When American’s think of chop suey, they think of the flashing neon signs at Chinese restaurants across America. Chop suey is a dish that became a prominent part of American Chinese cuisine.
Never-mind that the dish has no clear origin, Alan Davidson, the noted food historian, concluded in The Oxford Companion to Food, published in 1999, that the myriad of various origin stories, and conflicting accounts are, “…a prime example of culinary mythology…”
I’ve found dozens of stories, some colorful, and some ridiculous, that are repeated in old recipe books, newspapers, and handed down as folk tales. There is a version about how the dish was created by a Chinese-American chef who wanted to both appease the Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang’s visit (1896) and the American hosts’ tastes. Another story claims that Li was hungry, and the hotel restaurant had closed, so he toddled down the street, happening upon a Chinese restaurant that was closing. The chef, not wanting to be offensive to the premier, threw together a dish with what he had left. Another story was that it wasn’t Li, but a bunch of rowdy, drunken 49er miners were in San Francisco, and forced the restaurant to open, and the chef, fearing his life, made a dish with bits and scraps. The miners wanted to know the name of the dish. He replied, “tsat seui” but the miners heard it as chopped soo-eee. One, particularly distasteful tale is that a boarding house cook, short on cash, but with several hungry boarders, retrieved food from the garbage to whip up the dish.
The best story of Chop Suey that I encountered was:
In 1903, a Chinese journalist came to the United States. He wrote that there was a food that all Chinese American restaurants served, but one that he had never heard of: chop suey.
Chop Suey has a national day in the United States (August 29th)
The basics of all the recipes is a mix of meat, eggs, stir fried together with vegetables, in a starch-rich, thick sauce. It is either served over noodles (chow mein) or rice.
The earliest reference to this dish is in a 1911 cookbook written by Jesse Louise Nolton “Chinese Cookery in the Home Kitchen” (Chino-American Publishing Company, Detroit MI)
This dish has so many variations, and some are made with eggs (sometimes chicken sometimes quail, or duck.)
3 tablespoons cooking oil
1 cup minced onion
¼ cup sliced green onion
1 clove garlic, crushed and minced
1 teaspoon Chinese 5-Spice
¼ cup diced green bell pepper
1 cup cooked shrimp
1 cup cooked chicken
½ cup shredded carrot
½ cup snow peas
1 cup shredded cabbage
1½ cups water
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon soy sauce
3 hardboiled eggs, peeled and sliced
In a skillet heat oil. Add onion and garlic, saute for several minutes, on high heat. Add Chinese 5-spice and bell pepper. Continue to cook for several minutes. Add shrimp and chicken, and cook until hot. Add cabbage, snow peas and carrots. Add water. Cover pan and simmer for 5 minutes, until vegetables are cooked. Add a little of the hot liquid to the cornstarch, enough to make a paste, then add paste to cooking liquid. Stir in well. Cook until the liquid begins to thicken. Add dash of vinegar, and soy sauce, to taste. Add slices of hard boiled eggs, and spoon liquid over, to heat. Serve.