12 things you probably didn’t know about American-Chinese food

‘Chinese takeout containers’ were invented in Chicago in the 1970s. Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

You might think you know all about Chinese food based on what’s served in your local spot.

However, many dishes Americans refer to as “Chinese food” were actually invented in America, from General Tso’s chicken to crab rangoon and fortune cookies.

You may also be surprised to discover the most popular day of the year to eat Chinese food in America, what “chop suey” roughly translates to, and how the iconic Chinese food take-out containers came to be.

Here are 12 things you probably didn’t know about American-Chinese food.

American-Chinese food was first introduced in California in the mid-1800s.

A Chinese food restaurant sign. Seb Oliver/Getty Images

The first-known Chinese restaurant in the United States, Canton Restaurant, opened in San Francisco, California, in 1849. Across the state of California, Chinese food establishments, then referred to as “chow chow houses,” grew in popularity largely due to their cheap prices and delicious food.

In the 1920s, chop suey restaurants were seen as a hip way for young Californians living in cities to spend a night out – even though chop suey wasn’t authentic Chinese cuisine.

By the 1980s, Chinese food had become the most popular “ethnic” cuisine in the United States.

A waiter filling a takeout box with Chinese food. Sebastian Siebert/Shutterstock

According to an essay titled “The Rise of Chinese Food in the United States” by Yong Chen, published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedias, a National Restaurant Association survey revealed that in 1989, Chinese cuisine remained the most frequently consumed among 19 different cuisines.

Chop suey was invented in America by Chinese immigrants, and it translates roughly to “leftovers.”

Chop suey. Purrpl_Haze/Flickr

Chop suey roughly translates to “odds and ends” or “leftovers.” However, it was extremely popular among young urbanites in the early 20th century. The exact origins of chop suey are disputed, but it’s generally accepted that it was invented in 1896 in New York City by Chinese-American immigrants.

Christmas is the most popular day of the year to eat Chinese food in America.

A Chinese food take-out container Christmas ornament. Brittany Olson/Getty Images

According to CNN, Google searches for “Chinese food” peak on Christmas Day. In 2014, GrubHub also reported that Chinese food is 152% more popular on Christmas Day than it is throughout the rest of the year.

Fortune cookies are from Japan but were popularised in America.

Fortune cookies. Shutterstock

Though fortune cookies have become intrinsically tied with Chinese-American restaurants, their origins may actually come from Japan, not China.

As chop suey restaurants took off in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, many Japanese immigrants also owned the establishments.

In 1914, one Japanese-American owner of a tea garden in California began handing out cookies with thank-you notes hidden inside them. It’s generally accepted that this is when the cookies were first introduced to American diners looking for “dessert” after their meal.

Orange chicken was invented by a Panda Express chef in America.

Orange chicken. Elena Veselova/Shutterstock

According to a previous article by Insider, orange chicken was originally created in Hawaii in 1987. According to an interview with Panda Express Cofounder Andrew Cherng on NPR, Chef Andy Kao created orange chicken as a variation on another highly popular Chinese-American dish, General Tso’s chicken.

General Tso was a real war hero.

General Tso’s chicken. iStock

One of the most popular items on most “Chinese food” menus isn’t actually Chinese at all, though the legend behind General Tso is well known in the country.

General Tso’s chicken was created by Taiwanese chef Peng Chang-kuei in the 1950s. The dish was introduced to Americans when Chang-kuei served it to a group of US soldiers and then later brought it to his own restaurant in New York City.

The legend of General Tso, whom Chang-kuei named the dish after, is well known in China. According to the Huffington Post, General Tso was a very real person who served during China’s greatest civil war, the Taiping Rebellion between 1850 and 1864.

Crab rangoon also came from the states.

Crab Rangoon. bhofack2/Getty Images

Crab rangoon – fried pastry shells filled with cream cheese and imitation crab – is also popular on most Chinese restaurant menus. However, the invention is wholly American. The first known crab rangoon appeared on the menu at Trader Vic’s Chow, a Tiki bar and restaurant, in the 1940s.

While the original recipe most likely called for Canadian blue crab, most modern crab rangoon uses imitation crab. Regardless, the deep-fried, cream-cheese filled dish is nevertheless a hit with lovers of American-Chinese food.

Egg rolls were likely invented in New York City as an alternative to authentic spring rolls.

Egg rolls. yuliang11/ iStock

According to the Chicago Tribune, egg rolls were adapted from traditional Chinese spring rolls to appeal more to Americans, who loved all things deep-fried.

Egg rolls stem from Cantonese cuisine, and they were likely invented in New York City in the 1930s, according to author Andrew Coe, author of “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.”

“Chinese” or “Asian” salads are an American invention.

Chinese chicken salad. Rick Grant / iStock

Chinese chicken salad and other Asian salads also originated in the United States.

“Very little about it is Chinese,” Jennifer 8. Lee, writer and producer of the documentary “The Search for General Tso,” told Bon Appétit. “Chinese people don’t really eat salad. They cook their greens. People use ‘Chinese’ to describe things that aren’t Chinese all the time in the United States. To Chinese people, Chinese food is just food.”

“Chinese takeout containers” were invented in Chicago in the 1890s.

A man eating from a Chinese food take-out container. Matelly/Getty Images

Most people associate Chinese take-out food with the red-and-white paper cartons with an image of a pagoda printed on them. However, these containers couldn’t be more American.

Invented in 1894 by a Chicago inventor named Frederick Weeks Wilcox, the paper cartons were originally called “paper pails,” and they were based on a design for wooden containers used to carry raw oysters.

In the 1970s, a designer working for Fold-Pak, a company that made the paper pails, added the red pagoda graphic and “thank you” font now associated with the containers to strengthen the ties between the cartons and Asian cuisine.

Some of the most popular vegetables used in American-Chinese food aren’t available in China.

A carrot and broccoli stir-fry. Firdausiah Mamat/Getty Images

Broccoli, which is used in many Americanized Chinese food dishes ranging from beef and broccoli to veggie lo mein and stir fry, is not native to China at all. The country uses a leafier version of the green vegetable instead.