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Curious but Palatable Chinese Dishes, and How To Make Them

Since the influx of Chinese immigrants during the 19th century, Chinese cuisine in America has undergone a variety of changes.  Chinese immigrants during the second half of the 19th century lived in segregated “Chinatowns” throughout the American frontier. Chinese businessmen and family-cooks combined to open restaurants catering to their local population. These restaurants served dishes that preserved and reflected their different Chinese cultural and regional identities. Initially, Chinese foods were not accepted or liked by the American public because they were perceived as foreign. From the 1890s onward, Chinese dishes began changing to appeal to the American taste by using more “American” ingredients and cooking techniques.

This article from Frank Leslie’s Weekly provides insight into American Chinese food and its preparation. Reference librarians, students, faculty, historians, and researchers, using Frank Leslie’s Weekly, can trace the development of America in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Researchers interested in popular culture will find Frank Leslie’s Weekly full of unique information covering every phase of America’s evolution for over 70 years. This collection creates endless possibilities for new and more thorough research.

Curious but Palatable Chinese Dishes, and How To Make Them

By Harriet Quimby

MANY different races are domiciled in New York City, but of all the races the Chinese have the most defined quarter as well as the most interesting. The Chinaman does not yield to the gradual assimilation with the country in general as do the other foreigners, but he likes to make a little China of his own in this country and to keep to himself. This quality of exclusiveness and indifference attracts hundreds of visitors to the Chinatowns of New York and other cities, and brings prosperity to the various shops and eating places abounding in these colonies. It is the latter especially that are patronized by the American visitors, always on the qui vive for something new. It has become quite a fad with many Americans to learn the Chinese art of eating with chopsticks. Much fun is caused at dinner parties in Chinese restaurants by the awkwardness of beginners in this art. Some Occidentals acquire it very readily, while others are never able to master it.

The Chinaman, it must be admitted, knows how to cook, and he cooks with such skill that the peculiar mingling of flavors in which he delights pleases the Occidental as well as the Oriental palate. The excellence of Chinese food may be due to the influence of religion in the kitchen, for the god which presides over this portion of the Chinese home is considered an important one among the deities.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.

The preparation of food is a very important thing to the Chinaman, and even as he is laid in the grave the favorite national dishes are left on his sodded bed, to regale his hungry spirit when the living return to their homes. The attractive thing about a dinner in the Chinese quarter of New York is its novelty. The tables of teakwood, richly inlaid with pearl, are coverless. The china used is of odd design and still more odd decoration, and the entire place, in its foreign atmosphere, is a departure from the every-day restaurant. As a key to the culinary mysteries of a Chinese dinner, a visit to the Chinese greengrocer’s, prior to the feast, will be of unusual interest. The shop itself will present a curious picture, the main figure of which is a quaintly garbed man, who will pay very little attention to white visitors, beyond permitting them to look about, for he does not dream of any of them purchasing of his stock.

In the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant Port Arthur—cooks preparing for the evening rush of American visitors who like pineapple chicken. Frank Leslie’s Weekly, April 15, 1909.

In the kitchen of the Chinese restaurant Port Arthur—cooks preparing for the evening rush of American visitors who like pineapple chicken. – Frank Leslie’s Weekly, April 15, 1909.

He continues his lively conversation in a not unmusical singsong with the several representatives of his own race who seem to have nothing to do but to sit about and enjoy themselves. Everything found in this shop is either imported or grown by Chinese farmers in this country.

The principal products from the local farms are beans, squashes, the peculiar, bloom-covered Chinese watermelon, and a vegetable that looks like a cucumber, but is very different in taste. A long, white-stemmed vegetable with a yellow flower, known as “bock chuey,” is the Chinese cabbage. The rat-tailed cucumber is called “sing kwa.” The Chinese turnip is like an American radish, only it is much larger and sweeter and is delicious when eaten raw. Water chestnuts, which are seen in great quantities, are imported from China. They are small, crisp, something like a potato, but much sweeter and finer flavored. In the different shops of the quarter may be found dried mushrooms, dried salt olives, rice, macaroni, dried oysters and shrimps, and abalones. A few of the articles which do not appeal so much to the Occidental taste are the shark fins, bird’s-nests, sea slugs—the latter about five inches in length, dried, and similar to an abalone, except in shape— and seaweed, which comes in disks and is sent in great quantities from China. The moss is used much as the Irish use moss for soups and stews. It is also considered an important medicine.

Dried shrimps form one of the staple articles of diet in the Chinese homes, especially where there are children. To cook them, they are steamed until tender, then stirred into a meal made from nuts. Orange peel is sold by the pound. It is used to make orange tea, liked by epicurean Chinese . A food much used in Chinese families is bean sprouts, which are grown by keeping beans in a pan of water until they sprout. When they are several inches long the sprouts are clipped off and used as a vegetable.

Chop-suey Chef in a Chinese Restaurant preparing for a banquet, Frank Leslie’s Weekly, November 9, 1905.

Chop-suey Chef in a Chinese Restaurant preparing for a banquet – Frank Leslie’s Weekly, November 9, 1905.

At the restaurant a long and formidable menu— profusely decorated with pictures of chickens, ducks, lobsters, and fishes, so that, if one cannot master the mysterious pidgin-English, he can at least point with some degree of intelligence to what he wants—will be handed around by a soft-footed Chinese waiter. To impress our guests with our knowledge of things Oriental, we will order tea first—“sui sin,” a delicious, fragrant beverage, served in individual brewers —bowl-like affairs, with a top like an inverted saucer and a brass standard for the bottom. If one succeeds in pouring the tea from the larger bowl into the smaller, which is used for a cup, without burning his fingers or spilling the tea over the table, he is to be congratulated, for it is a trick which requires practice to master. If the cover is tipped forward and the bowl is lifted daintily with the tips of the fingers and tilted quickly, not a drop will be spilled.

The menu that will invariably appeal to Occidental tastes in a Chinese restaurant consists of pineapple chicken, fried noodles, chicken with mushrooms and bamboo shoots, an herb omelet, and rice, followed by preserved cumquats, ginger, lychee nuts, Chinese nuts, candies, and cakes. If one has time to order a few hours in advance, pineapple fish and duck with an orange-peel dressing will be generally appreciated. Soups should be avoided—not because there is anything the matter with them, but because the shark fins and bird’s-nests and seaweeds are not agreeable to American palates. Chinese turnips are seldom served raw by the Chinese, but it would be a good idea to buy several at a greengrocer’s and have the waiter peel and slice them in inch lengths, to be served as a relish. Rice takes the place of bread. “Tzow,” or rice wine, might be sampled by way of experiment, but it is a fiery liquid, with a flavor like the taste of rye straw, and nothing akin to wine.

Dining Chinese Style

Dining Chinese Style – Frank Leslie’s Weekly, April 15, 1909

Chopsticks are indispensable in a Chinese restaurant, and they should be used to the exclusion of anything so un-Chinese as knives and forks. As the Chinese cut up all of their meats and vegetables into small slices, knives are unnecessary. The managing of chopsticks requires more dexterity than that of the tea bowls, but it is worthwhile when accomplished, if for nothing more than to gloat over those who are hungrily, but vainly, trying to eat with them. Observing the scissors-like movement of the Chinese expert, who holds one stick between the thumb and forefinger and the other between the index and fourth fingers, the problem will be easily solved. Copies of the recipes for making the various Chinese dishes that appeal to Americans are often asked for, but, like chefs the world over, the Chinese chef thinks there is safety in silence; so he innocently answers, “No sabe,” and that settles the question as far as he is concerned. However, a little persuasion will do wonders when accompanied with persistency, as the following collection of Chinese recipes will prove. In preparing any of these, the Chinese vegetables should be used if the best results are to be attained, and they can be easily bought in any grocery store of any Chinatown.

Source:  “Curious but Palatable Chinese Dishes, and How To Make Them,” Frank Leslies Weekly, April 15, 1909.

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