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A Brief History of Crab Rangoon (Is Cream Cheese Native to Burma, or London?)

Crab rangoon are so popular that a frozen version is available at H-E-B.
Crab rangoon are so popular that a frozen version is available at H-E-B.
Photo by Joanna O'Leary

One of my guilty pleasures is American-Chinese food. Although a recent trip to Beijing and Shanghai afforded me the extended opportunity to eat "real" Chinese food (which I heartily enjoyed), I still have a soft spot for General Tso's chicken and chop suey.

My absolute favorite American-Chinese dish, however, is crab rangoon. This appetizer weakly masquerades as authentic given its major ingredient is Philadelphia cream cheese, which, needless to say, is not so much an Asian staple. It also doesn't help that Rangoon is the former name of Yangon, the capital of Myanmar.

The origins of the crab rangoon are murky and often mythologized. Cursory online research will tell you that a dish resembling present-day crab rangoon first appeared on the menu of legendary tiki bar and restaurant Trader Vic's, though some sources hypothesize these stuffed crab puffs emerged around the turn of the century in British-controlled Burma.

I find both explanations unsatisfactory. With all due respect to Trader Vic's, I am suspicious of the claim that they invented crab rangoon out of thin air. And while those intrepid Brits certainly had a habit of merging elements of their own cuisine with those of the countries they colonized, cream cheese also isn't commonly found in traditional English cooking.

So, in other words, Ken Burns needs to do a ten-part investigative documentary on the history of crab rangoon.

I do find comfort in the fact that others seem to be equally interested in crab rangoon, in particular this gentlemen, who provides a recipe and a lovely guide to the folding methods used in creating the crab puffs.

And I was thrilled to learn that come February, I can officially celebrate the crab rangoon on the 13th, which is, you guessed it, National Crab Rangoon Day. Perhaps I will try my hand at making some heart-shaped wontons so my crab rangoon appetizers can carry over to Valentine's Day dinner.


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