We Southerners like our food a variety of ways, most of them somewhere in the “fried,” “smothered,” or “covered” family. There’s a recipe that hails from Missouri that checks all those boxes, delighting every Southerner’s salty palate and popping up on menus across the country and the world. But it’s not biscuit-based, it doesn’t have any of our favorite porcine ingredients, and it wasn’t even born in a grandma’s kitchen. It’s Springfield’s Cashew Chicken, a dish equal parts Ozark and Chinese, and it is delicious.
David Leong isn’t a native of Springfield, but his famous dish is. It’s a story that begins far outside the narrow boundaries of the South, in Guangdong, China. There Leong was born to parents enmeshed in the local food culture: his father was a butcher, his mother a talented home cook. At nineteen, Leong immigrated to the US, and the onset of World War II quickly ushered him into the US Army. His job? Kitchen patrol, cooking meals for hundreds of troops every day. He polished his cooking skills in the steamy heat of the high-volume kitchens, preparing Army-approved dishes with a Chinese twist.
With the conclusion of the war, Leong reunited with his family (the war had kept them stranded in China and Leong in the States) and set roots in Pensacola, Florida. But his time in the kitchen was far, far from over.
Leong opened a small Chinese restaurant in Pensacola, drawing visitors and locals alike. One of those visitors was a neurosurgeon, a fellow native of China, on vacation from Springfield, Missouri. The hungry Springfield tourist returned again and again to Leong’s restaurant, finally offering him the position of head chef at his new endeavor, Lotus Garden, in Missouri. Leong accepted and resettled his family once again, this time in the heart of the Ozarks.
Though his tenure at Lotus Garden was short-lived, Leong stayed in Springfield, working at a supper club and bringing new, exotic dishes to their traditional menu of rare steak and potatoes. And finally, in 1963, he saved enough money to open his own restaurant.
At the outset, Leong hoped to bring traditional, authentic Cantonese dishes to the people of Springfield. His menu offered savory and strange dishes like pork belly and duck, succulent and flavorful favorites from his childhood. But sixties-era Springfield wasn’t quite ready for true Chinese fare, and business stalled.
Determined to succeed, the chef went back to the chopping block. The puzzle he needed to piece together was how to fuse his own, traditional Cantonese cuisine with that of his adoptive home, Missouri. The answer was simple, really, and lay in our favorite method of food preparation: frying.
Leong chopped fresh chicken breasts into meaty, bite-sized morsels and covered them in a dusting of flour, frying them to a crisp golden brown. The true secret lay in the sauce, an amalgamation of homemade chicken stock, ginger, salt, pepper, oyster, and soy sauce, and a sprinkle of sugar and cornstarch. Topped with halved cashews and springy green onions, a new recipe was born. Springfield Cashew Chicken.
Unsurprisingly, the Southern twist on the Cantonese dish was an instant favorite. The customers Leong had been lacking poured through the door in droves, eager to try his Chinese take on smothered, covered, and fried.
The recipe didn’t remain a house secret for long. Leong shared the recipe with whoever asked for it, including friends who opened Pan-Asian restaurants around town. Soon Springfield Cashew Chicken was a common dish on tables across the city, then the state, then the world—including Hong Kong. Today you’ll find Springfield Cashew Chicken on menus in over seventy Springfield restaurants, from delis to buffets. The city even has a festival to celebrate the delicious dish: the Springfield Sertoma Cashew Craze.
Though Leong closed Leong’s Tea House in 1997 when the last of his sons left Springfield, he opened a new restaurant, Leong’s Asian Diner, with his eldest son in 2010. Over sixty percent of their sales are from their own Cashew Chicken. And you’ll still find Leong, now over ninety, in the kitchen, frying and saucing the distinctly Southern dish that made his Chinese food famous.