Macao and Woosung, founded by Chinese immigrant Norman Asing in 1849 is the first recorded Chinese restaurant in the U.S.
Where was the first Chinese buffet served & when?
“Chinese” food first stalked American appetites around the time of the San Francisco Gold Rush when, according to the Smithsonian Institution, the first recorded Chinese restaurant on U.S. territory opened in 1849. It was called Macao and Woosung and was founded by Norman Asing, who developed what may have been the first all-you-can-eat buffet, charging a buck for the splurge. His innovation spawned a flurry of “chow chows,” and they blessed America with an enduring legacy: chop suey.”
Mark Stuertz, Dallas Observer, October 16, 2003, Dining/Reviews
The History of American Chinese Food
Today, Chinese Americans make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, but roughly one-third of all ethnic restaurants in the U.S. are ‘Chinese,’ and every supermarket carries a line of ‘Chinese’ food.
It started with the Gold Rush of 1849. As thousands of ‘Forty-Niners’ streamed into California in search of gold, whole boom-towns – including a tent city named San Francisco – sprang up to supply their needs.
One merchant who set up shop in San Francisco was a Chinese American named Norman Asing. He opened a restaurant called, “The Macao and Woosung” and charged $1 for an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It was the first Chinese restaurant on U.S. territory, and it was a hit with miner and other San Franciscans. Asing’s success inspired dozens of other Chinese immigrants to open restaurants, called “chow chows”.
Made in Canton (Guangzhou)
Over the next three decades, hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrated to the United States. By 1882 – when Congress curtailed Chinese immigration – there were more than 300,000 Chinese nationals living on the West Coast.
Most came from the Kwangtung Province, whose capital city was Canton. So most Chinese restaurants carried Cantonese-style food.
In Cantonese cuisine, very little goes to waste: nearly every part of an animal that can be eaten is used in one dish or another
It was considered adventurous eating for most white Americans at the turn of the century. Typically, one food critic who ate in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1800s wrote that he was served “pale cakes with a waxen look full of [strange] meats… then giblets of you-never-know-what, maybe gizzards… perhaps toes.
Before long, however, Chinese cooks learned how to modify their dishes to make them more palatable to a wider American audience. The result: Chinese-American cuisine, food that looked and tasted “Chinese” but was actually invented in the U.S. and was unknown in China.
By the 1920s, Chinese restaurants dotted the American landscape.
In fact, not even Chinese food itself, as it’s served in North America, is authentic. The recipes used to prepare food in Chinese restaurants do not actually come from China; instead, they are pure Chinese-American inventions. In order to de-mystify this phenomenon, the following is a short and sweet account of the history of Chinese food in North America.
The Gold Rush of 1849 was responsible for Chinese food as we know it today.
‘Forty-Niners’ by the thousands rushed to California in search of gold, and in order to supply their needs, whole boomtowns were created, including a little tent city called San Francisco. Chinese immigrants also traveled west due to the demand for railroad workers and to fill associated jobs in the service sector.
Norman Asing was one such merchant of Chinese-American background who set up shop in San Francisco. One historian described him as a “cadaverous but keen old fellow” with a long ponytail and stovepipe hat. He opened a restaurant offering an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet for which he only charged $1. The restaurant was called ‘The Macao and Woosung’. This first Chinese restaurant in the US was a hit with miners and other San Franciscans. The successful enterprise inspired many other Chinese immigrants to open restaurants, then known as ‘chow chows.’
- Hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrated to the United States in the following decades. The majority of these people came from the Kwangtung Province, whose capital city was Canton, resulting in American Chinese restaurants serving Cantonese-style food.
- John Mariani, in his book ‘America Eats Out’, says “Going out for Chinese was considered adventurous eating for most white Americans at the turn of the century.” Every part of an animal that could be eaten was used in one dish or other, from giblets to gizzards, to the vast assortment of various innards. “Before long, however,” Mariani writes, “Chinese cooks learned how to modify their dishes to make them more palatable to a wider American audience.” The result was Chinese-American cuisine, food that looked and tasted Chinese but was actually invented in the US and was unknown in China.
- Chop Suey, for example, got its start in 1850 when a bunch of hungry miners busted their way into a chow-chow late at night and demanded to be fed. The chef just stirred all the table scraps and leftovers he could find into a big mess and served it. The miners loved it. When asked what it was, the chef replied, “chop sui” which means “garbage bits” in Cantonese. The dish remained virtually unheard of in China until after World War II; today, it’s advertised as American cuisine!
- It is important to note that most of these Chinese men went west to work on the railroads temporarily and that most did not necessarily know how to cook in the pre-feminist days. As a result, downright culinary mistakes would easily be committed. Fried rice, for example, was never supposed to be brown (and still isn’t in China today)
- Chow Mein was a mixture of noodles and vegetables, probably served to railroad crews in the 1850’s, and stems from a Mandarin dialect word meaning “fried noodles.” Egg Foo Yung is from a Guangdong word meaning “egg white” (translated literally Egg Foo Yung means “egg egg white”). Likewise, Won Ton soup, egg rolls, barbecued spareribs, and sweet-and-sour pork were all concocted to whet American appetites. : :
- Fortune cookies were invented in 1916 by George Jung, a Los Angeles noodlemaker, who gave them to customers at his Hong Kong Noodle Company to distract them while they waited for their orders.
- By the 1920’s, Chinese restaurants dotted the American landscape, and up until the 1970’s, Chinese-American cuisine remained almost exclusively ‘Cantonese-style’. If you’re a fan of Szechuan or Hunan style cooking, thank Richard Nixon. He opened the People’s Republic of China to the West in the 70’s, and with this new openness came ‘new’ Chinese cuisine. And what about true Polynesian cuisine? Well, I’ll let you know when I get back from the islands of the South Pacific one day.