Chef David Leong turned Springfield cashew chicken into a uniquely Missouri phenomenon
In the 1960s, Chinese American chef David Leong invented his own version of American fried chicken and gravy. But what started as one man's savvy business decision became a hit dish for hundreds of restaurants around Springfield, Missouri.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Chinese restaurant near Springfield, Missouri, that doesn’t sell Springfield-style cashew chicken.
Even local restaurants that don’t serve Chinese food have this dish on their menu. That’s how popular it is.
Unlike the more ubiquitous cashew chicken you’ll find in Chinese restaurants across the United States, the Springfield version features boneless chunks of chicken that have been breaded, fried and smothered in brown gravy.
Invented in the 1960s, this dish is utterly beloved by Springfield residents and tourists alike for its rich sauce and satisfying crunch.
David Leong — the Chinese American chef who invented Springfield cashew chicken — never intended to be an innovator. In the beginning, cooking was a form of survival.
“When he came to the United States, he only had $2 in his pocket,” says Ling Leong, David's son. “He was basically just trying to make a living for his family.”
David died about a year ago, just short of his 100th birthday. He was a prolific chef from the very start.
“My dad had this amazing ability to make anything taste good,” Ling says.
After growing up in China, David emigrated to the United States and joined the U.S. Army in 1942. There, officers were so impressed by his culinary prowess that they asked him serve as a cook. (David was also in the fourth wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion, but that's another story.)
A similar thing happened when David landed in Florida after World War II. While on vacation, a neurosurgeon from Missouri was so moved by David’s cooking that he begged — successfully — for David to move to Springfield and open up the area’s first Chinese restaurant.
Except in the late 1950s, it wasn't easy to be a newcomer in southern Missouri. Lingering anti-Asian racism from the war led David and his family to be viewed as outsiders. Less than a week before he was set to open a new restaurant — Leong’s Tea House — in 1963, someone tossed sticks of dynamite at the building and stole the lion statues from the front door.
"He was stubborn," Ling says. "He wasn’t going to let that stop him from doing this and living his dream and owning his business."
Undeterred, the Leongs repaired the damage and opened their restaurant a couple of weeks later.
“Some people wanted to see him fail at his business,” Ling says. “He just wanted to get people to come in and try his restaurant. Because he had to make enough money to feed his family. At that time, he had seven kids.”
David knew he needed to win over the locals in order for his restaurant to be profitable. He found a stroke of inspiration by looking at the area's many American restaurants. Fried chicken was popular all over town — so why not make his own version?
“What he did was, he had some people from city hall come in to eat and he gave them some samples of it to see if they would like it," Ling says. "And they loved it so much that the next day, they brought the entire crew from city hall to come in and eat. And it just took off.”
David's creation was equally as comforting as the fried chicken that Missouri already loved — just with an original twist. (According to Ling, a representative from McDonald's even asked David for his recipe, shortly before the debut of the chicken McNugget.)
Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee says that David was one of many Chinese American chefs inventing dishes that blended in with their surroundings.
“Many times, what an American Chinese restaurateur is trying to do is just trying to survive,” she says. “They want to sell stuff. And so they will make things that please people.”
What’s even more interesting, she says, is when a dish like Springfield-style cashew chicken becomes popular, because it offers a reflection of the place where it took off.
“I love the love that the local community obviously had for this hybrid concoction, that exists mostly — if only — in Missouri,” Lee explains. “That to me says so much about Missouri.”
Part of the reason these dishes spread like wildfire, Lee says, is that Chinese American restaurateurs copied each other a lot.
David didn't mind. In fact, he encouraged it, and by the 1970s, the Leong family says there were hundreds of Chinese restaurants serving their own version of Springfield-style cashew chicken.
"My father was a very giving and trusting man," Ling says. "He was never afraid of giving out his recipe for cashew chicken to competitors. Because he thought, 'These people have to make a living, too.'"
It's been almost six decades since Springfield cashew chicken came to life. While its creator might be gone, you can still taste his original recipe at Leong's Asian Diner, the restaurant now run by David's family.
Ling says he spent so much of his life around cashew chicken that he never thought he'd miss it. When he moved away from Springfield for some time, though, he would get these fierce cravings.
"So I'd have to go to different restaurants and try their cashew chicken," Ling explains. "And it was never quite the same, you know."
Now, whenever Ling eats the dish, he feels renewed gratitude for his dad.
“I still think about him every day,” Ling says. “And appreciate him for everything he's done for our family.”
Support for Hungry For MOcomes from the Missouri Humanities Council.