Ranjan here. It's Thanksgiving, so clearly I need to write about food, so clearly I will write about fried chicken.
I grew up in Lexington, MA, a suburb 20 minutes outside of downtown Boston. There were some things I always associated as very "Boston". Yeah, there's the accent and the sports teams, but there are also specific things like people are really into Aerosmith and everyone wears gingham shirts.
I also spent a number of summers in Calcutta, India. It made me think I really understood cultural differences, but it wasn’t until I left for college at Emory University in Atlanta, that I processed how many cultural differences there are within the U.S. You have to remember, this was long before there were thousands of “34 signs you know you’re from Boston” listicles laying out regional cultural nuances. In the old days, you just….learned things as they happened.
I quickly learned people in Georgia liked Krispy Kreme, not Dunkin' Donuts. They liked college sports for some weird reason. Instead of my beloved Stop n' Shop, there were these weird Kroger and Publix stores. The Kansas kid said Pop while I said Soda and the kid from Arkansas said Coke.
And my most significant finding of all: no one had ever heard of Chinese Chicken Fingers.
Okay, let me first explain to you what I know to be a Chinese Chicken Finger. It's a fluffy, battered, fried strip of chicken. There's usually a bit of air between the crispy, thick batter and the chicken. You would dip it in something called "Duck Sauce”, a somewhat gelatinous, orange-hued, sweet, and tangy sauce.
I love those chicken fingers.
Regular readers will know of my love for all types of fried chicken, and maybe this was one of the early catalysts.
When I got to Atlanta I quickly learned no one had ever heard of this dish. There was something called Sweet and Sour Chicken (Golden Buddha, never forget) but that dish was basically chicken fingers slathered in some red sauce. I even tried ordering the sweet and sour chicken without the sauce, but they thought I was weird.
Even here in NYC, 'chicken fingers' do not exist at Chinese restaurants. They have sweet and sour chicken, but I'm telling you, once you bathe the chicken in sauce, the crunch is gone. They get soggy and they’re just not the same.
A Chinese chicken finger might seem like the most basic thing in the world. It’s just batter and chicken, but I promise you I could differentiate the good from the bad. Factors like the amount of chicken included, whether the frying achieved a bit of air between the crispy batter and the meat (kinda like a thigh gap), or getting the outside layer of batter super crispy while leaving just a bit of oh-so-good mushiness inside.
I thought the entire country knew about this delicacy. I'll also admit, I assumed one billion people in China knew about it, too. It wasn't until I saw a blank stare of an Atlanta waiter that I realized that this cornerstone of my childhood was a very regional thing. It doesn’t exist outside of Boston.
My family has come to mock my love for the Chinese chicken finger. My wife, who spent half of her life in Taiwan, really gets a kick out of it. It’s just so basic. It’s so…. not Chinese. But, I stand by my love for the Chinese chicken finger because it represents the best of America. To understand why let's go back to 1915.
The Lo Mein Loophole
Legislation really can define the culture of a nation. It's something we should all remember whenever we become a bit cynical about government, and push us to keep fighting for our vision of America. My Dad’s American dream, and thus mine, was made possible by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 [Note 1]. The Chinese chicken finger was born of a small loophole in 1915.
In 1882, the U.S. passed a horrific piece of legislation: The Chinese Exclusion Act. You are either familiar with it or can guess what it did…exclude the Chinese. It was clearly racist and xenophobic. Soon, however, small loopholes started to pop up, and according to this NPR piece:
as MIT legal historian Heather Lee tells it, there was an important exception to these laws: Some Chinese business owners in the U.S. could get special merchant visas that allowed them to travel to China, and bring back employees. Only a few types of businesses qualified for this status. In 1915, a federal court added restaurants to that list. Voila! A restaurant boom was born.
The piece recounts how restaurants became little Ellis Islands of sorts. They became the first stop on the way to the American Dream for so many immigrants. A family figurehead made it over and did whatever it took to survive. They brought over others in the family, and slowly but surely, you built the foundation of an American family.
Back to the chicken
The Chinese chicken finger captures that fighting spirit. I had a few friends while growing up who made a point of saying "you know, this is not real Chinese food" (you know the type 😀 [Note 2]). I heard them, but I didn't really listen to them, because in the mid-90s, there were few avenues for finding out. You didn’t do one Google search and then become an authority. You just kept eating the chicken.
At this point in my life, I consider myself reasonably well versed in Chinese cuisine. I spent three months in Beijing before living in Singapore for a year. My wife's family is from Taiwan, which DEFINITELY (*Ranjan peeks over his shoulder*) is not the same as China, but has deeply exposed me to East Asian cuisine. I even talk about things like mouthfeel and can appreciate chicken feet and intestines [Note 3].
It’s about why the Chinese relish eating parts of animals that Westerners typically discard, and based on a presentation I first gave at @OxfordFoodSymp (and follows on from discussion of mouthfeel in my book Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper) The finest Chinese delicacies — duck’s tongue, fish maw and chicken’s feet https://t.co/x9zixyAq1D
I now certainly understand how "not Chinese" a Chinese chicken finger is. I recognize that the "Duck Sauce" has never touched an actual duck. I get it. That’s why it’s such a thing of beauty.
Because the Chinese chicken finger captures the fight of American immigrants. It's the blandest, most absurd representation of Chinese food imaginable. There's no sauce. There's no garlic, no ginger, no rice vinegar, no spice. It's just....a strip of chicken fried in batter presented as an exotic dish.
Close your eyes and picture Matt Damon, in his most Good Will Hunting meets The Departed Boston accent, talking about dipping his Chinese chicken fingers into some duck sauce at Kowloon [Note 4]. Chinese immigrants knew this was their customer and they adapted.
It's so perfectly tailored to the whiteness of Boston. Yet, the sacrifice was made and their grandchildren could go to MIT.
There's a famous Bostonian named Joyce Chen. I remember going to her restaurant in Cambridge a few times as a kid. I also grew up eating something I called "Peking Ravioli". When I first left Boston, I was confused when I saw these small, doughy pork-bags called, simply, Dumplings, but I later learned she created the name to appeal to the large Italian population in Boston.
This intersection of assimilation and innovation is the beauty of America. It's a slow, steady struggle. It’s awkward. When you look back, it will always appear problematic exactly because there is progress.
There was an insanely racist law (the Chinese Exclusion Act) that is a blight on American history. Loopholes were carved out. In the first half of the 20th century, Chop Suey was the rage. In the 1970s, Joyce Chen brought us Peking Ravioli. At some point Chicken Fingers were introduced (I can't find this info anywhere), and now in 2020, plenty of non-Asians are distinguishing Sichuan from Cantonese. David Chang is a celebrity. Mr. Chow and Chinese Tuxedo are high-end. Mission Chinese was Lower East Side fusion cool [Not really —Can]. Xi'an Famous Foods is making every New Yorker's mouth tingle. People now seek out "real" Chinese food. It took a century but it happened.
All thanks to a entire generation of tenacious immigrants willing to label a bland strip of batter-fried chicken with their national heritage, simply on a hope that things might work out.
Every Christmas Eve, a bunch of other Indian families come over our house and we order a bunch of Chinese food (we already exhausted our capacity for dry meat during Thanksgiving). The town I grew up in has a much larger Asian population now and the restaurants have plenty of authentic dishes. There’s even a Taiwanese place down the street and my wife introduced my parents to authentic Taiwanese breakfast foods. That’s the status of East Asian cuisine in the 2020 version of Lexington.
The others in my generation give me a bit of shit nowadays when I insist on ordering Chinese Chicken Fingers (the Indian parents, now mostly in their 70s and grandparents, will never quite move past Chinese buffets and PF Chang’s). They tell me we can order "actually" good Chinese food. Garlicky vegetable dishes and bone-in, dark meat spicy, saucy chicken plates are all there for the taking - why do I insist on that stupid, simple strip of batter-fried white meat?
But I still want that chicken that represents the tenacity of thousands of immigrants willing to adapt to survive. It’s the evolution of a population and cuisine over time. The Chinese chicken finger is the American dream and the American struggle, and it’s still damn good.
Note 1: A bit of background on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It’s why so many Indian-American kids have parents who are doctors and engineers. It was never that Indians are good at math or something - this was just a specific immigration policy.
Note 2: I’ll admit it - I’ve certainly lectured a few folks on “you know….Chicken Tikka Masala is not really Indian”.
Note 3: The one category of East Asian cuisine I still have never quite gotten into is the gelatinous desserts, with things like beans and jellies.
Note 4: Kowloon is as perfectly absurd as the chicken finger. It’s a Boston-area restaurant that dubs itself “Polynesian” and services New England-style Chinese food along with tiki drinks. The inside kind of feels like the Pirates of the Caribbean Disneyworld ride, and they have a dish called the Eddie Andelman Lo Mein, named after a famous sports talk show host. My family has weirdly had a number of very important events (baby showers, graduation parties) there. That is my #America.
The inside of Kowloon #America.
Note 4: I’m a big fan of the Bowery Boys podcast for learning about NYC history. This episode was fantastic: Chop Suey City: A History of Chinese Food in New York.
Note 5: Writing this post made me think about what weird cultural expressions are incredibly Boston that might not be clearly Boston to an outsider. I think the New Kids on the Block might be one of those.