David Leong left Guangdong, China, in 1940, immigrated to the United States, then served with the Allies during World War II. Afterward, he worked as a cook around the country, then settled in Springfield, Missouri. He set out to open a restaurant in 1963, but faced prejudice. As Leong noted in a 2009 New York Times article, many locals “thought all Asians were Japanese kamikazes.”
Securing a loan was a challenge. Someone hit the establishment with dynamite less than a week before its tentative opening. Others stole decor off the property. Leong pushed past each setback amidst a culture of postwar fear-mongering and prejudice, opening just a few weeks later than intended.
The restaurant’s authentic Cantonese offerings were a tough sell. Leong began considering ways to unite his native cuisine with familiar tastes locals craved. People in the Ozarks region during the 1960s wanted boneless, fried cuts of meat. Country-fried steak was especially beloved. To tap into this popularity, Leong deboned a chicken, battered it, and topped it off with a gravy-like signature sauce. He plated the breaded bird over rice and dressed it with green onions and roasted cashews.
The city loved it. Fellow chefs asked for the recipe; David shared it openly. Today, Springfield-style cashew chicken remains one of the city’s most notable dishes. Often it’s fried, sometimes it’s stir-fried. Variations abound, but each one stems from David Leong’s persistence, dedication, and fusing of cultural flavors.