UPDATE: Click HERE to be taken to the post made a few days after this one for photos of, and my conversation with, David Leong's son, Wing Yee, who is a chef at the local restaurant Fire & Ice on North Glenstone.
Here in my town is such an entity as Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken. It's something we're (in)famous for but maybe not as proud of as, say, The Hill in St. Louis is of inventing the toasted ravioli. Or maybe we are. Sit back, my friends, I have a short tale for you that rivals anything in Mayberry, and is about as goofy as Barney Fife. Most of fills in the blanks came from my friend and co-worker, Scott. I'd heard bits and pieces of this over the years but he's the one who tells it in the most cohesive manner. And even he admits that he's pretty sure most of this is true but he's not sure of all of the details. There are always a certain amount of rumors surrounding any urban legend.
Apparently in the 60's, a neuro surgeon was brought to town jointly by the two hospitals here. His name, Scott had heard, was Dr. Fong. Dr. Fong not only brought his own family but two brothers and their families joined him here in Springfield. Their origins have been assigned to several cities. I've heard San Fransisco, New York City, and Chicago. Personally, I'd be more likely to believe Chicago just because it's already in the Midwest. Either coast seems like a long distance recruitment for two hospitals that at the time were the largest in southwest Missouri, but not all that large in the big city scheme of things.
So the story goes that Dr. Fong brought his brothers, both of whom opened the first Chinese restaurants in town. First. How pathetic and embarrassing is that? To go along with that hicksville kind of thing I probably should have worded it as they opened the first Chinese restaurants in these here parts. Well anyway, I'm glad they did. The two restaurants were Springfield landmarks and both only closed down in the last 10 years. That's not bad for starting in the 60's. One was Leong's Tea House and the other was called Gee's East Wind.
The problem with the restaurants was the "first" part. They couldn't get but the fewest adventurous eaters through the doors at first and they needed more business to stay open. So the story goes that they needed a dish that Springfieldians would recognize and love while introducing them to asian flavors at the same time. That's a large bill to fill.
When he was telling me the versions of the story he'd heard, Scott made the comment that only in Springfield would you have people who go to an ethnic restaurant and expect to find southern comfort food. No kidding. So how do you make fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and gravy in an Asian restaurant? You fry nuggets of battered boneless chicken, cover it in a brown oyster sauce gravy, and serve it over white rice. And there it is. Simple and homey Asian comfort food in the Ozarks.
There's mass confusion on which brother it was who actually created our version of Cashew Chicken. I've heard my whole life that it was Leong of Leong's Tea House (whether his name really was Leong is also up for debate) who first put it on his menu. Scott has heard from credible sources that it was Gee (again, ditto about the question on the name) of Gee's East Wind. Either way, it became the bridge across the cultural gap that got Ozarkers in the doors and willing to try other dishes. Both restaurants survived and had good business for decades.
Wanna hear something funny? Springfield, Missouri is now in the Guiness Book of World Records for having the most Chinese take-out restaurants, per capita, than any other city in the United States. Now if that's not the definition of the word IRONY, I don't know what is.
Know what I like best about that story? I like that the two brothers were so clever, flexible, and focused on their goals that they didn't give up their restaurants and run away cursing the ignorance of Springfield. They found a way to make it work, and in doing so, they created a regional legacy, a personal legend, and introduced a whole city of people to a new culture, not to mention opening the doors for a record-making number of small business owners. Those take-out restaurant owners? Mostly Vietnamese immigrants, by the way. Leave your country, build a life for yourself and your kids in "the new world". To me this whole tale is a love story to a city, a triumph of spirit of two brothers, and the American Dream personified for many of our newer families.
This recipe was given to me by my friend and cousin, Ann Schultz, and so was the cute blue bowl I photographed the cashew chicken in. Seems appropriate, don't you think? I do prepare the chicken differently so I'll give you my way. The original recipe calls for the chicken to be deep fried and that is how it's prepared in the restaurants, but with Gene's heart disease, I just don't fry anything that often anymore. So I tend to brown and then bake meats for a fried texture without all the fat/calories.
Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken:
4-5 chicken breasts, chunked in 1" pieces
1 cup all purpose flour for dredging, more if needed
Salt and Pepper
Olive or expeller pressed canola oil
Hot cooked rice
1) Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Put flour, salt, and pepper in gallon sized baggie and shake to mix spices around. Put all of the chicken chunks in, seal, and shake around to cover. Let sit 15 minutes.
2) Saute chicken in batches in heavy, oven-proof skillet in a 3-4 Tbsp Olive or expeller pressed canola oil. As chicken browns, transfer to a paper towel covered plate and let drain. When finished browning all of the chicken, empty and wipe out any excess oil from the skillet.
3) Place the chicken back into the skillet and bake for 20 minutes on 375 degrees.
While chicken is baking, prepare the sauce (rice should already be prepared or in the process of steaming at this point).
For the sauce, in a small saucepan, combine:
1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup water
2 tsp Sugar
2 tbsp Oyster sauce
1 tbsp Soy sauce
2 Tbsp cornstarch
1) Bring to a simmer until thickened, whisking the entire time to prevent lumps from the cornstarch.
To serve, layer chicken and sauce over rice and garnish with: