NEW YORK — Amid the rush of Chinese American newcomers after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Chinese American food progressed from its chop suey roots in leaps and bounds, expanding the takeout canon at the boldest pace since the invention of the egg roll and beef and broccoli in the 1930s: cashew chicken in the 1960s, General Tso’s chicken in the 1970s, orange chicken in the 1980s, and crab rangoon in the 1990s.

And then? Nothing for almost a generation. Perhaps a bao here, scattered chili crisp dumplings there, regional hits like the St. Paul sandwich or chow mein sandwich, but nothing national. Nothing definitive, seismic or universal.

Lucas Sin may have changed that.

“There’s no logic or poetry, but once they combine, they taste both nostalgic and brand new,” said Sin of his dish, mapo mac and cheese, which debuted at his Nice Day Chinese takeout restaurant in Manhattan in May and quickly became a bestseller, even trouncing sweet-and-sour chicken.

Putting the finishing touches on the takeout order at Nice Day Chinese. Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post

“Like any other dish, it’s all about flavor balance and textural balance,” he explained. His recipe adds, in his words, “something that mac and cheese on its own generally lacks”: deep savory notes, from soybean paste and fermented fava bean paste. And since he sees mac and cheese as “pretty one-note – soggy, soupy, overcooked,” he adds Chinese sausage, fried tofu and shiitake mushrooms.

Mapo mac’s popularity comes on the heels of other hit Chinese American mash-ups, including Tim Ma’s mapo gnocchi at shuttered Kyirisan in D.C., Mei Lin’s mapo lasagna at Nightshade in Los Angeles, and Nick Liu’s Big Mac bao at Dailo in Toronto. But unlike those spots, Nice Day is on an ambitious and aggressive mission to take over hundreds or thousands of the nation’s 44,000 Chinese takeout joints, which were on the wane even before the pandemic. Sin’s mapo mac is not just a recipe whim or a business strategy; it’s also a cultural gauntlet thrown.

Of course, Sin is not alone. Ma, for one, also runs Lucky Danger and routinely asks the elders of his famous Chinese takeout family for any dish ideas.

“A cold dish would never make it,” Ma said. “It would have to be a hot dish. Spicy without chile. It has to be sweet, light on bitter. Not much sour or acid. Middle America has to accept it – has to crave it.” He has been keen on a pork belly mustard greens dish, but “I’m asking my mom what all the famous pork belly dishes back in Taiwan are.”

Ma and Sin are part of an emerging conversation in Chinese takeout spots of a readiness – not unlike chatter about a female president or the 51st state – for a generationally game-changing new dish.

“The reason why there was so long where there wasn’t mapo mac – or whatever the innovation – was because the first-generation immigration experience was really largely hinging on survival: Let’s do what works and let’s do what we know the clientele likes. We didn’t have the luxury of gambling on mapo mac,” said Mike Lee, founder of the Future Market, a food futurist lab, and the son of Chinese restaurant owners who emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s. “Because my parents were, so to speak, good soldiers, they weren’t trying to rock the boat to innovate. They built up this amazing foundation to send me to college, and then I had this ‘luxury’ to think more creatively. OG chefs like my parents don’t have an itch to reinvent the wheel. It’s coming from the Lucas Sins of the world, the David Changs of the world. That started the itch among diners like me who have been trained to expect new, different, novel things.”

Chinese takeout’s next big dish will almost certainly come from a chain like the one Nice Day is striving to build. The last two major additions – orange chicken and crab rangoon – didn’t happen virally; they were distributed through chains: Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s, respectively. Crab rangoon had been invented in the 1950s but hadn’t caught on.

And now there’s also demographic impetus.

“People in my generation are just getting to an age where our voice and talent are being heard and respected,” said Eric Sze, owner of New York’s Taiwanese restaurant 886. “There’s been a boom, a homecoming in celebrating our own culture. Mission Chinese, Momofuku, all these places that weren’t authentic but represented who we are. Brandon Jew in San Francisco. Jason Wang in New York. Peter Chang in Baltimore. We had a whole Lanzhou noodle craze! We did a marathon through the eight major Chinese cuisines.”

That octet of styles – collectively called bada, the Big Eight – will look familiar to food trend enthusiasts: Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Sichuan, Shandong and Zhejiang. (Taiwanese is arguably a ninth cuisine.)

“We did a lap around the eight, and now there’s a pandemic where everyone wants to eat at home, so let’s do Chinese American,” Sze said. “It’s almost a homecoming within the homecoming.”

Andy Kao, the inventor of orange chicken, reached in his retirement in California, flagged that even though sweet and sour is seen as Chinese American, it’s part of flavors as basic as ketchup or balsamic vinegar.

“I enjoy seeing a new generation of chefs creating American Chinese mash-ups because that’s what keeps this category of culture relevant and exciting,” Kao wrote in an email. “At its root, American Chinese food is thoughtful and complex in principle, and the cuisine has always been about originality while respecting origins.”

Sin tosses his mapo mac. Photo by Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post

Some longtime observers of the cuisine, however, seem skeptical.

“They’re not adding to the canon,” said Jennifer 8. Lee, who produced the 2014 documentary “The Search for General Tso.” “They’re cooking their thing, and it may or may not be added to a Chinese American buffet. But the generic Chinese restaurant owner is not too proud. They will sell what people will buy,” including, she added, “anything in the family of Asian-ness” such as pad Thai and “California roll-y type things.” In fairness, she noted, “It’s not like pizza or Mexican food are evolving at a rapid clip, either.”

Since emigrating from Hong Kong in 1981, David Ho has been cooking at Sam Wo, the oldest restaurant (since 1908!) in San Francisco’s Chinatown. His repertoire there has included barbecue pork rice noodle rolls, a dish that would be ideal for national takeout glory, but is too complicated (Ho grinds the rice himself, for one). Elders such as Ho, who have maintained traditions without acknowledging that maintenance as a creativity unto itself, are jaded by decades of habit. “There’s no demand for new, so there’s no creativity needed,” said Ho through an interpreter. “There’s no trying for new ideas, new dishes. In order to eat a new invention, you have to go to China.”

Told that Sin is from China, Ho reconsidered: “You might conquer with mapo mac and cheese. It would still work because the strength of flavor comes from the mapo. This is a spicy people’s dish, which means that it’s a young person’s dish.”

Other chefs are more cynical about innovation.

The pressing issues of Chinese cuisine are economic – rent, labor, food costs – not culinary, and “there’s no math” that can give the 100-plus entree takeout spots we know and love any scalability, said Justin Lee, owner of New York’s star vegan Chinese restaurant Fat Choy. “It really pains me to see that Lucas is taking all of his money and all of his backers to make new food because he thinks he’s cool enough to, when he should just be stewarding the golden age of great dishes and not messing with them. No one needs that.”

Sin pushed back with a laugh: “If you’re busy trying to defend your identity and your cuisine, you don’t have the luxury to be silly and fun with either.”

“You’re allowed to have fun and be silly with Chinese food. Personally, it’s the other side of the coin to me being so serious about Chinese cuisine – region, technique, tradition. This is very anti-tradition,” Sin said. “But the interesting irony is that anti-tradition is built into Chinese American food. Making stuff up that sells and is delicious and nobody could’ve predicted until someone did is so much part of the DNA of this cuisine.”

Mapo mac dares both sides of the Chinese American equation to reimagine the other – and their own. In China, Pabst beer, which is cheap and declasse stateside, is reformulated as Blue Ribbon 1844 and sells for roughly $50 a bottle. Similarly, Sin said, “in Hong Kong, mac and cheese is a luxury good. Whenever we went home from the U.S., we would cram our suitcases full of it. That and 3D Doritos.”

New York City Chef Lucas Sin’s Mapo Mac and Cheese. Photo by Rey Lopez for The Washington Post

Mapo Mac and Cheese

35 minutes

2-4 servings; makes 3 1/2 cups

The Chinese American canon has been largely unchanged for a generation, but chef Lucas Sin’s mapo mac innovates on two fronts: an embrace of nostalgia for a childhood American classic and a foray into quick-and-easy whimsy in a cuisine that has sometimes been intimidating for its technique and cultural specificity. Here is a meet-you-where-you-are dish whose mac and cheese roots let you start this recipe halfway to the finish line.

Storage Notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. You may need to loosen with a little water when reheating or reheat in a nonstick skillet with a slick of oil over medium heat until crisped up in places and hot.

Where to Buy: Chinese sausage, Sichuan peppercorns, doubanjiang (fermented chile and bean paste), soybean paste and tofu puffs can be found at Asian markets and online.

INGREDIENTS

4 dried shiitake mushrooms

Boiling water

Fine sea salt or table salt

1 cup (about 4 1/2 ounces) uncooked elbow macaroni

1/4 cup vegetable oil or another neutral oil

1/2 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns

1 scallion, white and green parts divided and chopped separately

1 1/2 tablespoons minced or finely grated fresh ginger

1 1/2 tablespoons minced or finely grated garlic

1/2 Chinese sausage (1 ounce), thinly sliced

1 tablespoon doubanjiang (Sichuan fermented bean paste)

1 1/2 teaspoons soybean paste

2 cups unsalted chicken broth or water

4 slices American cheese

1 3/4 ounces tofu puffs, diced (about 1 cup)

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon cold water

1 to 2 tablespoons chile oil

DIRECTIONS

Place the shiitakes in a small bowl and cover with the boiling water. Let stand for about 10 minutes, then drain and slice the mushrooms.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the macaroni according to package instructions or until al dente, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Drain, toss in the 1 tablespoon of the oil and let cool.

In a wok or skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Add the peppercorns, scallion whites, ginger, garlic, sausage and mushrooms and stir-fry until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the doubanjiang and soy bean paste, stir to combine and fry until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the chicken broth or water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer for at least 5 minutes.

Add the macaroni to the pot. The liquid should barely cover the macaroni. Increase the heat to bring the mixture to a boil. Add the cheese and mix until it melts, then add the tofu puffs.

In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch with cold water until they form a slurry. Add the slurry to the pot and stir until the sauce coats the macaroni like traditional macaroni and cheese.

Remove from the heat and divide the pasta between shallow bowls. Top with the scallion greens, drizzle with the chile oil to taste and serve.

Nutrition information per serving (1 scant cup), based on 4 | Calories: 449; Total Fat: 32 g; Saturated Fat: 8 g; Cholesterol: 32 mg; Sodium: 843 mg; Carbohydrates: 31 g; Dietary Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 17 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

Recipe adapted from chef Lucas Sin of Nice Day in New York.


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