After listening to my Christmas night lecture on the history of Chinese-American restaurants, an attendee who'd managed not to be distracted by host restaurant Tai Tung's spinning lazy Susans, freighted with chop suey, chow mein, almond chicken and sweet and sour spareribs, had a very fair question: Where did the crab Rangoon come from?
Unlike most dishes on the standard Chinese-American menu, which have authentic Chinese antecedents, the presence of dairy marks Rangoon - also known as crab wontons and crab puffs, depending on the region - as an interloper. Although milk has long been a staple of northern Chinese diets, the Cantonese immigrants responsible for the nation's first successful chop suey joints didn't come from dairy traditions. It never occurred to them to fry cream cheese in a wonton wrapper.
But cream cheese was very much on the minds of their American-born contemporaries, thanks largely to Kraft, which vigorously promoted its Philadelphia cream cheese as an instant hors d'oeuvre solution, sandwich filling and dessert topping. In the 1930s, tea parties and club meetings invariably featured bread triangles spread with cream cheese.
The omnipresence of cream cheese probably inspired Trader Vic's kitchen to invent crab Rangoon, a fixture of the tiki bar's earliest pu pu platters - and its mythical Burmese origins. According to a recipe printed in a 1968 Trader Vic's cookbook, the snacks were made with crab meat, cream cheese, A-1 sauce, garlic powder, won ton noodles and a beaten egg yolk. They became so popular that they eventually migrated to Chinese-American menus: Andrea Nguyen, author of Asian Dumplings, reported on her blog that she's so frequently asked for a Rangoon recipe that she's wondered whether the newfangled food "deserves entry into pantheon of Asian dumplings."
Nguyen's readers weren't ready to grant serious dumpling status to Rangoon, but the argument may not be settled. According to Google, "crab Rangoon", "crab wonton", and "crab puff" have been searched so avidly in the past few years (especially in the nation's midsection) that all three terms qualify for "breakout status," meaning growth since 2004 stands at more than 5000 percent. Although it's perhaps too retro to appear on any 2012 trend lists, the upcoming Year of the Dragon could very well double as the Year of the Crab Rangoon.