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STANDING in the parking lot of Mr. Yen’s, a 560-seat palace of Chinese cooking owned by a family friend, David Leong scanned the red clay pagoda roof and rose-colored walls and staked a claim that few here in the Ozarks would dispute.
“All this came from my cashew chicken,” said Mr. Leong, the 88-year-old patriarch of the Chinese food industry here. “All these restaurants. This wealth. From my family.”
Cashew chicken, in the form first cooked by Mr. Leong nearly a half-century ago, is not the stir-fry served by many Chinese-American restaurants. Around Springfield, cashew chicken — deep-fried chicken chunks in a brown slurry of soy sauce, oyster sauce and stock, scattered with green onions and halved cashews — is the culinary common denominator.
More than 70 Chinese restaurants in this city of 157,000 serve cashew chicken
In St. Louis and Kansas City, cashew chicken is served “Springfield style,” heralded with provincial categorization like Sichuan or Cantonese. In Springfield, however, cashew chicken accepts no categorization.
“I fought it at first,” he said. “Now I eat cashew chicken three or four days a week.”
“When I moved here in the 1950s, people kept telling me about fried chicken,” Mr. Leong said. “I did what they wanted. I gave them fried chicken with Chinese oyster sauce and cashews.”
By the 1970s, the Leong family dish had become such a part of the Springfield culinary ethic that the curriculum at Graff Vocational Technical Center included instruction in the cooking and serving of hillbilly steak sandwiches, chocolate cream pies and, yes, cashew chicken.