La Choy

La Choy

With the exception of the coastal areas of the country, Asian food wasn’t always so easy to come by in decades past. Today, you can’t drive ten miles without running into a Panda Express, but in simpler times, the only exposure that many people had to Chinese cuisine came by way of La Choy, sold in cans at the supermarket.

La Choy’s roots go back to the University of Michigan – the result of a friendship between two men named Wally Smith and Ilhan New. Smith had a grocery store and wanted to offer something different to his customers. Ilhan New, a Korean, knew how to grow bean sprouts -in a bathtub, no less. They proceeded to can the sprouts and were somewhat surprised when they actually sold.

By 1937, La Choy was formed and they opened their first manufacturing plant. World War II caused the plant to close, though a new interest in exotic foods emerged when the hostilities came to a close. Renewed interest in Asian cuisine allowed the pair to open up a new plant in Ohio, from which they were able to take their operations to a national level.

Soon, ads with The Muppets and the famous La Choy Dragon were all over television sets across the nation and an ethnic foods industry was born. Offering items such as chow mein, chop suey, little addictive crunchy noodles, and of course bean sprouts, La Choy, as well as another popular canned food competitor, Chun King, made it possible for middle-America to expand their exotic tastes. In later years, frozen entrees and egg rolls were added to the growning product line.

While most people might wince at the idea of canned Chinese food in this day and age, the food really wasn’t that bad, and it was quick, easy and inexpensive to prepare; you didn’t even need a wok. Just heat up the can of sauce and vegetables, then pour over the other can of crunchy noodles, add a splash of La Choy soy sauce, and you were good to go.

La Choy and Chun King introduced generations of people to water chestnuts, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and other ingredients that they might not have had an opportunity to try otherwise. And once people took a chance and found out how yummy the cuisine was, they were more apt to venture out and try something more authentic, spawning numerous Chinese restaurants around the country. Without companies like La Choy and Chun King, there might never have been a Panda Express.

We’ll leave it to you to decide whether that was a good thing or not. Meanwhile, if you ever had the pleasure of enjoying an evening of canned Chinese Food poured over a bed of crispy noodles, we hope you’ll take a moment to share your La Choy memories with us in our comments section below.

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