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Who’s Afraid of Chop Suey?

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The career of chop suey turns out to be a Cinderella story in reverse: chop suey is the ugly sister whose foot will not fit into the glass slipper. Chop suey rose from obscurity in the late nineteenth century to become one of America’s national dishes and one of the main ingredients in the spread of Chinese restaurants in North America during the years when Chinese families and entrepreneurs spread Chinese cookery outside China by adapting to new conditions and inventing new forms. By the end of the twentieth century, if you include franchise chains such as Panda Express and P.F. Chang’s, there were more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonald’s, Burger Kings, and KFC outlets combined.1 The humble dish played a key role in their success, yet “chop suey” became an insult, a put-down for things which are mixed together when somebody thinks they ought to be pure. But who gets to decide which is which?

Talk about chop suey is full of the fear that it is not “authentic.” As early as 1912, the San Francisco Call reported that chop suey

does sound Chinese. There is all the mystery of the orient in its composition. . . . But the truth remains, chop suey is not Chinese. There is no chop suey in China. A traveler in the East made this discovery. He tried to find chop suey in Peking. Later in Hong Kong. At one cosmopolitan place in Shanghai he found a sign, “American style cooking. Chop Suey.”2

The website Urban Legends reflects the popularity of this way of thinking even today: “Not everything offered on a Chinese menu is authentically Chinese,” for chop suey is “purely American” (as if an authentic dish could not be both American and Chinese).3 But, shouldn’t the objection be that it doesn’t taste good, not whether it is or isn’t “authentic?” To be sure, if much Chinese-American restaurant food is too sweet, too salty, too soupy, and deep fried, this is more the fault of the customers than the dishes.

Where Did Chop Suey Come From?

Chop suey was not “invented” in the sense that Thomas Edison “invented” the light bulb in a flash of inspiration, at a particular time and place. As a dish, chop suey is simply a variation on a standard south China stew—zaptsui in Cantonese or zacui in Mandarin, which means “random mixture.” Generally, the stew included meat and vegetables (almost always including celery and bean sprouts) in a sauce thickened with starch. Since it was a country dish and not a restaurant item, the travelers who looked for it in Beijing and Shanghai would not have found it.

The origins of the American version are surprisingly hard to pin down, and the stories are more like myths than history. One set of claims is Californian, perhaps from anonymous cooks in a miner’s camp or chefs in San Francisco restaurants. Still another myth perhaps arose from fears that Chinese might retaliate for racist harassment:

an angered Chinese cook mixed together the day’s garbage in a bit of broth and presented it to San Francisco restaurant patrons who’d earned his ire. Not knowing any better, those being insulted loved the dish, and much to the amused bewilderment of their tormentors, returned time and again to order it. Chop Suey, therefore, is a mispronunciation of “chopped sewage.”4

Another set of claims, as if to compensate for its actual origin among commoners, associates the dish with the 1896 visit to America of Li Hongzhang, China’s leading diplomat and most powerful official. One variation on this claim is that chop suey was invented by his cook, another that it was Li and his cook, and yet another by a New York restaurant that Li visited after hours when the cooks were caught off guard and didn’t have the ingredients for a “proper” meal.

Urban Chinese had eaten in restaurants as early as the Song dynasty. Restaurants were places where you could choose from a menu, not just accept what the host put on the table.

It is not strange that chop suey should have no clear time and place of origin since the beginnings of Chinese food in America are mixed. The 1848 Gold Rush brought Chinese workers to California, giving Americans their first direct experience with large numbers of Chinese. Chinese cooks in the mining and railroad camps prepared the quick and cheap food their customers wanted using the materials available—beans, eggs, steak, and coffee. After the American Civil War, California state law forbade Chinese from owning land, while vigilantes and lynch mobs forced Chinese into cities where there were not many ways to earn a living except for laundries and restaurants.

 

NOTES

1. Jennifer 8. Lee, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food (New York: Twelve, 2008), 18–19, 266–272. Lee points out that P.F. Chang’s has no Chinese in its higher management (P.F. stands for “Paul Fleming” and the “Chang” was chosen because it fit nicely on the signs).

FURTHER READING

Chao, Buwei Yang. How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. New York: John Day, 1945.

Coe, Andrew. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Lee, Jennifer 8. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food. New York: Twelve, 2008.

Wu, David Y.H., and Sidney C. H. Cheung, eds. The Globalization of Chinese Food. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2002.

These cookbooks include recipes for chop suey and 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.

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