I recently watched an awesome food history movie, called “In Search of General Tso.” In it we learn the origin of one of the most common Chinese American restaurant dishes – Cashew Chicken. And, like many other American Chinese dishes – chop suey, and even the fortune cookie – it’s not a dish you will find anywhere in China. It was created by an ingenius Chinese restauranteur, David Leong, for the American palette, specifically that of the Missouri Ozarkians.
What’s even funnier is that the dish’s influence comes from a German immigrant-created food, chicken fried steak. Enter David Leong, a Chinese immigrant to the U.S. in 1940, who found restaurants as his way to the American dream. His father back in Guangdong, China, was a butcher and his mother, a talented home cook.
David Leong, creator of Springfield Cashew Chicken.
His plans were to make money to bring his wife and newborn son over. But those plans changed when WWII broke out. David enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a cook at a training camp, where he spent the duration of the war. After bringing his wife over, they settled in Florida.
While cooking at his Chinese restaurant in Pensacola, Florida, a visiting doctor from Springfield, Missouri, so loved his cooking, he offered David the chef position at a new restaurant he was opening, Lotus Garden, in Springfield.
By 1963, David had saved enough money to open his own restaurant, which he did, Leong’s Tea House. But before the grand opening, some locals threw 10 sticks of dynamite into the restaurant, delaying opening by a month. But, whatever reservation the locals had, it was quickly removed when people started tasting his food. Again, a testimonial of food being the great human equalizer!
Leong wanted to stay true to his Cantonese background with the food. But Cantonese cuisine was not in high demand in 1960s Missouri. So he devised a way to mix the Cantonese with Ozarks flavors. Chicken fried steak was a popular comfort food in the area. The result was Springfield Cashew Chicken. David deboned chicken into little nuggets, and breaded and deep fried them like chicken fried steak. Normally a stir fry would contain boiled chicken. He then covered the nuggets with scallions and a brown sauce made with light and dark soy, oyster sauce, salt, pepper, sugar, ginger and chicken stock.
Other restaurants opened up in and around Springfield, all of them serving this new cashew chicken. Many were friends of David, with whom he’d shared the recipe. The recipe then spread throughout the Chinese restaurant community and became known simply as cashew chicken.
David’s son, Wing Wah Leong, tells a story of how popular the dish had become. He says that in the early 1980s, people from McDonald’s Corporate visited the restaurant to learn how David was breading and deep frying the little chicken nuggets. Of course they wanted the recipe and method free of charge, which David wasn’t willing to do. But about a year after the visit, McDonald’s released their Chicken McNuggets. Was it a coincidence? Not in Wing Wah’s opinion. He’d like the family to see some royalties.
After years of pleading from customers, the Leong’s have bottled the cashew chicken sauce, which can be bought at Hy-Vee and Price Cutter in Missouri. David, at over 90 years old still is involved with his family’s Leong’s Asian Diner. In 2013 he visited Hong Kong and saw a sign in a restaurant there advertising Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken. For his Ozark-American Chinese dish to have become so popular that it was now a featured menu item in Hong Kong was a significant event for David and his family.