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David Leong
David Leong

Creator of Springfield's cashew chicken reflects on 50 years

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Most people in the Ozarks likely have tasted the deep-fried dish that has come to be known as Springfield-style cashew chicken, but few might know its origins. It all starts with David Leong.

A day after turning 93, Leong sat down this morning with Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson as part of the monthly 12 People You Need to Know breakfast interview series. Leong's son, Wing Wah, joined his father on stage at Hilton Garden Inn to help tell the tale of how a native of China and U.S. Army World War II veteran shaped the economic and cultural landscape of Springfield with a single dish.

A take on classic Chinese cuisine, Leong's signature dish is an east-meets-west concoction with an Ozarks twist - deep-fried chicken covered in brown gravy and chopped green onions, utilizing traditional oyster sauce and cashews to keep its oriental flavor intact.

"I don't think anyone, even my father, knew what the impact was," Wing Wah Leong said. "Cashew chicken has probably brought in billions and billions of dollars into the Springfield economy."

The Leongs this year celebrate the 50th anniversary of Springfield-style cashew chicken, which was an instant hit in the city and in years since has been popularized by some 300 area restaurants and beyond - even as far as Beijing, China, where David Leong noticed a restaurant serving his style of the dish on one of the many trips to his homeland.

Springfield-style cashew chicken was first served by Leong and his family in November 1963, at the newly opened Leong's Tea House on West Sunshine Street. For Leong, it was a near return to warlike conditions at first, as someone threw 10 sticks of dynamite into the shell of the restaurant, damaging the building.

"I opened up, and some people didn't like me," David Leong said, with his son noting Springfield at the time had its biases.

Nonetheless, a sheriff happy with Leong's cooking stationed a police officer outside of the eatery for several years afterward. Leong would become to be accepted by the largely white community through its stomach.

Leong closed the restaurant in 1997 after his wife's death, and after recovering from a health scare, he decided to open Leong's Asian Diner in 2010 with his family at 1540 W. Republic Road.

"He said, 'You know what, we need to open up a restaurant again so I can keep active,'" Wing Wah Leong said.

Today, David Leong considers Springfield his hometown, and he said he is grateful for what it has given him.

"I love this country. I'm really, really proud of the people and living here," Leong said.

Up next in the Leong legacy is the marketing and sale of products in grocery stores.

With the family's cashew chicken sauce hitting store shelves earlier this year, Wing Wah Leong said the sweet and sour sauce is scheduled to launch in groceries tomorrow, part of a plan for eight lines of sauces. He said the restaurant also is working to sell its popular egg rolls and fried chicken chunks in the frozen aisle of stores including Hy-Vee, Price Cutter, Harter House and Dillons.

Leong said the Smithsonian also is knocking on his father's door to launch an exhibit chronicling his creation after being featured in the likes of the The New York Times and PBS. That exhibit, Wing Wah Leong said, is waiting on funding.[[In-content Ad]]

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