Chinese immigrants to the US in the 19th century worked as laborers, particularly on transcontinental railroads such as the Central Pacific Railroad. They also worked as laborers in mining and suffered racial discrimination at every level of society. In 1924 US law barred further entries of Chinese and those already in the United States had been ineligible for citizenship since the previous year. Also by 1924, all Asian immigrants (except people from the Philippines (annexed by the United States in 1898) were excluded by law, denied citizenship and naturalization, and prevented from owning land. In many Western states, Asian immigrants were even prevented from marrying Caucasians.
In the 1940s when the United States and China became allies during World War II, the situation for Chinese Americans begin to improve, as restrictions on entry into the country, naturalization, and mixed marriage were lessened. In 1943, Chinese immigration to the United States was once again permitted—by way of the Magnuson Act—thereby repealing 61 years of official racial discrimination against the Chinese. However, large-scale Chinese immigration did not occur until 1965 when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 lifted national origin quotas. After World War II, anti-Asian prejudice began to decrease, and Chinese immigration increased. Currently, the Chinese constitute the largest ethnic group of Asian Americans (about 22%) in the US. As of the 2010 census, there are more than 3.3 million Chinese in the United States, about 1% of the total population. The influx continues, where each year ethnic Chinese people from the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and to a lesser extent Southeast Asia move to the United States.
Foundations for American Chinese cuisine were brought by immigrants from the southern province of Guangdong, the origin of most Chinese immigration before the restriction of immigrants from China in 1924. These Chinese families developed new styles and used readily available ingredients, especially in California. The type of Chinese American cooking served in restaurants was different from the foods eaten in Chinese American homes. Of the various regional cuisines in China, Cantonese cuisine had been the most influential in the development of American Chinese recipes. Stir-frying, pan frying, and deep frying tended to be the most common Chinese cooking techniques used in American Chinese cuisine, which are all easily done using a wok (a Chinese frying pan with bowl-like features that can withstand very high cooking temperatures. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the United States got its first taste of “authentic” Chinese cuisine. The 1960s brought new arrivals from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland, who in turn brought with them the foods they had enjoyed in areas like Hunan, Sichuan, Taipei, and Shanghai. Today, according to the Chinese American Restaurant Association, there are over 45,000 Chinese restaurants currently in operation across the United States.
Here are two of my favorite recipes.
Sichuan Peppercorn Shrimp
Adapted from Sang Yoon, Los Angeles Chef
1 ½ teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 pound large shrimp—shelled, deveined and butterflied
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 scallions: 1 finely chopped, 1 thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 large or 2 small jalapeño peppers, halved, seeded and thinly sliced
2 whole dried Tien Tsin chile peppers
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Sesame oil, for drizzling
In a small skillet, toast the peppercorns over moderate heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds; let cool. Transfer the peppercorns to a mortar or spice grinder and grind to a powder. Put the shrimp in a bowl, toss with 1 teaspoon of the ground peppercorns and season with sea salt.
In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of the peanut oil. Add the shrimp and stir-fry over moderate heat until almost cooked through, 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate.
Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of peanut oil in the skillet. Add the chopped scallions, garlic, jalapeños and chile and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until the scallions and garlic are softened, 5 minutes. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of ground peppercorns and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the shrimp and lime juice and stir until the shrimp are just cooked through 1 minute. Remove Chinese chile. Transfer to a bowl; garnish with the sliced scallion, drizzle with the sesame oil and serve.
Adapted from David Chang, New York City Chef
4 cups cooked white rice or cauliflower rice
4 thick slices bacon, diced
½ cup onion, finely chopped
½ cup celery, finely diced
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 green onions, sliced
Bring the cooked rice to room temperature; set aside.
In a large deep skillet cook the bacon for 4-5 minutes.
Add the onions and celery, and sauté together for 4-5 minutes more, turning down the heat slightly if too much browning occurs.
Add the peas, and stir to combine. Then gently stir in the rice and sesame oil.
Let the rice mixture heat thoroughly over medium heat. Make a well in the middle, and add the eggs. Stir occasionally to make sure they’re cooking, then stir them into the rice. There should be little bits of cooked egg throughout the rice.