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I Just Realized What Crab Rangoon Actually Is (And Strangely Like It)

If you’ve ever been to a Chinese restaurant in the United States, you’ve probably ordered Crab Rangoon. One of our favorite appetizers, usually served with a sweet and mildly spicy dipping sauce, has a complicated history. 

This crispy, golden brown snack isn’t quite what you think, though. Even if you’ve eaten the dish your whole life, there’s a story here to tell that you’ve probably never heard. 

We’ll take a look back to post-war America in the 1950s and see where these creamy pockets of goodness come from. 

Let’s dive in!

What Is Crab Rangoon?

Chinese food in America has a history that stretches back further than most people think. As far back as the 1850s, scores of Chinese immigrants came to the American west to work on the railroads and search for gold. 

With them came cooks who only cooked for other Chinese. When Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, a loophole led to American Chinese food as we know it today. 

One of the classes of people allowed travel visas from China were chefs. And so, while other Chinese couldn’t emigrate to the US, chefs could. 

Americanized Chinese food grew slowly through the early twentieth century until the end of World War II. As American GIs came home from the Pacific Theater, they brought with them a taste for new cuisines. 

Americans Introduced to a New Delicacy

The first record of Crab Rangoon comes from a spot called Trader Vic’s Chow at Hinky Dinks in Oakland, California. Victor Bergeron opened his first restaurant in the 1930s and celebrated Tiki culture. 

Trading on the obsession with the South Pacific, Bergeron began experimenting with frying different things in wonton wrappers. 

In an article on the website Atlas Obscura, Bergeron’s granddaughter imagines her grandfather just started stuffing different things in the versatile wrappers. Cream cheese was a popular food in the 1940s and 1950s; every kitchen had it in stock. 

Combining crab and cream cheese, Bergeron quickly realized he’d stumbled on a gold mine. To name this new delicacy, Bergeron combined crab and a city in Myanmar, then called Burma. Rangoon was at one time the capital of Burma. The name certainly lent an air of exoticism to the dish. 

Given the success of Crab Rangoon, American audiences didn’t care that it wasn’t a Myanmar dish. Or even that Myanmar wasn’t in China but a country of its own.  

Since its introduction in the 1950s, Crab Rangoon has become a staple at almost every Chinese restaurant in the US. Usually served with a sweet and sour sauce, with a hint of chili, the dish is an American favorite. Even the more traditional Chinese restaurants include it on their menus.  

Do They Use Real Crab in Crab Rangoon?

Bergeron’s original recipe for Crab Rangoon called for several ingredients that aren’t in the current version. He used real crab, Canadian blues, A1 Steak Sauce, and Lingham’s Chili Sauce, a specialty in Britain. 

The flavor profile in Bergeron’s original recipe wouldn’t appeal to contemporary tastes, so the recipe changed over time. 

In modern recipe versions, imitation crab replaces real crab, and sweetened cream cheese is added. Most of the sauces are common stock ingredients found in Chinese restaurant kitchens.

Imitation crab is a product made from ground white fish, usually pollock, and dyed to look like crab meat. It’s also not nearly as fishy as the real thing. 

Most dishes you think have real crab meat in them actually use the artificial version. From Crab Rangoon to the California Roll, what you’re likely tasting isn’t the real thing at all. 

Surprisingly, some varieties of Crab Rangoon skip the key ingredient altogether. And then there’s Cream Cheese Rangoon which uses similar flavors but forgoes the fish for whatever reason. Not as common around the US, but still a popular riff on the original dish. 

But Is It Authentic Chinese Food?

Bergeron’s spot Trader Vic’s never claimed to be a Chinese restaurant. They focused on the Polynesian style and Tiki culture. 

And as Tiki culture spread across the US in the 1950s, Crab Rangoon became more popular. Diners with only a cursory knowledge of Asian cultures started expecting to find Crab Rangoon on Chinese restaurant menus. So most of the restaurants obliged. 

But the history of Chinese food in America is fraught with conflict between authentic and in-authentic dishes. It isn’t simply a question of whether the food existed in Imperial China or not. 

When people emigrate to the United States, they bring their traditional food with them. It’s then translated through local ingredients and tastes to become something different from the original version.

Over time, immigrant cuisine evolved separately from its country of origin and became something else. Chinese restaurants, for instance, began catering to American tastes. 

This meant they included things like cream cheese and more sugar in dishes for American diners. Dairy doesn’t appear in most Chinese recipes at all.

Chinese-American chefs today make Crab Rangoon that reflects their authentic experiences in the US as third, fourth, or even more generation Americans. Just because they don’t necessarily have direct connections to China, their food is just as authentic as any Chinese restaurant in America. 

Is Crab Rangoon authentically Chinese? Bergeron would argue no. It’s authentically American. Should it matter that the dish has zero connection to Chinese culture for you to enjoy it? We don’t think so. 

Is Crab Rangoon Easy to Make?

If you want to experience this dish on your own and maybe make a new authentic version, you’re in luck! Working with simple ingredients you can find at most grocery stores, you can make Crab Rangoon at home. 

The basic recipe includes wonton skins, cream cheese, imitation crab, scallions, garlic, and soy sauce. Mix everything together and stuff the wontons with the mixture. It’s a great way to get kids involved in the kitchen if you don’t mind it getting a little messy. 

Fry until they’re golden brown, and you’re done. You can even bake, or air fry them if you’d rather not deal with deep frying.

Feel free to change it up too. Use real crab, jalapeno cream cheese, spicy chili sauce, or anything you like. Slap your name on it, and you’ve got a personalized version of Crab Rangoon. 

When Is National Crab Rangoon Day?

If you’ve ever celebrated Single Awareness Day, aka Valentine’s Day, alone, you might enjoy observing National Crab Rangoon Day instead. In 2009, a group of friends celebrating their singleness decided to include Crab Rangoon in their festivities. 

Now, each year, on February 13, they get together and celebrate one of their favorite foods. You can join in the fun by celebrating alone or with friends. Order some takeout, or make your version at home, and make sure to take pictures. 

If you want to connect with other lovers of this dish, include the hashtag #nationalcrabrangoonday or #crabrangoonday in your Instagram post.

Real or Imitation, It’s Just Plain Good

From a Tiki bar in Oakland to every Chinese restaurant in the country, Crab Rangoon exploded into the national consciousness in the 1950s. From small-town Iowa to New York City, you can count on finding at least one dish on the menu you know and love. 

Even though it doesn’t often contain actual crab and has virtually no connection to Chinese culture, the dish is popular worldwide. Now, when it comes time to order, you’ll have the inside scoop on what Crab Rangoon really is. 

Just make sure to order enough for the table!

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