Rangoons it seems, always manage to quickly endear people to Asian foods of all kinds. There’s nothing quite like biting into a fried pastry and being greeted by a delicate crunch and then a burst of different flavors, carried to you on a wave of delicious, fresh cream cheese. Funnily enough, though, cream cheese as you may know it is from New York. So are rangoons really an authentic Asian cuisine, or are they essentially the Tex-Mex of Eastern cultural food staples? If you’ve ever pondered the origins of that delicious little crunchy bit on your plate, you’ve come to the right place. Since the 13th of February is coming up, which is also National Crab Rangoon day, we thought we’d dig in and to explore the history of the mythical and tasty dish.
You may not know, but there’s two myths that claim the origin of the crab rangoon. First, a tiki bar in Emeryville, California claim they conjured this fresh recipe out of thin air in the 30s. That would mean that the previously mentioned Tex-Mex cuisine is actually older than the wondrous crab rangoons we all know so well. To be fair, cream cheese came into being in 1872 after someone failed to recreate a French cheese they liked better. However, cream cheese has become a staple in our diets because it’s crazy good and pairs well with most things as it adds texture and a gentle flavor wherever it’s added. This would make the second myth: that the British gave birth to the rangoon when they were lording over Burma, which is highly unlikely though. The British have rarely ever acknowledged the wondrous opportunity waiting in a tub of cream cheese. Keep in mind, this was before recipes were kept online at everyone’s fingertips, so there wasn’t much in the way of cultural cuisine crossover for ingredients. So where did it come from and is it authentic?
Authenticity of American Chinese Food
Ever since the Chinese people started immigrating to the states in force, we’ve enjoyed more from their cultural offerings beyond the occasional added corridor of a city that could be labeled “China town.” Indeed, their culture has landed and morphed in a way that the Mexican’s and the resulting Tex-Mex from the shared border ever gave us. Where Tex-Mex is closer to a bastardization of traditional Mexican food, American Chinese food has its own roots and authenticity that grant us historical reference for all the lovely food that’s been marketed to us as “Eastern cuisine.” American Chinese food can actually trace its roots back to veiled racism. During the influx of the Chinese population, laws were made that permitted a specific kind of merchant visa. This was a measure to try and reduce the number of people immigrating into the states, but actually achieved the opposite. For restaurant owners were one of the few types of people permitted to bring in Chinese people to be workers in their restaurants. This caused Chinese restaurants everywhere to quadruple by 1920.
The Chinese restaurant down the way was the first way people in the states could access Eastern cousines. They drew a stark contrast to the uber-popular European cuisine inspired eateries and were viewed as exotic. Thus, this increase in available Chinese restaurants was supported by the cultures seeming scarcity. To stay different from each other, however, they started developing recipes that were like their own, but tweaked to feature ingredients and similar cooking methods to what Americans already liked. To be fair, it wasn’t just the tastes of the new customers that the recipes had to cater to, but the ingredients available to them. Obviously, things that were cheap in China were expensive in America, and vice versa, thus they started experimenting with things they couldn’t get so quiet so easily back home. One of the main ingredients they could access easier was oil. Oil for deep frying become a popular staple at plenty of different Chinese restaurants, as did the use of chicken for the main meat and white sugar.
Then, to make experimentation with these new recipes and ingredients easier, restaurant owners started banding together. They would bounce ideas off of each other, play with the recipe and then all release the same recipe at once. This is why it’s so hard to trace back any one recipe to a certain place or starting point even. Eventually, the recipes evolved to be regarded as American Chinese food. Thus, if you opened an Asian restaurant, you essentially had to have these ingredients loaded on your menu if you wanted regular patrons. The really interesting part is this is still going on. For example, some chefs in the south incorporate Cajun spices in their dishes to make it more appealing and seem not so far from what the locals are used to. This ensures regular, consistent customers coming back, because it reminds them of what they like, but it’s just different enough to call it “fresh.”
In this fashion, it’s likely that the crab rangoon was birthed. It features crab, a not entirely foreign meat, but something that is certainly more freely associated with Asian cuisines first and then mixed with local ingredients: which is, in this case, cream cheese. Roll in some peppers, put a twist on it to keep it in line with the rest of the items on your menu or the local menu, drop it in a fryer to polish off that very American Chinese tradition of using oil in cooking, and boom. The invention of the crab rangoon.
In a way, it’s easy to appreciate the invention of the crab rangoon and American Chinese food, in general. For it perfectly portrays the melting pot aspect of the states that felt so pure and natural in the 20s and 30s. Innovation and the mixture of very fine cultural aspects birthed something new, and something entirely ours. So when you’re chowing down on that delicious little rangoon this coming February 13th, think of the tenacious adaptation and ingredient fusions that led to such a tasty little treat. For it’s as pure as the inclusive American spirit has always been.
Since we’ve established the history of the rangoon reveals that it’s our invention and no one else’s, you’ll find “real” rangoons everywhere. But you’ll only find real good rangoons where they’re really appreciated. We love our rangoons, and we’re pretty sure you will, too. Stop in to experience the tasty little pastry that represents the melding of beautiful, individual cultures to become something better at Moto-i today. Make reservations, grab a gift card, or walk right in. We’re waiting for you.