A Chinese American restaurant in the Hưng Yên province, Vietnam

American Chinese cuisine is a cuisine derived from Chinese cuisine that was developed by Chinese Americans. The dishes served in many North American Chinese restaurants are adapted to American tastes and often differ significantly from those found in China.


Theodore Wores, 1884, Chinese Restaurant, oil on canvas, 83 x 56 cm, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento

Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States seeking employment as miners and railroad workers. As larger groups arrived, laws were put in place preventing them from owning land. They mostly lived together in ghettos, individually referred to as "Chinatown". Here the immigrants started their small businesses, including restaurants and laundry services.[1] Early American-Chinese food tended to be homogeneous, needing to adapt to local ingredients and catering to an Americanized taste. "It was like if all the Americans in China were from a small town 100 miles outside of Los Angeles. Very underrepresented,". [1]

By the 19th century, the Chinese community in San Francisco operated sophisticated and sometimes luxurious restaurants patronized mainly by Chinese. The restaurants in smaller towns (mostly owned by Chinese immigrants) served food based on what their customers requested, anything ranging from pork chop sandwiches and apple pie, to beans and eggs. Many of these small-town restaurant owners were self-taught family cooks who improvised on different cooking methods using whatever ingredients were available.[1]

These smaller restaurants were responsible for developing American Chinese cuisine, where the food was modified to suit a more American palate. First catering to miners and railroad workers, they established new eateries in towns where Chinese food was completely unknown, adapting local ingredients and catering to their customers' tastes.[2] Even though the new flavors and dishes meant they were not strictly Chinese cuisine, these Chinese restaurants have been cultural ambassadors to Americans.[3]

Chinese restaurants in the United States began during the California Gold Rush (1848–1855), which brought 20,000–30,000 immigrants across from the Canton (Guangdong) region of China. The first Chinese restaurant in America is debated. Some say it was Macau and Woosung, while others cite Canton Restaurant.[4][5] Both unphotographed establishments were founded in 1849 in San Francisco. Either way, these and other such restaurants were central features in the daily lives of immigrants. They provided a connection to home, particularly for the many bachelors who did not have the resources or knowledge to cook for themselves. In 1852, the ratio of male to female Chinese immigrants was a 18:1.[6] These restaurants served as gathering places and cultural centers for the Chinese community. By 1850, there were five Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. Soon after, significant amounts of food were being imported from China to America's west coast.[citation needed]

The trend spread steadily eastward with the growth of the American railways, particularly to New York City.[7] The Chinese Exclusion Act allowed merchants to enter the country, and in 1915, restaurant owners became eligible for merchant visas. This fueled the opening of Chinese restaurants as an immigration vehicle.[8] Pekin Noodle Parlor, established in 1911, is the oldest operating Chinese restaurant in the country.[9] As of 2015, the United States had 46,700 Chinese restaurants.[10]

Along the way, cooks adapted southern Chinese dishes and developed a style of Chinese food not found in China, such as chop suey. Restaurants (along with Chinese laundries) provided an ethnic niche for small businesses at a time when Chinese people were excluded from most jobs in the wage economy by ethnic discrimination or lack of language fluency.[11] By the 1920s, this cuisine, particularly chop suey, became popular among middle-class Americans. However, after World War II it began to be dismissed for not being "authentic",[by whom?] though it continued to be popular.

In 1955, the Republic of China (having itself retreated to Taiwan) evacuated the Dachen Islands in the face of the encroaching Communists. Many who evacuated to Taiwan later moved to the United States as they lacked strong social networks and access to opportunity in Taiwan. Chefs from the Dachen Islands had a strong influence on American Chinese food.[12]

Beginning in the 1950s, Taiwanese immigrants replaced Cantonese immigrants as the primary labor force in American Chinese restaurants. These immigrants expanded American-Chinese cuisine beyond Cantonese cuisine to encompass dishes from many different regions of China as well as Japanese-inspired dishes.[12]

Chinese-American restaurants played a key role in ushering in the era of take-out and delivery food in the United States. In New York City, delivery was pioneered in the 1970s by Empire Szechuan Gourmet Franchise, which hired Taiwanese students studying at Columbia University to do the work. Chinese American restaurants were among the first restaurants to use picture menus in the US.[12]

Taiwanese immigration largely ended in the 1990s due to an economic boom and democratization in Taiwan. From the 1990s onward, immigrants from China once again made up the majority of cooks in American Chinese restaurants.[12] There has been a consequential component of Chinese emigration of illegal origin, most notably Fuzhou people from Fujian[13] and Wenzhounese from Zhejiang in mainland China, specifically destined to work in Chinese restaurants in New York City, beginning in the 1980s.

Adapting Chinese cooking techniques to local produce and tastes has led to the development of American Chinese cuisine. Many of the Chinese restaurant menus in the US are printed in Chinatown, Manhattan,which has a strong Chinese-American demographic.[14]

Late 20th-century tastes have been more accommodating to the local residents.[15] By this time, it had become evident that Chinese restaurants no longer catered mainly to Chinese customers.[16]

In 2011, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History displayed some of the historical background and cultural artifacts of American Chinese cuisine in its exhibit entitled, Sweet & Sour: A Look at the History of Chinese Food in the United States.[17]

Differences from other regional cuisines in China

A lot of the foods that Americans call "Chinese food" were created in America, including fortune cookies, crab rangoon, and General Tso's chicken. American Chinese food builds from styles and food habits brought from the southern province of Guangdong, often from the Toisan district of Toisan, the origin of most Chinese immigration before the closure of immigration from China in 1924. These Chinese families developed new styles and used readily available ingredients, especially in California.[18] The type of Chinese-American cooking served in restaurants was different from the foods eaten in Chinese-American homes. [19][15] Of the various regional cuisines in China, Cantonese cuisine has been the most influential in the development of American Chinese food.[20][21]

American Chinese food typically features different types and greater quantities of meat than traditional Chinese cuisine.[22] Another major difference between Chinese and American-Chinese cuisine is in the use of vegetables. Salads containing raw or uncooked ingredients are rare in traditional Chinese cuisine.[23] An increasing number of American Chinese restaurants, including some upscale establishments, have started to offer these items in response to customer demand. While cuisine in China makes frequent use of Asian leaf vegetables like bok choy and gai-lan, American Chinese cuisine makes use of some ingredients not native to and very rarely used in China, for example, Western broccoli (Chinese: 西蘭; pinyin: xīlán) instead of Chinese broccoli (gai-lan, 芥蘭; jièlán).[24] (Occasionally, Western broccoli is also referred to as sai1 laan4 fa1 in Cantonese (西蘭花) in order to distinguish the two.)

Chinese ingredients considered "exotic" in North America have become more available over time, including fresh fruits and vegetables which previously had been rare. For example, edible snow pea pods have become widely available, while the less-known dau miu (also called "pea sprouts", "pea pod stems", or "pea shoots") are also appearing on menus, and even in supermarkets in North America.

A Chinese buffet restaurant in the United States

American-Chinese food also has had a reputation for high levels of MSG to enhance flavor. In recent years[when?], market forces and customer demand have encouraged many restaurants to offer "MSG Free" or "No MSG" menus, or to omit this ingredient on request.[24]

Carryout Chinese food is commonly served in a paper carton with a wire bail, known as an oyster pail.

Egg fried rice in American Chinese cuisine is also prepared differently, with more soy sauce added for more flavor whereas the traditional egg fried rice uses less soy sauce. Some food styles, such as dim sum, were also modified to fit American palates, such as added batter for fried dishes and extra soy sauce.[25]

Both Chinese and American-Chinese cooking utilize similar methods of preparation, such as stir frying, pan frying, and deep frying, which are all easily done using a wok.

Ming Tsai, the owner of the Blue Ginger restaurant[26] in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and host of PBS culinary show Simply Ming, said that American Chinese restaurants typically try to have food representing 3-5 regions of China at one time, have chop suey, or have "fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce", "eight different sweet and sour dishes", or "a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes". Tsai said "Chinese-American cuisine is 'dumbed-down' Chinese food. It's adapted... to be blander, thicker and sweeter for the American public".[27]

Most American Chinese establishments cater to non-Chinese customers with menus written in English or containing pictures. If separate Chinese-language menus are available, they typically feature items such as liver, chicken feet, or other meat dishes that might deter American customers (such as offal). In Chinatown, Manhattan, some restaurants are known for having a "phantom" menu with food preferred by ethnic Chinese, but believed to be disliked by non-Chinese Americans.[24]

Chop suey, made with garlic chicken and peapods, on fried rice
An unopened fortune cookie


Menu items not found in China

Dishes that often appear on American Chinese restaurant menus include:

Wonton strips are commonly served as complimentary appetizers along with duck sauce and hot mustard

Other American Chinese dishes

Dau miu is a Chinese vegetable that has become popular since the early 1990s, and now not only appears on English-language menus, usually as "pea shoots", but is often served by upscale non-Asian restaurants as well. Originally it was only available during a few months of the year, but it is now grown in greenhouses and is available year-round.

Versions of dishes also found in China

Egg foo young
Fried rice is generally prepared with rice cooled overnight, allowing restaurants to put leftover rice to good use (freshly cooked rice is actually less suitable for fried rice).
The Chinese-American version of this dish typically uses more soy sauce than the versions found in China.
Fried rice is offered with different combinations of meat (pork, chicken and shrimp are the most popular) and vegetables.

Regional variations

New York City

The New York metropolitan area is home to the largest Chinese population outside of Asia,[40][41] which also constitutes the largest metropolitan Asian-American group in the United States and the largest Asian-national metropolitan diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. The Chinese-American population of the New York City metropolitan area was an estimated 893,697 as of 2017.[42]

Given the New York metropolitan area's continuing status as by far the leading gateway for Chinese immigrants to the United States, all popular styles of every Chinese regional cuisine have commensurately become ubiquitously accessible in New York City,[43] including Hakka, Taiwanese, Shanghainese, Hunanese, Szechuan, Cantonese, Fujianese, Xinjiang, Zhejiang, and Korean Chinese cuisine. Even the relatively obscure Dongbei style of cuisine indigenous to Northeast China is now available in Flushing, Queens,[44] as well as Mongolian cuisine and Uyghur cuisine.[45]

Kosher preparation

Main article: Jewish American Chinese restaurant patronage

Kosher preparation of Chinese food is also widely available in New York City, given the metropolitan area's large Jewish and particularly Orthodox Jewish populations.

The perception that American Jews eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas Day is documented in media.[46][47][48] The tradition may have arisen from the lack of other open restaurants on Christmas Day, the close proximity of Jewish and Chinese immigrants to each other in New York City, and the absence of dairy foods combined with meat.

Kosher Chinese food is usually prepared in New York City, as well as in other large cities with Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, under strict rabbinical supervision as a prerequisite for Kosher certification.

Los Angeles County

Chinese populations in Los Angeles represent at least 21 of the 34 provincial-level administrative units of China, along with the largest population of Taiwanese-born immigrants outside of Taiwan, making greater Los Angeles home to a diverse population of Chinese people in the United States.[49]

Chinese-American cuisine in the Greater Los Angeles area is concentrated in Chinese ethnoburbs rather than traditional Chinatowns. The oldest Chinese ethnoburb is Monterey Park, considered to be the nation's first suburban Chinatown.[50]

Although Chinatown in Los Angeles is still a significant commercial center for Chinese immigrants, the majority are centered in the San Gabriel Valley which is the one of the largest concentration of Asian-Americans in the country, stretching from Monterey Park into the cities of Alhambra, San Gabriel, Rosemead, San Marino, South Pasadena, West Covina, Walnut, City of Industry, Diamond Bar, Arcadia, and Temple City.

The Valley Boulevard corridor is the main artery of Chinese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley. Another hub with a significant Chinese population is Irvine (Orange County). More than 200,000 Chinese Americans live in the San Gabriel Valley alone, with over 67% being foreign born.[51] The valley has become a brand-name tourist destination in China, although droughts in California are creating a difficult impact upon its water security and existential viability.[52] Of the ten cities in the United States with the highest proportions of Chinese Americans, the top eight are located in the San Gabriel Valley, making it one of the largest concentrated hubs for Chinese Americans in North America.[53]

Some regional styles of Chinese cuisine include Beijing, Chengdu, Chonqing, Dalian, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Hunan, Mongolian hot pot, Nanjing, Shanghai, Shanxi, Shenyang, Wuxi, Xinjiang, Yunnan, and Wuhan.[54]

San Francisco Bay Area

Since the early 1990s, many American Chinese restaurants influenced by California cuisine have opened in the San Francisco Bay Area. The trademark dishes of American Chinese cuisine remain on the menu, but there is more emphasis on fresh vegetables, and the selection is vegetarian-friendly.

This new cuisine has exotic ingredients like mangos and portobello mushrooms. Brown rice is often offered as an alternative to white rice.

Some restaurants substitute grilled wheat flour tortillas for the rice pancakes in mu shu dishes. This occurs even in some restaurants that would not otherwise be identified as California Chinese, both the more Westernized places and the more authentic places. There is a Mexican bakery that supplies some restaurants with thinner tortillas made for use with mu shu. Mu shu purists do not always react positively to this trend.[55]

In addition, many restaurants serving more native-style Chinese cuisines exist, due to the high numbers and proportion of ethnic Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Restaurants specializing in Cantonese, Sichuanese, Hunanese, Northern Chinese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong traditions are widely available, as are more specialized restaurants such as seafood restaurants, Hong Kong-style diners and cafes, also known as Cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; chácāntīng), dim sum teahouses, and hot pot restaurants. Many Chinatown areas also feature Chinese bakeries, boba milk tea shops, roasted meat, vegetarian cuisine, and specialized dessert shops.

Chop suey is not widely available in San Francisco, and the area's chow mein is different from Midwestern chow mein.


Chinese cuisine in Boston results from a combination of economic and regional factors, in association with the wide Chinese academic scene. The growing Boston Chinatown accommodates Chinese-owned bus lines shuttling an increasing number of passengers to and from the numerous Chinatowns in New York City, and this has led to some exchange between Boston Chinese cuisine and that in New York.

A large immigrant Fujianese immigrant population has made a home in Boston, leading to Fuzhou cuisine being readily available there. An increasing Vietnamese population has also had an influence on Chinese cuisine in Greater Boston.

In addition, innovative dishes incorporating chow mein and chop suey as well as locally farmed produce and regionally procured seafood are found in Chinese as well as non-Chinese food in and around Boston. The selection of Chinese bakery products has increased markedly in the 21st century, although the range of choices in New York City remains supreme.

Joyce Chen introduced northern Chinese (Mandarin) and Shanghainese dishes to Boston in the 1950s, including Peking duck, moo shu pork, hot and sour soup, and potstickers, which she called "Peking Ravioli" or "Ravs".[56] Her restaurants would be frequented by early pioneers of the ARPANET,[57] as well as celebrities such as John Kenneth Galbraith, James Beard, Julia Child, Henry Kissinger, Beverly Sills, and Danny Kaye.[58] A former Harvard University president called her eating establishment "not merely a restaurant, but a cultural exchange center".[59] In addition, her single-season PBS national television series Joyce Chen Cooks popularized some dishes which could be made at home, and she often encouraged using substitute ingredients when necessary.


The evolving American Chinese cuisine scene in Philadelphia has similarities with the situation in both New York City and Boston. As with Boston, Philadelphia is experiencing significant Chinese immigration from New York City, 95 miles (153 km) to the north,[60] and from China, the top country of birth by a significant margin for a new arrivals there .[61]

There is a growing Fujianese community in Philadelphia as well, and Fuzhou cuisine is readily available in the Philadelphia Chinatown. Also, emerging Vietnamese cuisine in Philadelphia is contributing to evolution in local Chinese cuisine, with some Chinese-American restaurants adopting Vietnamese influences or recipes.

Washington, D.C.

Although Washington, D.C.'s Chinese community has not achieved as high of a local profile as that in other major cities along the Mid-Atlantic United States, it is now growing, and rapidly so, due to the gentrification of DC's Chinatown and the status of Washington, D.C., as the capital of the United States. The growing Chinese community in DC. and its suburbs has revitalized the influence of Chinese cuisine in the area.

Washington, D.C.'s population is 1% Chinese, making them the largest single Asian ancestry in the city. However, the Chinese community in the DC area is no longer solely concentrated in the Chinatown, which is about 15% Chinese and 25% Asian, but is mostly concentrated throughout various towns in suburban Maryland and Northern Virginia. The largest concentration of Chinese and Taiwanese in the DC area is in Rockville, Maryland, in Montgomery County.

A popular dish localized in Chinese American carryouts across the DMV region consists of whole fried chicken wings served with mumbo sauce; a sweet, tangy ketchup-based condiment.[62]

In DC proper, there are Chinese-owned restaurants specializing in both Chinese American and authentic Chinese cuisine. Regional variations of Chinese cuisine that restaurants in DC specialize in include Shanghainese cuisine, Cantonese cuisine, Uyghur cuisine, Mongolian cuisine, and Sichuan cuisine. In the suburbs of DC in Maryland and Virginia, many of which have a much higher Chinese population than DC, regional variations present aside from the ones previously mentioned include Hong Kong cuisine, Hunan cuisine, Shaanxi cuisine, Taiwanese cuisine, and Yunnan cuisine.[citation needed]

Puerto Rico

Main article: Puerto Rican Chinese cuisine


Hawaiian-Chinese food developed somewhat differently from Chinese cuisine in the continental United States.

Owing to the diversity of Pacific ethnicities in Hawaii and the history of the Chinese influence in Hawaii, resident Chinese cuisine forms a component of the cuisine of Hawaii, which is a fusion of different culinary traditions. Some Chinese dishes are typically served as part of plate lunches in Hawaii.

The names of foods are different as well, such as Manapua, from the Hawaiian contraction of "Mea ono pua'a" or "delicious pork item" from the dim sum bao, though the meat is not necessarily pork.

Other regions

Chain restaurants

A typical Panda Express meal: Kung Pao chicken, orange chicken, chow mein and steamed vegetables

Popular culture

Many American films (for example: The Godfather; Ghostbusters; The Lost Boys; The Naked Gun; Crossing Delancey; Paid in Full; and Inside Out) involve scenes where Chinese take-out food is eaten from oyster pails. A consistent choice of cuisine in all these cases, however, might just be an indicator of its popularity. A running gag in Dallas is Cliff Barnes' fondness for inexpensive Chinese take-out food, as opposed to his nemesis J. R. Ewing frequenting fine restaurants.[65]

Among the numerous American television series and films that feature Chinese restaurants as a setting include A Christmas Story, Seinfeld (particularly the episode "The Chinese Restaurant"), Sex and the City, Big Trouble in Little China, South Park, Year of the Dragon, Lethal Weapon 4, Mickey Blue Eyes, Booty Call, Rush Hour 2, and Men in Black 3.[66][67] In most cases, it is not an actual restaurant but a movie set that typifies the stereotypical American Chinese eatery, featuring "paper lanterns and intricate woodwork", with "numerous fish tanks and detailed [red] wallpaper [with gold designs]" and "golden dragons", plus "hanging ducks in the window".[66][67]

Cultural impact

Impact on United States

In 2023, there are more Chinese restaurants in the United States than all American fast food restaurants combined. Chinese American cuisine provides an option for Americans to taste Chinese food, which is adapted to both Chinese and American flavors. It allows people in America to learn more about Chinese traditional culture and customs. In this process, Chinese Americans have developed a new cuisine which is different from "traditional Chinese food," and contribute to the food diversity in America. Through running their own restaurants or eateries, first-generation Chinese immigrants eliminated discrimination against them and gained sufficient income to send the next generations to universities or colleges.[2] For Chinese Americans, American Chinese cuisine has already become part of their childhood memories and life,[3] which also would be a bridge between Chinese and American cultures. For example, Panda Express and P.F. Chang's, two of the most famous American Chinese restaurants in the United States that have become the symbol of American Chinese cuinsine and have gained appreciation from many Americans.

In addition, American Chinese cuisine brought some new ingredients and cooking methods to the United States, such as stir-frying and steaming. Thus, many restaurants in the United States started to combine existing dishes with Chinese cooking techniques and flavors, which promoted the development of fusion cuisine.[4] Introduction of Chinese food also triggered people's curiosity about more Asian food, such as Japanese, Thai and Singaporean food, and led to a prevalence of Asian cuisine.

Impact on China

Although Chinese people will regard American Chinese food as inauthentic food and less likely to have it, or they will not recognize American Chinese cuisine, in recent years, some American Chinese food restaurants have opened in some cities of China, such as Beijing and Shanghai.[68][5] P.F. Chang's, a restaurant chain specialized in American Chinese food, opened a new restaurant in Shanghai, China. The CEO of this chain Michael Osanloo revealed his positive attitude towards the future of opening more chain restaurants in China because he believed that Chinese people would like to try something new.[6] Most owners of those American Chinese restaurants opened in China are Chinese Americans. Their primary target customers were people from foreign countries and students who have had study abroad experiences. However, many native Chinese people, especially younger generations have a greater willingness to try American Chinese food. Yinhao Xu, the owner of Americanized Chinese eatery-Bamboo Chinese Fast Food in Beijing, said that he was surprised that some younger generations without overseas experiences have a higher level of acceptance of American-style Chinese cuisine.[68] The reason for that is cultural impact; many American Chinese cuisines appear in many American shows or movies, such as Friends and The Big Bang Theory, which leads young people in China to want to try American Chinese food.

Impact to other countries

South Korea

Woktionary, an American Chinese restaurant opened in Seoul, South Korea, provides authentic American Chinese food, such as Chow mein and Mongolian beef. Meanwhile, the head chef Kim also added new flavors to some of the dishes.[8]

At the same time, Panda Express also opened a restaurant in Seoul, South Korea. The CEO of the company indicated that many Korean customers were already expecting for their opening.[9]


The first Panda Express in Japan was opened in November 2016 in Kawasaki. It is dedicated to providing the original taste of American Chinese food to Americans in Japan. It offers similar menus in Japan compared to Panda Express restaurants in the United States, such as Orange Chicken, Beijing Beef, and Fortune cookies. Nevertheless, the restaurant also tries to implement localization by offering a limited dish only in Japan: Sweet and Pungent Shrimp.[13]

See also


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References and further reading