When I was a kid, one of the few Oriental restaurants (outside of Chinatown) was the Sam Pan on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the Washington Capitol. On weekends, my mother would sometimes get a take out order from the tidy diner with the funky decorations. She always ordered Chop Suey, Chow Mein or Egg Foo Young.
In the 50s, Oriental dishes offered a new taste treat. We hadn’t yet discovered Vietnamese, Korean, or Thai foods. Most Americans were unable to find those countries on a map, much less understand the nuances of their cuisines.
A Chinese Chow Down in a Home Kitchen
The Wire-Handled Pails
The carry out items came in a wire-handled, white paper cartons. The containers were once called “oyster buckets,” because they were used for fresh, shelled oysters, when those were common fare on the East Coast.
Today the cartons have been upgraded and often imprinted with a red pagoda and a few Chinese characters. In deference to microwaves, most of the little pails no longer have a wire handle.
Chow Mein, Chopsticks, and Fortune Cookies
Fortune cookies were included in those early Chinese carry out bags, but chopsticks were not. It might’ve been because so few Americans knew how to use them. I later learned that fortune cookies were the product of Japanese immigrants in California, several of whom laid claim to the “invention.”
Corner 17 Take Out
It occurred to me this week as I opened an “oyster bucket” of Kung Pao Chicken from Corner 17, that Chinese restaurants had returned to their takeout roots. At Corner 17, in The Loop, they’ve opened a convenient walkup window, as a number of other restaurants have done to encourage the flow of business.
While one restaurant owner told me that receipts were down 60%, another, with an efficient take away service, said trade was up 30%. When it comes to business, the innovative survive, whether they’re offering food or services.
Don’t Toss That Extra Rice
The next day, I used my leftover rice from Corner 17 for a stir fry. I learned to make Stir Fried Rice in the 70s, when taking a Chinese cooking class. It was an old family recipe of our Taiwanese instructor and I’ve stuck with it over the years.
I learned that a successful stir fry requires long-grain rice, that makes for a fluffier and less sticky dish. It’s best when the rice is cooked, at least, a day ahead. If you must use fresh rice, spread the cooked grains evenly on a baking sheet and place it in the freezer for 30 minutes. (WARNING: This will likely spill all over your freezer.)
In place of the soy sauce. I sometimes sub a bit of Red Boat fish sauce, which I’ve found on Amazon and at international food stores. The anchovy-based sauce is kin to Worcestershire and adds a bit of umami taste that makes home-cooked Chinese dishes more authentic.
Freda Foh Shen says
I appreciate the subtle timeline of referring first to these restaurants as Oriental and then switching to Chinese, as the different Asian cuisines became known and available in the US. My father, late in life, often told the story that when he first arrived as an immigrant in the 1950;s, people asked upon introduction which laundry he worked in. Later, the question changed to, which restaurant did he work in. And finally, to which computer company did he work in. A nice encapsulation of changing Asian job opportunities. My father’s actual work was creating and running an international shipping company!