Chop Suey all Over Again

The Wanton Winds of Cuisine

Chop Suey is one of those lodestones of American cuisine, in that, like the hot dog, hamburger, and many other popular or once popular foods it has mysterious origins. Long considered a bastardization of “real” Chinese food the picture today is more nuanced.

First, the dish under the same or similar names exists in other places, mostly far-flung outposts of early China trade, reached by sea. Jack Kerouac wrote in On The Road that “The waves are Chinese … the earth is an Indian thing”.

So you find it in East End London, in Port Darwin, in Rio de Janeiro, and in what was called Malaya.

Recent advances in food history have confirmed that it is an original Chinese dish, from a southern province remote from the centre whence many emigrants departed, hence its implantation in distant places.

See details in the well-referenced Wikipedia entry for chop suey. At least two books have been written on chop suey, both cited in the entry mentioned, hunting its origins and contributing to its status as an American dish of equal cultural importance to pizza, the burger, or the bagel.

We found this 1902 article in the Amador Ledger in California, which states an (American) Consul to Amoy, in the Chinese province mentioned, gave his chop suey recipe to the paper.*

Sadly few millennials know what chop suey is. Today, Chinese cooking is at a high pitch in North America with every conceivable regional type presented, not to mention fusion and other novel styles. Older dishes that sound half-American and evoke the small town to boot don’t appeal as much. It’s dad’s era, if not gran-dad’s.

Still, you find chop suey on menus around Toronto without, I’m glad to say, ironic overtones. Not yet anyway.

Maybe now is the time to say I have never eaten chop suey. It’s not intentional, but for some reason we don’t think of ordering it when eating Chinese food.  think I had egg foo young, a dish with some parallels to chop suey, once. I plan to remedy the omission noted soon!

When researching the history of American musty ale I also came across an early (1903) description of chop suey in a Chicago newspaper, the Quincy Daily Tribune. It is a detailed and interesting account, the dish is like a “hot salad”, the journalist said. The same scribe stated  was enhanced with a rich sauce unknown to the place of origin, but whether that is true is hard to say. Clearly chop suey underwent modifications in the diaspora.

The English food scholar Elizabeth David wrote ca.1960 that “the girl in West End theatre programmes [stated] … I want everything Chinese tonight”. This was the kind of atmosphere gathering in our big cities in that period, although it began much earlier.

Chinese food for (non-ethnic Chinese) North Americans was not just a single dish but an experience, along with the green tea for which China has also been justly renowned. The decor and general atmosphere of these restaurants added allure, as the full 1903 article makes clear.

Chinese cuisine, of which chop suey was an early symbol, jostled for attention with locally established food and drinks. The Daily Herald worried post-show tètes-à-tètes with musty ale and red lobster would disappear – it’s all tea and chop suey now. Later, trendy chop suey, adopted early by the canning and frozen food industries, was replaced by other food fashions.

Note re image: the first image above was extracted from the news article contained in the newspaper issue linked in the text, archived by the California digital archive service stated in the link. Image is used herein for educational and historical purposes. All intellectual property in the source belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable All feedback welcomed.


*Note added Feb. 26, 2018. However, the consul’s apparent role in popularizing chop suey was adverted to earlier in literature, I have just learned. See this update.


2 thoughts on “Chop Suey all Over Again”

  1. Yes thanks and there are numerous citations in the late 1800s, in New York in particular where the dish was well-established by 1900 in Chinatown. The Chicago one I mentioned shows the dish was relatively new there and exhibits a typical American reaction, i.e., by those who hadn’t yet encountered it which was still the great bulk of people.

    By the 1920s, it was being canned in Chicago along with its old rival, Welsh rabbit, spaghetti and many soups still familiar. It had arrived.

  2. The Wikipedia article’s earliest cite is an article by the Chinese American writer Wong Chin Foo in 1884. By 1885 another article by him appeared in The Chicago News, and the Wichita Daily Eagle reprinted it on July 24, 1885. His article describes a Chinese restaurant serving “chow chop sue (a ragout of chicken liver, lean pork, bamboo tip, celery, bean shoots and onions)” and it appears to have been reprinted far afield — the August 31, 1887 Riverina Recorder in New South Wales carried a version (without giving credit to Wong Chin Foo) and it appears in other Australian newspapers soon after, such as the Kapunda Herald and The Western Champion.

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