Has it ever happened that you opened the paper or browser to see, splashed across the New York Times, your hometown and some names you actually have faces to put with? Lo & behol’, happened to me this week — thankfully, due not to crime or disaster but on account of a stunning success.
Coming at it from my angle rather than NMC-friend/food-writer John T. Edge’s, the saga starts 50-odd years ago, when I’m in fourth grade in Springfield, Mo. Ling and Evelyn Leong show up in, respectively, my brother’s first-grade class and a third-grade one. Ling and Evelyn are very shy but sweet and smart, the first Chinese kids we’ve met. We find out their daddy and uncle work for Mr. Bill Grove at The Grove supper club, where moms and dads go for martinis and steaks.
After a few years Daddy Leong (David) and Uncle Leong (Gee) open their own restaurant on what’s then the west end of town: Leong’s Tea House. The first time I see it, I’m awed: outside it’s big and beautiful, pagoda-roofed with lion statues at the door, and inside, elegant and quiet. I have a dish called Cashew Chicken.
One bite and wow, I love that stuff! In fact, from now on, I’m up for Leong’s practically anytime the question is where-to-go-to-eat. Nor am I an outlier — families, couples on dates, tourists in town, everybody falls for cashew chicken and practically wears grooves in West Sunshine Street going for it.
More time passes. David and Gee Leong have a falling-out, and the next news is a big beautiful restaurant on the east end of Sunshine Street, Gee’s East Wind. It too is a temple to cashew chicken (though I’ll try my first crab Rangoon and various other more-adventuresome goodies there). Springfield generates enough cashew chicken fiends to keep both Leong restaurants busy.
Gradually, “Springfield” (that is, Leong-style) cashew chicken proliferates throughout Missouri, even to St. Louis and Kansas City. Of course every local Chinese place has it (one of John T.’s restauranteur-interviewees quotes his father: “Are you stupid, son? Are you that stupid? You can’t cook Chinese in Springfield without cooking cashew chicken”); but even not-Chinese places (like the public-school cafeterias) do too. Drive-thru joints — Chinese, Korean, Thai, whatever — all offer the same marquee dish:
As an old playmate of mine will tell John T., “Cashew chicken is a kind of inside joke in Springfield. But it’s also our daily bread, our defining food. And it starts with David Leong.” Here is he with a plate of it recently, at 88:
Now picture some of us hicks finally scouting around the larger world and for the first time ordering our hometown favorite elsewhere — in, say, London (in my case) or San Francisco or Shanghai. Soo-prise soo-prise: stir-fried, not breaded and deep-fried, and with a lot more goodies than just green onions to partner the cashews. A revelation!
Still, wherever we eventually wash up and no matter how we manage to sophisticate our palates, we remain Springfieldians. The Leongs (or their imitators) set our default a long, long time ago. So a few times a year, we who’ve moved away must improvise to satisfy the letch. Here’s how I do that:
1/2 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast (per person)
2 eggs per pound of chicken
1/4 cup milk per egg
salt & pepper
peanut oil for frying
2 chicken bouillon cubes per cup of water
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons oyster sauce
chopped green onions
hot rice for serving
Heat water to boiling and dissolve bouillon cubes. Stir 1/4 cup of broth into cornstarch to make a smooth slurry. Stir cornstarch slurry into broth with sugar and oyster sauce. Set aside and let sauce thicken as chicken cooks.
Heat oil to 350-400° in deep pan or fryer. Cut chicken into small pieces, dredge and let stand in flour for 15 minutes. Mix together egg, milk, and salt & pepper. Remove chicken from flour and let stand in egg mixture for 10 minutes. Roll chicken pieces in flour and deep-fry, in batches if need be, until golden. Drain well on paper towels and keep warm in covered pan in 200° oven.
Serve chicken over hot rice, topped with sauce, cashews, and chopped green onions. Pass soy sauce at table.
P.S. Is cashew chicken good for you? Well, all I can tell you is that my brother says the last time he ran into used-to-be-skinny-and-shy pal Ling, here was “this big, muscular extrovert with a hot girlfriend.” That‘s what Springfield Cashew Chicken does for a person (especially, a Leong). Haw!