On my 2nd day of my 6 months overseas exchange programme in the USA, I was already craving for all kinds of Singaporean or even Asian food. Rice, noodles, chilli sauce you name it. Imagine the incessant jumps of joy I felt when I spotted a Chinese takeaway restaurant at an inconspicuous corner of a hostel I was staying in!
One look at the sizeable menu displayed on the wall behind the counters got me slightly confused. Step 1: Choose your noodles. Egg noodles then. Step 2: Choose your ingredients. Veggies and shrimps checked. Step 3: Choose your sauce. This was then followed by a range of sauces accompanied by the countries they supposedly originate from. But ‘Hong Kong: Hot and Sour Sauce, Beijing: Oyster Sauce or even Saigon: Garlic and Black Pepper’ doesn’t seem to make any sense. I went ahead with Saigon anyway, and had my first experience with a white Chinese take-out box that was presented to me in the next 5 minutes. It was exactly those kind you see in American sitcoms, the iconic paper take-out box that every Chinese restaurant only seem to serve their food in. Below are a few photos of my guilty pleasures as I continued to hunt for my favourite noodles around town.
That got me thinking: I’ve never seen such a design in my 21 years living in Asia. And nope, we definitely do not use these back home. Curious, I went to research a bit more on how this unfamiliar product that claims to be Asian originated.
What I found:
The facts are out: Chinese take-out boxes are indeed an American invention. Also known as an ‘oyster pail’, it was first invented in the US around 1894 to contain oysters. Since then, the box has also been used to hold classic American food such as fries and fried clams, but it has continued to be strongly associated with Chinese take-out. Some features of the box include having a wire handle for easy carrying, good closure and good heat retention.
In fact, some have also alluded Chinese take-out to symbolise a sense of familiarity and comfort that people seek while eating it. I guess this might be true since Chinese food is the stereotypical take-out food and it somewhat fits the idea of a causal and relaxed feel as people would probably sit in front of their television or chill in their home while eating. Compare this to burgers or sandwiches as a meal and it somehow doesn’t feel as homely.
Compared to our usual styrofoam ‘dapao’ boxes we used back home, this paper box alternative provides a sturdier material to contain our food. However, I feel that the depth of the paper box makes it more difficult to scoop the food up towards the end of the meal. It also seems that the paper boxes are relatively larger than styrofoam ones back home. Bigger boxes = more food; we’re not complaining (:
My subsequent encounters with the Chinese take-out system in the US has indeed been an interesting experience with more misrepresentations of Asian food, as well as the fusion of many Asian and American cuisines. I believe that overtime, the Chinese take-out box serves more than just your usual takeaway containers, but rather a symbolic product to represent any Asian cuisine in a Western society that has slowly but surely relished the tastebuds of many the locals here.