, but became popularized in the 1920s and the 1930s. The Chinese have their own version of broccoli, called Chinese broccoli, but they've now discovered American broccoli, and are importing it as a sort of exotic delicacy.
I guarantee you, General Tso never saw a stalk of broccoli in his life. That was a picture of General Tso. I went to his home town. This is a billboard that says: "Welcome to the birthplace of General Tso." And I went looking for chicken. Finally found a cow — and did find chicken. Believe it or not, these guys were actually crossing the road.
And I found a whole bunch of General Tso's relatives who are still in the town. This guy is now five generations removed from the General; this guy is about seven. I showed them the pictures of General Tso Chicken, and they were like, "We don't know this dish. Is this Chinese food?" Because it doesn't look like Chinese food to them. But they weren't surprised I traveled around the world to visit them, because in their eyes he is, after all, a famous Qing dynasty military hero. He played an important role in the Taiping Rebellion, a war started by a guy who thought he was the son of God and baby brother of Jesus Christ. He caused a war that killed 20 million people — still the deadliest civil war in the world to this day. So, you know, I realized when I was there, General Tso is kind of a lot like Colonel Sanders in America, in that he's known for chicken and not war. But in China, this guy's actually known for war and not chicken.
But the granddaddy of all the Chinese American dishes we probably ought to talk about is chop suey, which was introduced around the turn of the 20th century. According to the New York Times in 1904, there was an outbreak of Chinese restaurants all over town, and "... the city has gone 'chop suey' mad." So it took about 30 years before the Americans realized that chop suey is actually not known in China, and as this article points out, "The average native of any city in China knows nothing of chop suey." Back then it was a way to show you were sophisticated and cosmopolitan; a guy who wanted to impress a girl could take her on a chop suey date. I like to say chop suey is the biggest culinary joke one culture ever played on another, because "chop suey," translated into Chinese, means "jaahp-seui," which, translated back, means "odds and ends." So, these people are going around China asking for chop suey, which is sort of like a Japanese guy coming here and saying, "I understand you have a very popular dish in your country called 'leftovers.'"
And not only that: "This dish is particularly popular after that holiday you call 'Thanksgiving.'"
So, why and where did chop suey come from? Let's go back to the mid-1800s, when the Chinese first came to America. Back then, Americans were not clamoring to eat Chinese food. In fact, they saw these people who landed at their shores as alien. These people weren't eating dogs, they were eating cats. If they weren't eating cats, they were eating rats. In fact, The New York Times, my esteemed employer, in 1883 ran an article that asked, "Do Chinese eat rats?" Not the most PC question to be asked today, but if you look at the popular imagery of the time, not so outlandish. This is actually a real advertisement for rat poison from the late 1800s. And if you see under the word "Clears" — very small — it says, "They must go," which refers not only to the rats, but to the Chinese in their midst, because the way that the food was perceived was that these people who ate foods different from us must be different from us.
Another way that you saw this antipathy towards the Chinese is through documents like this. This is in the Library of Congress. It's a pamphlet published by Samuel Gompers, hero of our American labor movement. It's called, "Some Reason for Chinese Exclusion: Meat versus Rice: American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism: Which shall survive?" And it basically made the argument that Chinese men who ate rice would necessarily bring down the standard of living for American men who ate meat. And as a matter of fact, then, this is one of the reasons we must exclude them from this country. So, with sentiments like these, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed between 1882 and 1902, the only time in American history when a group was specifically excluded for its national origin or ethnicity. So in a way, because the Chinese were attacked, chop suey was created as a defense mechanism.
Who came up with the idea of chop suey? There's a lot of different mysteries and legends, but of the ones I've found, the most interesting is this article from 1904. A Chinese guy named Lem Sen shows up in Chinatown, New York City, and says, "I want you all to stop making chop suey, because I am the original creator and sole proprietor of chop suey. And the way he tells it, there was a famous Chinese diplomat that showed up, and he was told to make a dish that looked very popular and could, quote, "pass" as Chinese. And as he said — we would never print this today — but basically, the American man has become very rich. Lem Sen: "I would've made this money, too, but I spent all this time looking for the American man who stole my recipe. Now I've found him and I want my recipe back, and I want everyone to stop making chop suey, or pay me for the right to do the same. So it was an early exercise of intellectual property rights.
The thing is, this idea of Chinese-American food doesn't exist only in America. In fact, Chinese food is the most pervasive food on the planet, served on all seven continents, even Antarctica, because Monday night is Chinese food night at McMurdo Station, which is the main scientific station in Antarctica. You see different varieties of Chinese food. For example, there is French Chinese food, where they serve salt and pepper frog legs. There is Italian Chinese food, where they don't have fortune cookies, so they serve fried gelato. My neighbor, Alessandra, was shocked when I told her, "Dude, fried gelato is not Chinese." She's like, "It's not? But they serve it in all the Chinese restaurants in Italy."
Even the Brits have their own version. This is a dish called "crispy shredded beef," which has a lot of crisp, a lot of shred, and not a lot of beef. There is West Indian Chinese food, there's Jamaican Chinese food, Middle Eastern Chinese food, Mauritian Chinese food. This is a dish called "Magic Bowl," that I discovered. There's Indian Chinese food, Korean Chinese food, Japanese Chinese food, where they take the bao, the little buns, and make them into pizza versions.
And they totally randomly take Chinese noodle dishes, and just ramenize them. This is something that, in the Chinese version, has no soup. So, there's Peruvian Chinese food, which should not be mixed with Mexican Chinese food, where they basically take things and make it look like fajitas.
And they have things like risotto chop suey. My personal favorite of all the restaurants I've encountered around the world was this one in Brazil, called "Kung Food."
So, let's take a step back and understand what is to be appreciated in America. McDonald's has garnered a lot of attention, a lot of respect, for basically standardizing the menu, decor and dining experience in post-World War II America. But you know what? They did so through a centralized headquarters out of Illinois. Chinese restaurants have done largely the same thing, I would argue, with the menu and the decor, even the restaurant name, but without a centralized headquarters. So, this actually became very clear to me with the March 30, 2005 Powerball drawing, where they expected, based on the number of ticket sales they had, to have three or four second-place winners, people who match five or six Powerball numbers. Instead, they had 110, and they were completely shocked.
They looked all across the country and discovered it couldn't be fraud, since it happened in different states, across different computer systems. Whatever it was, it caused people to behave in a mass-synchronized way. So, OK, maybe it had to do with the patterns on the pieces of paper, like it was a diamond, or diagonal. It wasn't that, so they're like, OK, let's look at television. So they looked at an episode of "Lost." Now, I don't have a TV, which makes me a freak, but very productive —
And there's an episode of "Lost" where one guy has a lucky number, but it's not a lucky number, it's why he's on the island, but they looked and the numbers did not match. They looked at "The Young and The Restless." It wasn't that, either. It wasn't until the first guy shows up the next day and they ask him, "Where did you get your number?" He said, "I got it from a fortune cookie." This is a slip one of the winners had, because the Tennessee lottery security officials were like, "Oh, no, this can't be true." But it was true. Basically, of those 110 people, 104 of them or so had gotten their number from a fortune cookie.
Yeah. So I went and started looking. I went across the country, looking for these restaurants where these people had gotten their fortune cookies from. There are a bunch of them, including Lee's China in Omaha — which is actually run by Koreans, but that's another point, and a bunch of them named "China Buffet." What's interesting is that their stories were similar, but different. It was lunch, it was take-out, it was sit-down, it was buffet, it was three weeks ago, it was three months ago. But at some point, all these people had a very similar experience that converged at a fortune cookie and a Chinese restaurant. And all these restaurants were serving fortune cookies, which, of course, aren't even Chinese to begin with. It's part of the phenomenon I called "spontaneous self-organization," where, like in ant colonies, little decisions made on the micro level actually have a big impact on the macro level.
A good contrast is Chicken McNuggets. McDonald's actually spent 10 years coming out with a chicken-like product. They did chicken pot pie, fried chicken, and finally introduced Chicken McNuggets. And the great innovation of Chicken McNuggets was not nuggifying them, that's kind of an easy concept. The trick was, they were able to remove the chicken from the bone in a cost-efficient manner, which is why it took so long for people to copy them — 10 years, then within a couple months, it was such a hit, they introduced it across the entire McDonald's system in the country.
In contrast is General Tso's Chicken, which actually started in New York City in the early 1970s, as I was also started in this universe in New York City in the early 1970s.
And this logo! So me, General Tso's Chicken and this logo are all karmicly related. But that dish also took about 10 years to spread across America from a restaurant in New York City. Someone's like, "It's sweet, it's fried, it's chicken — Americans will love this."
So what I like to say, this being Bay Area, Silicon Valley, is that we think of McDonald's as sort of the Microsoft of dining experiences. We can think of Chinese restaurants perhaps as Linux, sort of an open-source thing, right?
Where ideas from one person can be copied and propagated across the entire system, that there can be specialized versions of Chinese food, depending on the region. For example, in New Orleans we have Cajun Chinese food, where they serve Sichuan alligator and sweet and sour crawfish. And in Philadelphia, you have Philadelphia cheesesteak roll, which is like an egg roll on the outside and cheesesteak on the inside. I was surprised to discover that not only in Philadelphia, but also in Atlanta. What had happened was, a Chinese family had moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta, and brought that with them.
So the thing is, our historical lore, because of the way we like narratives, is full of vast characters, such as Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Ray Kroc with McDonald's and Asa Candler with Coca-Cola. But, you know, it's very easy to overlook the smaller characters. For example, Lem Sen, who introduced chop suey, Chef Peng, who introduced General Tso's Chicken, and all the Japanese bakers who introduced fortune cookies. So, the point of my presentation is to make you think twice; that those whose names are forgotten in history can often have had as much, if not more, impact on what we eat today.
Thank you very much.