American's interest in Chinese food began in the late 19th century, when many thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the United States. Today, the cuisine can be found in savory and affordable abundance almost everywhere in the country. Over the years, this has become a recipe for cross-cultural exploration and understanding.
It is hot and crowded in the kitchen at Big Wong, one of several thousand Chinese restaurants in New York City, and one of dozens that compete for business on this one narrow Chinatown street alone. While a chef fills and stirs special chicken and sauce in his giant bowl-shaped cooking pan - called a "wok," a native New Yorker and lifelong Chinese food lover, paces out front by the dining room cashier, awaiting the results.
"I come here a lot and I like Chinese food a lot. Sometimes I sit here and eat, but most of the time, I take it out. I never eat with a fork and knife. I only eat with chopsticks." When asked just what he likes about Chinese food, he rolls his eyes and says "The way it tastes! And the price is right. Now don't go raising the prices on me," he adds with a laugh.
The nation's first Chinese restaurants catered to itinerant Chinese workers who came to the West Coast in the mid-1800s to help build the railroads and work in the gold mines. Before long, the native population became curious and sampled the fare… and Chinese restaurateurs worked hard to serve food that seemed both exotic and familiar. Sometimes entirely new recipes were created.
Cynthia Lee, a curator at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York City, says that the food Americans call "chop suey" - a food whose name literally means "bits and pieces" in Chinese" is a prime example of this inventiveness.
"Chop suey was a very new taste for Americans, putting bits and pieces of meat and vegetables together so that you don't really know what it is and then putting it over rice." Considered exotic by New Yorkers, Ms. Lee says chop suey was "something desirable, something unique and interesting and something that made them feel a little sophisticated."
And yet, at the same time the dishes used familiar ingredients like cabbage and mushrooms, just in a different way. "That idea of taking disparate parts, throwing it together in a new way is quintessentially American," says Ms. Lee.
Being a newcomer in a land of opportunity is also a quintessential American experience. But for most of the 19th century and much of the 20th century, Chinese immigrants had a harder time than most ethnic groups in entering the mainstream. Ms. Lee says that this was largely due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Among other injustices, this law cut off almost all immigration from China, and prevented any Chinese who were already in the United States from becoming naturalized citizens - no matter how long their family had been in America. "You could actually serve your country, you could grow up here and feel completely American, and yet not be recognized as an American." Such an experience "means marginalization," she adds.
Cynthia Lee says that their "outsider" status encouraged many Chinese business people to welcome members of other non-mainstream groups into their establishments, especially Jews, who were also often treated as outsiders, and African Americans, who were commonly refused service in restaurants run by whites. "Anecdotally, I've had African Americans and Jewish Americans tell me that 'the Chinese restaurant was one place where I could be served respectfully,'" she says.
Immigration restrictions were relaxed during World War II, when China became America's ally against Japan. President Richard Nixon's visit to China in the early 1970s not only opened diplomatic relations, but also created an interest among Americans in many aspects of the culture, and an increased appetite for Chinese food.
Today, Chinese restaurateurs like Frank Cheng of "Ollie's" restaurant continue to be unofficial cultural ambassadors. "We can introduce them to good Chinese food," he says with a thick Mandarin accent, "the color, the taste, and also [a] good smile!"
For American food lovers there are lots of new reasons to smile. Immigrants from less familiar regions of China have been entering the United States in record numbers in recent years, and dazzling new varieties of Chinese regional cuisine are becoming available on America's Main Streets.