Chop suey

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Chop suey
Chopsuey.jpg
Simplified Chinese 杂碎
Traditional Chinese 雜碎
Hanyu Pinyin zá suì
Cantonese Jyutping zaap6seoi3
Literal meaning odds and ends

Chop suey (/ˈɒpˈsi/; simplified Chinese: 杂碎; traditional Chinese: 雜碎; pinyin: suì; literally "assorted pieces") is a dish in American Chinese cuisine and other forms of overseas Chinese cuisine, consisting of meat (often chicken, fish, beef, prawns, or pork) and eggs, cooked quickly with vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage, and celery and bound in a starch-thickened sauce. It is typically served with rice but can become the Chinese-American form of chow mein with the addition of stir-fried noodles.

Chop suey has become a prominent part of American Chinese cuisine, Filipino cuisine, Canadian Chinese cuisine, German Chinese cuisine, Indian Chinese cuisine, and Polynesian cuisine. In Indonesian Chinese cuisine it is known as cap cai (雜菜, "mixed vegetables") and mainly consists of vegetables.

Origins[edit]

Chop suey, made with garlic chicken and peapods, on fried rice
Far East Chop Suey restaurant in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles: Restaurants like this are now rare, but were once a common sight in the United States.

Chop suey is widely believed to have been invented in America by Chinese Americans, but the anthropologist E.N. Anderson concludes that the dish is based on tsap seui (“miscellaneous leftovers”), common in Taishan (Toisan), a district of Guangdong Province (Canton), the home of many early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. This "became the infamous ‘chop suey’ of third-string Chinese restaurants in the western world, but it began life as a good if humble dish among the specialist vegetable farmers of the area. At the end of the day, they would stir-fry the small shoots, thinnings, and unsold vegetables—up to ten species in a dish!"[1] The Hong Kong doctor Li Shu-fan likewise reported that he knew it in Toisan in the 1890s.[2]

The long list of colorful and conflicting stories about the origin of chop suey is, in the words of the food historian Alan Davidson, “a prime example of culinary mythology” and typical of popular foods.[3]

One account claims that it was invented by Chinese American cooks working on the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century. Another tale is that it was created during Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang's visit to the United States in 1896 by his chef, who tried to create a meal suitable for both Chinese and American palates. Another story is that Li wandered to a local Chinese restaurant after the hotel kitchen had closed, where the chef, embarrassed that he had nothing ready to offer, came up with the new dish using scraps of leftovers. Yet recent research by the scholar Renqui Yu led him to conclude that "no evidence can be found in available historical records to support the story that Li Hung Chang ate chop suey in the United States." Li brought three Chinese chefs with him, and would not have needed to eat in local restaurants or invent new dishes in any case. Yu speculates that shrewd Chinese American restaurant owners took advantage of the publicity surrounding his visit to promote chop suey as Li's favorite.[4]

Yet another myth is that, in the 1860s, a Chinese restaurant cook in San Francisco was forced to serve something to drunken miners after hours, when he had no fresh food. To avoid a beating, the cook threw leftovers in a wok and served the miners who loved it and asked what dish is this—he replied Chopped Sui.[5] There is no good evidence for any of these stories.[6]

Chop suey appears in an 1884 article in the Brooklyn Eagle, by Wong Chin Foo, "Chinese Cooking," which he says "may justly be called the "national dish of China." [7] An 1888 description calls it "A staple dish for the Chinese gourmand is chow chop svey [sic], a mixture of chickens' livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, pigs' tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices."[8] In 1898, it is described as "A Hash of Pork, with Celery, Onions, Bean Sprouts, etc."[9]

During his travels in the United States, Liang Qichao, a Guangdong (Canton) native, wrote in 1903 that there existed in the United States a food item called chop suey which was popularly served by Chinese restaurateurs, but which local Chinese people did not eat.[10]

In earlier periods of Chinese history, "chop suey" or "shap sui" in Cantonese, and "za sui", in Mandarin, has the different meaning of cooked animal offal or entrails. For example, in the classic novel Journey to the West (circa 1590), Sun Wukong tells a lion-monster in chapter 75: "When I passed through Guangzhou, I bought a pot for cooking za sui – so I'll savour your liver, entrails, and lungs." This may be the same[citation needed] as the "Chop Suey Kiang" found in 1898 New York.[9] The term "za sui" (杂碎) is found in newer Chinese-English dictionaries with both meanings listed: cooked entrails, and chop suey in the Western sense.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ E.N. Anderson, “Guangzhou (Canton) Cuisine,” in Solomon H. Katz. Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. (New York: Scribner's, 2003; Vol I ISBN 0684805685), p. 392.
  2. ^ E.N.Anderson, Jr. and Marja L. Anderson, "Modern China: South" in K.C. Chang, Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives, Yale, 1977. p. 355.
  3. ^ Alan Davidson. The Oxford Companion to Food. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999; ISBN 0192115790), p. 182.
  4. ^ "Chop Suey: From Chinese Food to Chinese American Food," Chinese America: History and Perspectives 87 (1987): 91-93
  5. ^ Joseph R. Conlin, Bacon, Beans and Galantines: Food and Foodways on the Western Mining Frontier, University of Nevada Press: Reno 1986, p. 192-3
  6. ^ Madeline Y. Hsu, "From Chop Suey to Mandarin Cuisine: Fine Dining and the Refashioning of Chinese Ethnicity During the Cold War Era," in Sucheng Chan, Madeline Yuan-yin Hsu, eds., Chinese Americans and the Politics of Race and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008): 173–193. full text in PDF
  7. ^ Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 155.
  8. ^ Current Literature, October 1888, p. 318, as quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1989.
  9. ^ a b Louis Joseph Beck, New York's Chinatown: An Historical Presentation of Its People and Places, p. 50 full text at Google Books
  10. ^ Liang, Q. (1903) 新大陆游记 (Travels in the New Continent). Beijing: Social Sciences Documentary Press (reprint 2007). ISBN 7-80230-471-7.

Further reading[edit]

  • E.N. Anderson, The Food of China, Yale University Press, 1988.
  • Andrew Coe, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, 2009. ISBN 0-19-533107-9.
  • Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999.
  • Monica Eng, "Chop Suey or Hooey?" Orig Chicago Tribune, January 4, 2006, online rpr. Honolulu Advertiser, [1]
  • Charles Hayford, "Who's Afraid of Chop Suey?" Education About Asia 16.3 Winter 20110 [2]


Cookbooks with recipes for Chop Suey and accounts of Chinese American cuisine
  • Hom, Ken. Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese American Childhood. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
  • Yin-Fei Lo, Eileen. The Chinese Kitchen: Recipes, Techniques and Ingredients, History, and Memories from America’s Leading Authority on Chinese Cooking. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

External links[edit]