Springfield Style Cashew Chicken

This is a story about food, specifically, Chinese food. When I was a child, my parents ran a small town grocery store, the kind that supplied local farmers and families with canned goods, meats, cheeses, livestock feed, boots, tires and gasoline; it was known as a "general merchandise" store. We lived in West Central Missouri, one of the more culturally isolated parts of the Midwest.

Fortunately for me, my mother was an adventurous cook, at a time and in a place where that made her seem a bit, "odd," I'm sure. In our store she stocked canned Chinese foods, those Chung King "kits" to make various dishes; I remember canned bean sprouts, little cans of bamboo shoots, crispy fried noodles and water chestnuts. We also stocked canned tamales and boxes of Spanish rice, and we were the only ones in our town who ate those strange things. But the point is, the only Chinese food I had ever eaten until adulthood, was from a can.

In the early 1970s when I was stationed in northern Texas in the Air Force, my wife's parents wanted us to have Sunday dinner with them most every weekend, and their favorite restaurant was a Chinese establishment out in the country. Henry Huie, the owner of the restaurant, chose Vernon, TX as a place to introduce farmers to growing mung beans, for sprouts for egg rolls and other Chinese dishes. He became known as the Mung Bean King, building an empire of mung bean growers and processors that to this day still ships mung beans nationwide, and even exporting them to China! A financial empire, built on just one variety of tiny bean!

In the early 1960s, a Chinese chef, David Leong, created Springfield Style Cashew Chicken while working at the Grove Supper Club in Springfield, Missouri. Leong struggled to find a recipe that combined his traditional Chinese food for American tastes and chef Leong concocted a dish of breaded, deep-fried chicken pieces, covered with oyster sauce and topped with cashews and green onions. Thus was born, "Springfield-style cashew chicken," a dish you will not likely find outside the Ozarks. The recipe purportedly includes soaking the chicken overnight in milk, then tossing in flour, dipping back in the milk, and back in the flour before deep frying. (In most Chinese restaurants elsewhere, the method is to make a tempura batter - usually instant - but if made from scratch, it is egg white beaten stiff and mixed with flour; tempura batter absorbs considerably more grease and is less crispy than the Springfield style batter).

Because this is a regional favorite, when my Chinese chef friend, Eddie Chong (who I've written about here several times) came for a visit a couple of years back, one of the places I thought he should experience was be the mega-giant-all-you-can-eat Hong Kong Buffet in Branson. The place is huge, able to withstand 4 or 5 charter busloads of old folks at a time and still handle a few hundred tourists at any time of day.

Eddie, who is an astute observer of people and their foods, walked up and down the 345 item mega pig-out buffet. He looked over the Chinese fried seafood noodles, peeked at the big, overstuffed fat egg rolls, read the signs on the emperor's chicken, and the Szechwan-style stir-fried beef. He looked through the sneeze-guard glass at the rows of sushi, viewed the little flat pancakes of egg foo young, looked over the the Chinese dumplings, the sauces, sesame chicken, on and on. He turned to me and said, "There's nothing on this buffet that is actually Chinese."

"Not the egg rolls? (No, Chinese would never make a big fat egg roll like that, that's an American invention) "Not the rice noodles and seafood?" I went down the list of things I thought were purely Chinese, and which were to be found on every Chinese buffet anywhere across the Ozarks. "No," he said, "there's nothing here recognizable as a Chinese dish." And Edie knows Chinese food!

His next observation was even more startling to me when he said did I realize the owners weren't Chinese. I asked how he knew, because I just assumed they were. He said, "Jim, do all Asians look alike to you?" I was brought up short, I had to think and eventually, sheepishly, said, "Well, I guess I do." He showed me what to look for - first at the facial features, but more importantly, to listen to the voices. "They're Korean," he said, and when I listened, I could tell. The inflection, the tones while speaking, were not Chinese. Their features, their hair, were not Chinese. I was amazed, I had never noticed. He also guessed that I would never see a Chinese person, eating at such buffet. "They'll eat the rice," he said, "but not the fried foods and things like egg rolls and won tons. That's why you almost never see an overweight Asian person." 

What I learned over the next several months surprised me just as much.  First, that it is highly unusual to find Chinese people running Chinese restaurants in the Ozarks. Every little town of 1,000 people or more, will likely have at least one "Chinese" restaurant (and most are named Hong Kong or Chinese Buffet, or Golden Dragon). I soon observed that most Chinese restaurants have Vietnamese owners, a few have Koreans. The second thing I learned, is that early on chef, David Leong, must have created a package deal, a "kit" that he sells. If you are Asian and want to move to the Midwest and make a good living, and have the investment money, you can buy the secret "Chinese" recipes, buy the supplies and get the "kit" to set up your own Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet. They're highly profitable, and if you don't serve the regional style recipes, the public won't eat there and you're out of business. It's Springfield style chicken, or not at all. Those who dare to serve Chinese style chicken, close down in just a few months from lack of customers.

The last thing I learned from Eddie is about MSG (monosodium glutamate) in Chinese restaurants. MSG is a flavor enhancer that's added to foods, found in canned foods and considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration. There are claims of headaches, face flushing and sweating by people who believe they are allergic to MSG. According to the Mayo Clinic website, "researchers have found no definitive evidence of a link between MSG and these symptoms. Researchers acknowledge, though, that a small percentage of people may have short-term reactions to MSG. Symptoms are usually mild and don't require treatment." So when I asked Eddie his opinion about MSG, and whether it should be used, he said it's common in all real Chinese food. I told him some Americans believe they are allergic and request their food be made without it. Eddie laughed and said, "They can ask that MSG be left out but Chinese love MSG and they'll just bring you a new plate that still has MSG, and since there's no evidence it is harmful, you'll eat it and enjoy it just the same."

You can grow your own mung beans this year. They look more like a green bean plant than a soybean, and can be planted about the time you would plant tomatoes or basil. The plants grow 28 to 30 inches tall and produce 4 inch long pods that have 10 to 15 seeds per pod, and 30 to 40 pods per plant. Let them dry on the plant but harvest before they are totally dried to avoid the pods splitting. You can eat mung beans freshly cooked, but the primary way is to sprout the seeds and use the sprouts, either raw in salads, or cooked in various Chinese dishes.

To read more about mung beans and other heirloom varieties, check my article in The Heirloom Gardener, here. Happy gardening!


Anonymous said...

Our buffet is called kings buffet...it has over 140 dishes, now I wonder if any of them are actually chinease.....great post my friend;)

Anonymous said...

Well, Jim, I just found that extremely interesting.

I do happen to have a jar of mung beans that I intended to plant this year, as they have gotten old and only a small percentage of them sprout when I try to make sprouts of them. (I had forgotten I had them)

I find that some of the food in our local "chinese" restaurants (Bartlesville, OK) is also extremely sweet and/or greasy. I was wondering how those Chinese all managed to stay so slim and healthy if they ate that.

I raised my family on those chow mein "kits", fried noodles and frozen egg rolls, too. I learned how to make chicken fried rice as a young wife when Hubs talked to me about what he ate while a sailor having R&R in Hong Kong. I'm sure, even there, they have restaurants that are more suited for American tastes than the locals. I also bought tamales in the can and still do. They're a lot of work to make from scratch. And for Italian cuisine, there's canned ravioli! Heh.

I remember my mother making chili using one of those "bricks" that she bought at our local general store in Copan, OK. Coming to Copan from a farm near Chanute, KS, we had not been exposed to "Mexican food" before that.

I enjoy your blog. Some of my ancestors, and some of Hubs' ancestors, lived in Missouri. I think Missouri is beautiful. Also really enjoyed your piece on Johnny Cash.

Annie Albright said...

Hi Jim, I've been past that store many, many times as a kid. We made the trip from Clinton to ElDorado Springs practically every weekend. I tried a few of those chinese dinner 'kits' in a can when I first got married and couldn't cook yet. They weren't too bad. They weren't too good either. Later I worked as a waitress in a chinese restaurant and the owners weren't really chinese. They also didn't eat any of the stuff they served except the white rice, never the fried rice. And they ate fish out of a communal bowl in the middle of the table. AND they were all SKINNY! I always enjoy your blogs and hope to see you sometime this summer.

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Very, very interesting about the Chinese restaurants.

Hey, I love your articles in Heirloom Gardener and will read about the mung beans there.

Thanks for the wonderful post.

Sharon Lovejoy Writes from Sunflower House and a Little Green Island

P.S. We're in snowy Oregon right now. I did a talk and a television show and we're plodding slowly home.

Jenny said...

I had a good Chinese friend in college & a few Korean friends so I've always been able to tell the difference by looking at them. My community has a lot of Laos & Vietnamese & I'm learning to distinguish between them as well.

My Chinese friend used to cook authentic Chinese food for us in college all the time. It was nothing like you see in the restaurants here.

Brian Gabriel said...

I've found that I like to cook chinese recipes my self out of an aouthentic chinese cookbook like Chef Zhou's chinese cookbook at cookchinese.info or a couple others.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I knew that the food in these buffets is not authentic Chinese...I've eaten real Chinese food. But I must admit, every once in a while I crave the 'Chinese' buffet. Not often tho...not good for you. Too much salt, etc. But yummy. I cook everything from scratch and don't use msg, etc. Maybe my body craves it when it needs it(That's my story and I'm sticking to it!).