Moo Goo Gai Fan: A Historical Adaptation into American Culture

By Caitlin Gallagher, Xue Jin, Tina Chang and Tram Nguyen

After a careful analysis of the 1938 novel Chinatown Family, the New York Public Library’s menu archives and the historical context of this critical time period during the Chinese Exclusion Act (1938-1943), we have collectively decided to recreate the dish Moo Goo Gai Pan. Moo Goo Gai Pan is a particularly interesting dish because it has been adapted and transformed throughout history. Moo Goo Gai Pan, which is of Cantonese heritage, has several different names, as well as recipes.  It is important to note that the authenticity of Americanized Chinese cuisine, not to mention the authentic heritage of most cuisine, is difficult to divine. In the end, the exact roots of many foods cannot be determined with certainty.

A Brief History of the Chinese immigrant experience

To start, a brief historical timeline is necessary in order to understand the migration of Moo Goo Gai Pan from China to the United States. The first influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States came during the Gold Rush (1840-1850). After settling in the United States, and primarily in California, the Chinese immigrants took to building railroads and developing the agricultural industry. Interestingly, these immigrants, by and large, did not come from all over China. Instead, they came from one small rural area: Toishan. Toishan was located outside of the former Canton. It is thought that the Toishanese immigrated to America due to problems in their home country (as is true with most immigrants), as well as the easy access to the Canton seaport.

Them motivation for many Chinese people to immigrate to the United States was its vast economic opportunities and political stability. These prospective immigrants, however, were barred from entry due to The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act was officially passed in 1882 by Congress under the Rutherford B. Hayes administration. It was based on the Angell Treaty. The Angell Treaty, negotiated by the diplomat James B. Angell, was an agreement with China to not just restrict Chinese immigration to the United States, but prohibit it altogether. This act was the first in history to prohibit immigration to the United States. The American people objections to Chinese immigration stemmed from economic and cultural reasons, as well as ethnic discrimination. The resentment was caused in part because Chinese immigrants, primarily males, were willing to work for much lower wages than their American counterparts. As with many immigrants, Chinese men sought to earn money to send back to their families in China. Many Americans also had a negative view of places were the Chinese lived or congregated, such as Chinatown. Many viewed those areas as unhealthy both physically and morally. These so called “Chinatowns” were rumored to have opium smoking, gambling and prostitutes. Due to the large number of men residing in California as a result of the Gold Rush, there was an open market for laundry and restaurant services. The Chinese targeted these undeveloped markets, which had been historically and culturally considered womanly. This willingness to take on “lady’s work” allowed for further ethnic discrimination.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was especially unfortunate because many Chinese were eager to immigrate to the United States. The political instability and scarce economic opportunities made China unattractive for the average Chinese laborer. The act resulted in most Chinese immigrants to be Toishanese.   This was because the Toishanese already had established ties within the United States, which allowed them to enter the country illegally. As the Toishanese were not geographically representative of all of China, many of the American Chinese dishes have Cantonese names, such as Moo Goo Gai Pan, Chop Suey, Chow Mein, Won Ton Soup and Egg Foo Yung. From the start, this group of Chinese people sought to cook their traditional dishes, but had a hard time finding the traditional ingredients in their adopted home. Chinese entrepreneurs also found that Americans took a liking to Chinese food. These entrepreneurs adapted and modified their homeland dishes to suit American tastes. These entrepreneurial efforts resulted in an interesting and unusual cultural fusion.

Finally, in 1943, the restrictions on Chinese immigration were loosened a bit. China was given an annual quota of 105 legal immigrants. With the small surge of new immigrants came a surge of new dishes. A new wave of Chinese food, especially in the 1960s, arrived and gained popularity. These dishes, which were adapted to American tastes and ingredients, included Kung Pao Chicken, Mu Shu Pork, General Tso’s Chicken and Hot and Sour Soup. Reversing several decades of exclusion and restrictive immigration policies, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 opened up the gates of the United States to the Asian population. After World War II, America became an international super power and was no longer content with an isolationist status. With increased economic activity and globalization, the United States removed many restrictive immigration laws. As a result, a whole new wave of Chinese immigrants, primarily Nationalists from Taiwan and Hong Kong, brought new dishes to the United States. Taiwanese chefs brought the spicy Hunan and Szechuan tastes, particularly to New York, which gained traction. Overall, the adaption of Chinese food, like Moo Goo Gai Pan, to American culture was caused by a combination of historical events and entrepreneurial inspired adaptations to suit American tastes.

The Chinese diaspora food experience in Lin Yutang’s Chinatown Family and some historical menus

Moo Goo Gai Pan and other chicken dishes have a prominent role in the novel, Chinatown Family. The novel tells the story of an immigrant, working-class Chinese family that settled in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. In the novel, Father Fong, a laundryman on the upper East side of New York City, successfully brought his younger daughter and son from China to reunite with him, his wife, and his older sons in Chinatown. They welcomed a new daughter in law, Flora, an Italian-American, and the whole family then lived together in Chinatown. While the Fong family had the economic opportunity to achieve the American dream, they faced the risk of losing their family bond—a very important value in Chinese traditions. To strengthen the bond between family members, the Fongs cooked and ate dinner as well as organized banquets on special occasions. Because the Fong family was probably of humble origin, they regularly chose chicken as the affordable option for the meat portion of their daily meal. For example, through the time cooking the “mysterious” roasted chicken called Sunfong Gai with Mother Fong, Flora learned more about Chinese food culture and established a good relationship with her mother-in-law (p.32). Flora, when becoming unwell due to her pregnancy, also appreciated the care from her Father Fong, as she felt a lot better after eating the chicken cooked with herbs that he bought: “All these herbs seemed to do her good, toning up her whole system. The best part of it was that the sliced roots were cooked with chicken, freshly killed at the live poultry yard in Chinatown” (p.104). When Flora gave birth to a baby boy, the family planned to celebrate the baby’s completion of his first month by organizing a banquet at Port Arthur Restaurant, and chicken was again a signature dish of the meal. The guests were first served a bowl of chicken broth with wine, which was “identical with the dishes Flora ate during the month after the baby’s birth, to help her breast feeding, and were now given to the guests to symbolize the occasion” (p.160). The dinner then proceeded with fairies chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan (the dish our group has chosen to cook!), and many more traditional Chinese dishes.

Not only does chicken appear in the Fong family’s dinner, it also played an important role in establishing the reputation of the Fongs’ restaurant in Chinatown. To ensure a satisfactory dining experience for the customers, Mother Fong insisted that the restaurant never purchase frozen chicken: “she is building up a reputation for good food. The secret of good food is fresh meat, and half the secret of cooking is in buying” (p. 201). In Chinatown Family, chicken is certainly an important recurring motif, but what it represents goes beyond a mere dish for human’s dining experience. Some male characters in the novel associated chicken with the bodily features of a woman (“She’s a nice girl. She’s not a young chicken, but she has good hips”). Mother Fong even compared the appropriate time to slaughter a chicken with the appropriate time for a girl to get married (p. 240). Chicken, in this case, contains derogatory connotations that objectify the female body as an object for men’s sexual consumption. This suggests what now has become a well-worn theme concerning food and gender, which we have been exploring throughout the semester.

We decided to reproduce the dish Moo Goo Gai Pan because not only does it represent a chicken dish that has transformed history through the Chinese immigrants’ experiences, but it also appears in the novel as one of the dishes the Fongs had in Port Arthur Restaurant for celebration of Flora’s baby’s completion of his first month. Since our goal was to find a restaurant where the Fongs most likely would have eaten based on the menu archive from New York Public Library (, we first studied the history of Port Arthur Restaurant. It was established in 1897 by Chu Gam Fai and remained open until 1959. It located on the second and third floors of 7-9 Mott Street, with the lower level designed for small groups of customers and after-hour “slummers” — American tourists looking for exotic experiences in the evenings, and the upper level reserved for private parties and banquets. Its elaborate imitation of Chinese architectural style in both the exterior and interior designs, made it stand out from the streetscape, as did its novel Chinese and American-Chinese dishes. The restaurant became local Chinese’s prime destination for weddings and family ceremonial dinners. We also researched the restaurant’s menu, but only found one page of the menu from 1920s. We note on that page there is a soup dish named “Chicken Mushroom Soup,” which is similar to Moo Goo Gai Pan, the dish from which we were searching.

With the background settings in mind, we limited our search in the menu archive to New York City restaurants that included Moo Goo Gai Pan in their menus during the 1930s and 1940s (but before the novel was written in 1948). Seven restaurants matched our criteria — Shanghai Food Shop (1938), Shanghai Low (1938), Little China (1938), Ruby Foo’s (1938 and 1939), Café Zanzibar (1943), Monte Proser’s Copacabana (1943), and Tzu Hai Pin (1920-1960). After a careful examination of their menus, we noticed that Moo Goo Gai Pan not only appeared with different variations of its name (e.g. Moo Goo Guy Pan, Moe Goo Gai, or Moo Goo Chicken) and under different categories, but also was offered by different types of catering places (in Chinese restaurants, café, and nightclub), with a significant price range from $0.7 to $3.25. These variations correspond with the dish’s history as it was widely adapted and transformed in the United States.

Our final restaurant choice was Shanghai Low, with its Mo Goo Gai served at a price of $3.25. We noticed from the novel that the Fongs rarely went out to eat; when they did so it was always for significant events. Thus, it is reasonable to choose a relatively luxury place similar to Port Arthur Restaurant. Also in Chinatown’s Family, there is a paragraph describing the celebration in Port Arthur Restaurant:

But Mother Fong was also studying the cost of the dinner and how much the restaurant would make from a party like this. The restaurant would probably make from such a birthday as much as the washing and ironing of five families’ laundry for a week. (194-5)

This description matches our assumption. We also thought it was important to choose a menu with Chinese translation since it was highly possible that Mother Fong, a dominant character in the family, was not fluent in English. Lastly, Shanghai Low’s menu also included a brief recipe, which was beneficial when we tried to recreate the dish.

The Recreation of Moo Goo Gai Pan

Moo Goo Gai Pan is defined as a Cantonese dish of sliced chicken, stir-fried with button mushrooms and, often, assorted vegetables. Moo Goo Gai Pan is called “Mo Gu Ji Pian” in Mandarin and “Mohgu Gaipin” in Cantonese. Both of these names translate literally to mushroom and chicken. This dish has been adapted so that it now has become synonymous with stir-fry. It usually includes cubed or sliced chicken with white mushrooms and other vegetables such as, snow peas, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and Chinese cabbage. In addition, other proteins have been added, or substituted, into Moo Goo Gai Pan, such as shrimp and pork. Interestingly, the chicken, or the meat substitute for the chicken, commonly implements a moist stir-fry technique called, “velveting.” Velveting, which is a coating of egg whites and starch for the chicken, helps to thicken the mixture and the sauce.

Our experience with making Moo Goo Gai Pan was relatively simple.  As non-cooks, we did not have much difficulty as we experimented during the cooking process.  Probably the most difficult chore was choosing the menu! Since there are so many different versions, we did not know whether or not to cook the Moo Goo Gai Pan with snap peas or moo goo gai pan with bamboo.  We ended up choosing ingredients that were on the menu we thought would best fit this project and a restaurant that would be in Chinatown Family.  After searching and calling for 10 minutes for stores in the area that might sell edible bamboo, we ventured over to H-Mart.  Many Korean employees did not understand when we were looking for dry sherry, bamboo, and cornstarch.  But after about 30-40 minutes in H-Mart, we were able to identify and purchase every ingredient we sought.

As noted, the cooking process was not very difficult.  We were able to cut down the preparation time as we had four sets of hands all working together.  It was incredibly smoky as we cooked it and it aroma became enticing as we mixed the various ingredients.  We were definitely excited, hungry, and eager to dig in.  To our surprise, we actually enjoyed the dish and we all agreed that we would eat again.  Luckily for us, Haffner dining hall now serves this dish as part of their Chinese station and it is on rotation once a month! We guess we will wait and see this week if their Moo Goo Gai Pan was similar to ours.

Our video experience:

Our Prezi presentation:


After researching and experimenting with making our own Moo Goo Gai Pan, we have returned to the question to which we always seem to return — what makes something authentic?  After realizing the many different names and recipes that are considered, more or less, Moo Goo Gai Pan, and the complicated history that follows it, it dawned on us that there is no correct Moo Goo Gai Pan dish.  We do not even know if it truly Cantonese, even though online that claim is made!  It is easy to replace or substitute a vegetable or meat that you may not like for something you do like, as long as you maintain the stir-fry component. The dish must also be drizzled with either Chinese wine or dry sherry and soup stock.  With the diversity in this simple stir-fry, we have concluded and accepted that authenticity does not apply to Moo Goo Gai Pan.  Every recipe makes its own claim to “authenticity,” even though almost every factor of the various recipes are different — prep time, cook time, ingredients, etc.  The seemingly limitless range of Moo Goo Gai Pan variations is what has turned this dish into a Chinese-American classic; a classic that is readily expected on any Chinese menu.

Works Cited

Chan, David R. “a American Chinese Food Came To Be.” Huffington Post. N.p., 26 Sept. 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.                                                                                                        Kho, Kian L. “Moo Goo Gai Pan by Definition.” Redcook. N.p., 26 May 2010. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.                                                                                                                                    Lin, Yutang. Chinatown Family: A Novel. New York, NY: J. Day, 1948. Print.                    NYPL Labs. “What’s on the Menu?” The New York Public Library. N.p., 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.                                                                                                                                       Office of the Historian. “Chinese Immigration and the Chinese Exclusion Acts.” US Department of State, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.




One thought on “Moo Goo Gai Fan: A Historical Adaptation into American Culture

  1. I am curious to hear how Haffner’s Moo goo gai f/pan (which did you choose? Your title says “pan” and tag is “fan”) compares to yours! I would also like to hear about how your thoughts about this dish will be changed or validated after we screen Ian Cheney’s film at the end of the semester.

    It seems that your post suggests that authenticity is difficult to define. To that end, what is your group’s conclusion about authenticity? Is it a term that is irrelevant, or one that you think represents a constant state of evolution? If the latter, is that a tenable definition of authenticity?

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