Asian Influences; SF’s Culinary History: Part 9 of 12

Asian Specialty

The same year that it was announced in Portsmouth Square that gold was discovered in the region, the first Chinese immigrants arrived and settled in that very neighborhood. As the Chinese population expanded, Portsmouth Square (aka the Barbary Coast) was also being labeled as Little Canton. By 1853, this bustling district was officially named Chinatown by the press. 

It is said that during the mid to late 1800s, Chop Suey was invented in Chinatown. But recent findings suggest that Chop Suey, a stir-fry mix of meat, vegetables, and eggs over rice or noodles, most likely originated in China. According to one local myth, the dish was made up of leftovers for a rowdy group of gold miners. 

Historians say Dim Sum, a Cantonese tradition with tea, was first introduced to America via San Francisco's Chinatown. Hang Ah Tea Room on Pagoda Place opened in 1920, and is said to be San Francisco's oldest Dim Sum house offering such specialties as steamed barbecue pork buns and shrimp dumplings. 

The Far East Cafe, also established in 1920, has been extremely popular for years for its central location on Grant Avenue. Today, the restaurant proudly emphasizes that they are "the only restaurant in Chinatown that still has private booth seating." These private booths are individual rooms with curtains. The Far East Café serves Cantonese and Szechwan cuisine and specializes in shark fin soup, honey walnut prawns, and Peking duck. 

Some may be surprised to learn that the fortune cookie is actually an American invention inspired by a Japanese cookie called “tsujiura senbei.” Many historians believe that these wisdom-filled crispy cookies — consisting of sugar, vanilla, butter, flour, oil, and egg whites – were first served in the Golden Gate Park Japanese Tea Garden in the late 1800s. After World War II, many local Chinese restaurants started serving these cookies at the end of each meal, since dessert offerings in Chinese restaurants were fairly limited. Since 1962, the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, in Chinatown, has been producing fortune cookies for restaurants all around the world. In a single day, approximately 20,000 fortune cookies are made in this tiny factory. Curious visitors seeking further wisdom in the fortune cookie making process will discover enlightenment in Ross Alley, where tours of the factory are offered free of charge daily.

After the 1906 earthquake, many displaced Japanese immigrants residing in Chinatown and South of Market (SOMA) were directed toward the city's Western Edition (or Fillmore District), which is the current home of Japantown. Among the few businesses in that area that opened shortly after the quake was Uoki Sakai Fish Market, on Post Street. This third generation-run landmark, still in operation today, is one of the few businesses that overcame tremendous odds during World War II.

In 1942, a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the federal government implemented a Japanese American Internment movement to remove the Japanese community from civil life in all US states, and place them in military-operated concentration (or internment) camps. German and Italian communities were also affected by this incarceration effort; however, since their populations were significantly larger than those of Japanese Americans, it was more difficult for the military to enforce internment upon the German and Italian communities.

Though internment officially ended in 1944, it took decades for families to recover both emotionally and economically. Many distraught victims did not return to their old lives in the Western Edition. Those that did, like the Sakai family who returned to reopen Uoki Sakai Market, rose a new generation of Japanese Americans instilled with the determination to rebuild their cultural community. In the years after, one major effort that helped bring the community closer together was the first Cherry Blossom Festival, in 1967. Every year since, this annual spring event has attracted thousands of people from all different cultures. With the opening of the Japan Center in 1968 — an indoor shopping center filled with Japanese specialty shops and restaurants – Japantown started to blossom year-round. 

The people of Thailand didn't start making their way toward San Francisco until the early 1960s. Khan Toke Thai House, on Geary Boulevard, in the outer Richmond area, was established in the early 70s and was one of the city's first Thai restaurants to open. The restaurant is also one of the few of its kind that offers floor seating that requires guests to remove their shoes. 

The 1960s also marked the beginning of a dramatic increase in the East Indian population in San Francisco. Only a small number of Indian restaurants existed at that time and all of them were North Indian specific. The initial reaction to this cuisine from the general population was that it was far too spicy for the average diner. Gradually, restaurants began catering to the general public by offering alternative spice levels: mild, medium, and spicy. After interest in the cuisine increased, fine Indian dining was introduced. India House, on Jackson Street, was one of the first such fine dining establishments and became particularly popular. Unfortunately, business slowed as more Indian restaurants around the city emerged and the restaurant eventually closed. Gaylord's India Restaurant at the Embarcadero opened in 1976, and has managed to endure with much success. The restaurant offers fine Northern Indian cuisine, which is distinguished by its regular use of dairy products and the tandoor clay oven. 

Cuisine from South India wasn't on the restaurant scene in San Francisco until 2005. Dosa, on Valencia Street, was the first restaurant of its kind in the area, and is a major destination among locals. South Indian cuisine focuses more on vegetarian dishes than the North, and primarily uses ingredients such as rice, lentils, coconut, curry leaves, and tamarind. One typical southern dish is Sambar: a tangy, spicy tamarind and tomato-based soup.


San Francisco's Culinary History: Part 1 of 12

The Iconic Foods of San Francisco; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 2 of 12

Culinary Institutions; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 3 of 12

Fisherman's Wharf; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 4 of 12

North Beach; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 5 of 12

The Mission; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 6 of 12

Nostalgia; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 7 of 12

The Creme de la Crème; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 8 of 12

Asian Influence; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 9 of 12

The Veggie Scene; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 10 of 12

Ice Cream Goodness; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 11 of 12

Food Forward; San Francisco’s Culinary History: Part 12 of 12



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