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The Hunt for General Tso

The origins of Chinese-American dishes, and the spots where these two cultures have combined to form a new cuisine.

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There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wendy's, combined -- 40,000, actually. Chinese restaurants have played an important role in American history, as a matter of fact. The Cuban missile crisis was resolved in a Chinese restaurant called Yenching Palace in Washington, DC, which unfortunately is closed now, and about to be turned into Walgreen's. And the house where John Wilkes Booth planned the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is also now a Chinese restaurant called Wok and Roll, on H Street in Washington. 

And it's not completely gratuitous, because "wok" and "roll" -- Chinese food and Japanese foods, so it kind of works out. And Americans love their Chinese food so much, they've actually brought it into space. NASA, for example, serves thermostabilized sweet-and-sour pork on its shuttle menu for its astronauts. 

So, let me present the question to you: If our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie, you should ask yourself: how often do you eat apple pie, versus how often do you eat Chinese food? 

And if you think about it, a lot of the foods that we or Americans think of as Chinese food are barely recognizable to Chinese. For example: beef with broccoli, egg rolls, General Tso's Chicken, fortune cookies, chop suey, the take-out boxes. For example, I took a whole bunch of fortune cookies back to China, gave them to Chinese to see how they would react. 

So where are they from? The short answer is, actually, they're from Japan. And in Kyoto, outside, there are still small family-run bakeries that make fortune cookies, as they did over 100 years ago, 30 years before fortune cookies were introduced in the United States. If you see them side by side, there's yellow and brown. Theirs are actually flavored with miso and sesame paste, so they're not as sweet as our version. So how did they get to the US? Well, the short answer is, the Japanese immigrants came over, and a bunch of the bakers introduced them -- including at least one in Los Angeles, and one here in San Francisco, called Benkyodo, which is on the corner of Sutter and Buchanan. Back then, they made fortune cookies using very much the similar kind of irons that we saw back in Kyoto. 

The interesting question is: How do you go from fortune cookies being something that is Japanese to being something that is Chinese? Well, we locked up all the Japanese during World War II, including those that made fortune cookies. So that's when the Chinese moved in, saw a market opportunity and took over.