With globalization came an interest in knowing the “other,” a desire to know how people from other cultures live, what they like, etc. And one of the first things to cross boundaries and introduce people to other cultures around the world was food. In the West, knowledge of China came in the form of an interest in Kung Fu and Chinese cuisine. Today, Cantonese food is very popular among Western foodies.
Cantonese food in the US
The popularity of Cantonese food in the U.S. can easily be understood by a single statistic — More than 45,000 Chinese restaurants operate in the country, greater than the combined outlets operated by KFC, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and Pizza Hut. But this interest in Cantonese food has a long story behind it.
When the Chinese started to immigrate to the U.S. for better lives, they brought their traditional cuisines with them. And some of the immigrants set up Chinese diners that provided authentic Cantonese food to the Chinese settlers. However, other communities in the country viewed the Chinese with suspicion.
In 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, anything that was labeled as “Chinese” was seen negatively by the majority community, including Cantonese food. Newspapers started mocking Chinese food by publishing articles with headlines like “Do the Chinese Eat Rats?” and so on.
It was after the 1960s cultural revolution in the U.S. that interest in Cantonese food took off. And when U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, he had a feast broadcasted live on TV that showed him eating authentic Chinese food, including Peking Duck. This piqued the interest of the Americans and there was a huge surge in Chinese food stalls. Today, any American who has even an inkling of exposure to global culture will have eaten Cantonese food at least once in their life.
The fondness for dim sum
Nothing screams “Cantonese food” as much as dim sum. In fact, dim sum can essentially be seen as the poster boy of Cantonese cuisine. As early as in 1988, a Chicago Tribune article noted that “Dim sum cuisine — essentially stuffed dumplings in more varieties than Howard Johnson’s had ice cream — has become trendy.”
And over 30 years later, dim sum still remains a very fond food item for many Americans. In fact, over the past decades, American chefs have experimented with dim sums in a way that the food now has more variety and flavors than ever before.
So, what makes dim sum popular with Americans? While the yummy taste of the dumplings is one thing, it is the convenience and the “cuteness” factor of the dim sum that makes it a hit among people. After all, not many people can say no to a cute little pocket of yumminess. And once people start eating a dim sum, they usually do end up eating more. “People spend a lot more than they think. They’re impulse buyers. You might be full, but you might grab one more $5 plate!” a restaurant owner said in an interview with Star Chefs.