OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week, to celebrate Lunar New Year, she offers a brief history of Chinese food in Portland.
Kung Hei Fat Choi! It’s the Year of the Rabbit, a portent of gentleness and calm, and a great time for agriculture and the arts. It’s also a great time to eat noodles, steamed fish, dumplings, and of course, anything fancy. You might not be able to see it today, but Portland once had the country’s second largest Chinatown, and it’s America’s second oldest. But Portland hasn’t had just one Chinatown — it’s had three. Do you know where Portland’s first Chinatown was located? Read on to find out!
Endive is the new kale, a new way to get people into weird cheeses, and an eggy conspiracy
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
The plot thickens like a zabaglione.
Here at Superabundant we’ve been closely following the egg price saga, seeing prices flying higher than a silkie chicken (those little guys can actually catch some air). The blame has been largely placed on the avian flu epidemic decimating flocks, so why has one of America’s largest egg producing companies, Cal-Maine, reported a 500% increase in profit margins and not a single case of bird flu? In a letter sent on Jan. 19, the farmer advocacy group Farm Action would like the Federal Trade Commission to get to the bottom of what they allege is price gouging and profiteering.
PSA: Don’t sleep on endive.
We’re deep in winter vegetable season, which can mean a lot of the same old, same old kale and Brussels sprouts. But we’ve got news for you: curly endive. Can we talk about endive’s versatility? It’s great raw or cooked — it’s delicious grilled, sautéed, and in soups — and it’s not as bitter as its fellow chicories escarole or radicchio, perfect if you’re an “extra strong coffee, but cream and sugar” person. It has a much longer shelf life than green leaf or even romaine, so it’s not likely to turn to compost in your crisper drawer. And since it’s a lettuce (a daisy) and not a crucifer (like kale), it won’t gas you up or make your house smell like wet socks. To endive!
Even boring cheese lovers need a little adventure once in a while.
Cheesemongers, take note: a new study published by Oregon State University shows that consumers of basic cheeses are more likely to go out on a limb with, say, a comté or a cambozola if the cheese has an award sticker or a little sign with the cheese’s sensory description. Novelty-seeking artisan cheese heads are already accustomed to paying more for new and different cheeses, but it turns out that regular-old cheddar and Brie folks also respond well to those fancy little signs describing flavor, texture, and pairing suggestions, which makes them more likely to buy an unfamiliar cheese.
A brief history of Chinese food in Portland
Portions of this story have been adapted from Heather Arndt Anderson’s book “Portland: A Food Biography.”
With the coming Lantern Festival on Feb. 5, and the official holiday concluding on Feb. 1, the Lunar New Year celebrations are winding down. As we usher in the Year of the Rabbit (or Cat, in Vietnam), it’s a great time to reflect on our state’s long Chinese history. Chinese people have lived and worked in Oregon since before it was even a state. In many ways, the state was built by the Chinese; they worked on our railroads, in our salmon canneries, they helped build Cascade Locks.
This is also a great time to reflect on Oregon’s 170-something-year-long love affair with Chinese food. Oregon’s Chinese immigrants are who we have to thank for the Bing cherry, James Beard’s culinary inspiration, and Oregon’s (probably) oldest restaurant. Portland’s Chinatown is the second-oldest Chinatown in the United States, and between 1890 and 1910, it was also the second-largest, followed only by San Francisco. But long before the Lan Su Gardens or vibrant lion gates, Portland’s Chinatown was somewhere else entirely.
In addition to the Chinese-occupied vegetable gardens of Tanner Creek Gulch, Portland has had three distinct Chinatowns. Between 1850 and 1943, Chinatown was located in the heart of today’s downtown, between Southwest 2nd and 4th avenues, running only six blocks between Taylor and Yamhill. When Japanese families were incarcerated during WWII, Chinatown’s residents moved into Nihonmachi (Japantown) to occupy spaces left behind, and the first Chinatown was razed to make way for a new (white) business district. The vestiges of this “new” Chinatown, between Northwest 3rd and 5th, from Burnside to Glisan, are now known as Old Town Chinatown.
Today, this neighborhood has few clues to its former glory; only three Chinese restaurants still exist there, with the Republic Cafe remaining as the sole reminder of the “old” Chinatown. The real “new” Chinatown designation would be more accurately applied to the culturally diverse Jade District, located on Southeast 82nd Avenue between Lents and Montavilla. Nowadays our Chinese food largely reflects our Cantonese population — lots of dumplings, hot pot, and barbecue noodle joints — but at the turn of the 20th century, Chinese food in Oregon meant one thing: chop suey.
A mixed-up dish
Despite the American insistence on adding elbow macaroni to perfectly delicious foods to make them “American,” chop suey is not cheese-covered chili mac (and neither is goulash). And although chop suey is widely regarded as an entirely American invention, cultural anthropologist E.N. Anderson writes that it is based on tsap suei (“miscellaneous leftovers,” or “odds and ends”), a dish commonly prepared by vegetable growers in the Guandong Province — the same area from which Portland’s Chinese, including Huber’s first chef, Jim Louie, had originated. Others claim that chop suey was invented by Chinese railroad workers in San Francisco. Nonetheless, once restaurants and high-profile hostesses began serving it, the dish was all the rage in Portland in the early 1900s.
There were quite a few chop suey restaurants in Portland back in the day, but because it was hard to find “authentic” ingredients in white neighborhoods, most Portlanders dipped only a wary toe into Chinese cooking at home. An Americanized recipe for the stir-fried meat and vegetable mélange appeared in The Oregonian in 1915 at the request of a curious reader living in Tillamook. The letter’s respondent, cooking advice columnist Lilian Tingle, suggested that the home cook may have to make a few substitutions, or omit some ingredients (like canned bamboo shoots) entirely. To make the “Spanish” version, one simply added chili powder.
Chop Suey, Americanized. 3/4 pound lean pork or chicken, 2 ounces lean ham, 1 onion, 3 stalks celery, 1/2 cup mushrooms, 3 tablespoons tried out (rendered) pork fat, 1 tablespoons flour, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper to taste, 1 level tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons soy, ½ cup bamboo sprouts, ¾ cup chicken stock. Cut the meat and the vegetables into very narrow strips about 2 inches long, and brown them lightly in the fat, doing a few at a time to prevent drawing out the juice too much, and reserving the strips as cooked. Sprinkle in the flour, and cook it in the fat. Add the stock and let boil up. Add the prepared meat and vegetables with all the seasonings, except the soy. Flavor to taste with Chinese spice if available, and liked. Cover, and simmer very slowly until the meat is quite tender, then add the soy and serve with plain boiled rice, boiled so that the grains are dry and separate. Pass soy for those who like more.
For Portland’s Chinese residents, finding the right ingredients wasn’t just a matter of making an exciting dinner party, it was a necessity for feeling at home in a new place. One merchant, Ah-ning, wrote home to China in 1861 lamenting the lack of proper things for Chinese people to eat and the high price of chicken, and criticizing American farming techniques; specifically, the lack of composting. “They grow food, but not like in China. They don’t feed the land with land food; they waste land food and there are weeds all over. Land food is all saved in China, and the land is made very good, with great crops. That is not so here.” It is perhaps for these reasons, then, that the gardeners in Tanner Creek Gulch grew Chinese vegetables that they had no intention to sell to white Portlanders, like bok choy for stir-fries and tung qua (winter melon) for making soup.
When it comes to shopping for Chinese ingredients, today’s Portlanders are spoiled for choice (though you won’t need anything very difficult to source for the recipe at the end of this newsletter), but if you’re looking for a taste of old-school Chinese food we still have places like our local pioneer of Chinese delivery, Chin’s Kitchen (started by the family of Betty Jean Lee, who recently passed away) or the splendidly divey Republic Cafe/Ming Lounge. Come for the chop suey and chow mein, stay for the history.
Recipe: Ginger-scallion lo mein
It’s considered good luck to eat noodles during Lunar New Year — their shape symbolizes longevity. This is probably the easiest noodle dish to make, too; it takes just a few easy-to-source ingredients and about 20 minutes. Feel free to add your favorite protein or vegetables, and if you’re really in a bind you can use angel hair pasta instead of lo mein (aka “egg”) noodles. Don’t worry about authenticity — after all, pasta was invented by the Chinese. Serves 4.
- 3 tbsp neutral oil (like canola, vegetable, or sunflower)
- 2″ knob of ginger, peeled and julienned
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 scallions, finely sliced
- 1 lb fresh lo mein (or thin egg noodles) or ¾ lb dried noodles, cooked and drained
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine (or sherry)
- 1 tbsp light/golden soy sauce
- 2 tsp dark soy sauce
- ½ tsp MSG (optional but it does make a huge difference! If you’re still conflicted about the safety of MSG, read this.)
- Heat the oil in a wok or a large frying pan over high heat until a thin wisp of smoke forms, then stir-fry the ginger, garlic and the white parts of the scallions for about 10 seconds.
- Scoot the ginger, scallions and garlic to the sides of the wok and add the noodles. Stir-fry the noodles for a minute or two until they’ve relaxed and are warmed through. If they get a bit clumped together you can add a little splash of water.
- Add the remaining ingredients (including the green parts of the scallions) and stir-fry for 30 seconds to cook off the alcohol in the rice wine.