Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ivy's Chop Suey

The spaghetti and meatballs of Chinese American cuisine!

We've talked a bit in the history of this blog about the misconceptions regarding some "foreign" additions to American cuisine. People can say all they want that corned beef and cabbage or spaghetti and meatballs aren't authentically Irish or Italian food, but the fact of the matter is that they are authentic Irish American and Italian American. People dismissing them as somehow lesser or not as worth eating just because they didn't come from the mother country are essentially dismissing the history of the people who invented, improved and enjoyed the dishes over the years as being unimportant, and it's a trend I wish people would get over.

Another victim of this slander is chop suey, a dish that's notorious for being a terrible American version of good Chinese food.

But what you might not know is that chop suey isn't actually that American (read: white bread, probably Anglo-Saxon) at all.

Surprise! Chop suey is actually a Chinese American dish. Its notoriety of being a white person's awful interpretation of Chinese food is pretty far off the market, in some respects. Of course, I'm talking about the stir fried dish you've probably had at Chinese restaurants, not American chop suey, which is definitely very, very far removed from its Chinese American cousin.

Like many of the dishes and recipes we've talked about, Chop suey's history is a little murky. It's traditionally been thought that Chinese immigrants to America didn't begin making it until after they'd settled on the West Coast, but some food historians are now very certain that the dish actually did get its start in China after all. Many of the early Chinese immigrants to America came from the same rural community in Guangdong province, where farmers would fry up the remaining bits of vegetables they hadn't been able to sell together in one pan. When people began to settle across the ocean, they brought the dish with them.

There are a couple more colorful origin stories for this dish, with some claiming that it was first enjoyed by Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad by cooks who were looking for a dish that could feed a lot of people relatively cheaply. Others have suggested that it actually dates back to the 1896 visit of Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang to the United States, where it was either created as a dish that both Chinese and American palates could enjoy, or as a quickly thrown together creation by a chef at a Chinese restaurant who was embarrassed to admit he didn't have anything prepared for the premier to enjoy. There's no real evidence to prove any of these - or one of the other countless origin stories - are true, but we do know that by 1884, chopped suey was well known as a Chinese dish enjoyed in America that began to expand beyond the Chinese immigrant population.

(One thing that is worth noting is that as early as 1903, people began making comments about how the dish was popular in Chinese restaurants, but not necessarily with the local Chinese population. Perhaps the beginning of its history of being a falsely foreign dish?)

Chopped suey has essentially always had one thing consistent through its origin story: it's a dish made from leftovers. As such, different recipes can vary wildly. Some of the earliest recipes call for gizzards and organ meat, while others used cuts of meat that are more familiar to a modern western audience. I'm not a fan of organ meat, so the recipes I cobbled this together from used pork tenderloin. The other important part is lots and lots of veggies. This isn't a stir fry with some bok choy and carrots: there's a lot going on here.

For my chop suey, I cut up two celery ribs, six oz snow peas, 1/2 lb bok choy (ribs and leaves), 1/4 lb mushrooms, one onion, and one green bell pepper all into 1/4 inch thick slices, and also prepped one small can of bamboo shoots and water chestnuts.

Some recipes want you to fry every vegetable individually in the pan, adding and heating more oil as you go, but I'm an impatient cook (and baker) at the best of times, so after confirming it was acceptable to just fry everything together all at once, I went ahead and dumped all of my vegetables in the wok at once with a splash of vegetable oil. I stir fried the veggies until they were all cooked, but still crisp.

Meanwhile, my pork tenderloin had been cut up and was marinating in a separate bowl. The marinade was made up of two diced garlic cloves, one tablespoon of oyster sauce, one tablespoon of soy sauce, one teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 of a teaspoon cornstarch, mixed together, and then left on the pork for 15 minutes.

I moved the vegetables out of the pan and put in the pork with a tablespoon of vegetable oil.

I turned off the heat, tossed the veggies back in, and got everything nice and mixed up. Then, I made a well in the veggies and pork, poured in 1/4 of a cup of chicken broth, and brought that to a boil. Once it was boiling, I stirred everything together, and took it off the heat!

This gets served over cooked rice. You should try to serve it as immediately as possible, but it's not inedible if you need to reheat it or wait a minute or ten to get dinner on the table.

I'm honestly not the biggest fan of Chinese American food. I often find the dishes a little too greasy for my palette, but I did really like this version of chop suey. The veggies were a good combination of textures and flavors, and the marinade was really tasty, too! I was also encouraged when my brother came home and asked why it smelled like Zhang's in the kitchen. Zhang's is our local Chinese restaurant, so obviously I did something right!

This might not be the five star meal you'd be eating in the finest traditional Chinese restaurant in Beijing, and it might not be all that popular with audiences outside of an American Chinese restaurant, but it's a dish that's still worth reexamining as an important part of America's food history. The Asian American experience is often a part of history that's glossed over or seemingly forgotten entirely in classrooms, museums and books, and it's about time that changed. This dish got its start the same way other "ethnic" American foods did, and it deserves more than a turned up nose!

I wonder if Ivy's grandparents had a recipe like this on their restaurant's menu?


  1. Lovely pictures of Ivy! Sorry I didn't get to taste your creation, but it sure smelled terrific.

    1. She's one photogenic doll! I'm glad you enjoyed the smell at least. :)

  2. *From Julie's doll mom, Sharry:*

    I love Chop Suey, though I have not had it in a long time. This post reminds me of the song "Chop Suey" from the musical "Flower Drum Song". (look it up, you'll enjoy it!)

    1. I'd never heard of it before! Will definitely look it up. c: