Comfort Food

Comfort Food

Freshen Up Your Chop Suey!

The history of Chop Suey is sketchy!  Most food historians believe it was first created in the United States, but other information suggests that may not be true. 

E. N. Anderson is a retired professor of anthropology from the University of California at Riverside.  He has written quite a bit about the origins of Chinese food and he traces Chop Suey to something called ‘ tsap seui’ which means ‘miscellaneous leftovers’! The dish was common in Toisan, a county in the Guangdong province of China.  I am in no way a student of Chinese-American history, but I find it interesting that Toisan is the origin of most of the original Chinese immigrants to the U.S.  

Another account that links Chop Suey directly to China comes from Li Shu-fan, a prominent Hong Kong surgeon and political notable.  Li reports that he knew of ‘tsap seui’ having been popular during the 1890s in Toisan.  It was made from chicken gizzards and livers, pig’s tripe, bean sprouts, water chestnuts and vegetables.

There are two popular stories about the American origins of Chop Suey.  I think both are credible!  When a Chinese diplomat, Li Hongzhang, visited the United States in 1896, he brought three chefs with him, but he still visited a New York Chinese restaurant where the chef created the new dish using scraps and leftovers.  Is this story believable?  Yes, but some think that a Chinese American restaurant owner just took advantage of Li’s presence and made up the story to promote Chop Suey!  Smart!

The dish might have been ‘invented’ 30 years earlier in San Francisco. Drunken gold rush miners converged on a Chinese restaurant after hours, demanding a meal. The cook didn’t have any fresh food, but he threw leftovers in a wok and served the miners. They loved it and continued to visit the restaurant. Did Chop Suey originate for a bunch of drunks?

Wong Chin Foo was the first Chinese immigrant to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was a prominent author and wrote an article for the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper in 1884. He describes Chop Suey as the ‘national dish of China’.

Liang Qichao was a Chinese intellectual and progressive reformist. After spending time in Canada and the United states in 1903, he wrote about a food item called Chop Suey which was served in Chinese restaurants but was not eaten by Chinese people because of the really awful cooking technique! 

The earliest written account of Chop Suey, however, dates to 1590. Journey to the West is a classic novel in China and the character tells a vicious lion monster that he has brought a pot for cooking ‘za sui’ and will savor the lion’s liver!

All this information just to introduce a popular food from my favorite vintage period … Chop Suey … right from a 1950s La Choy can! The 1920s Chop Suey craze in the United States prompted the creation of the La Choy company. Its founding is an interesting story, but a topic for a different post! Check it out right here!

It was the convenience of the canned products like bean sprouts, water chestnuts or all the Chop Suey vegetables together … that made the dish so popular with mid-century home cooks.  It was popular for 20 years, but eventually lost its place to freshly prepared Chinese dishes.  Early TV chefs started teaching us how to prepare things like Sweet and Sour Chicken and Peking Duck!  We discovered woks and realized that stir-fried vegetables were healthy for us, so the trend died out.  

In my household, though, Chop Suey with some of those La Choy canned ingredients is still popular!  I make certain to add lots of fresh vegetables and barely cook them!  We like the crisp bite along with the ‘canned’ bite!  I keep the sauce light and go easy on the addition of salt because those canned vegetables contain plenty!  Work to freshen up your ingredients!

Big Daddy’s Favorite Shrimp Chop Suey

Prepare the sauce ingredients and have it ready to add to the stir fry.  Combine the following:

2 Tablespoons corn starch
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Oyster Sauce
Dash of rice wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of fish stock, clam juice or chicken bouillon

Stir fry the following ingredients:

2 carrots, sliced thin
8 ounces of snap peas – fresh
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
8 ounces of sliced mushrooms

When the vegetables are crisp tender, add 12 - 16 ounces of peeled and deveined shrimp.  As the shrimp begin to turn pink (will take less than 5 minutes) add 4 sliced green onions and the following canned items:

1 can bean sprouts - drained
1 can tiny ears of corn - drained
1 can bamboo shoots - drained
1 can water chestnuts - drained

Stir everything together until it heats through and add the sauce ingredients.  Cook another few minutes until the sauce thickens.  Serve with white rice or fried rice … or over noodles.   While I would never add chicken livers or gizzards to this recipe … it would be great to add bits of chicken, pork or beef to the stir fry … or substitute the shrimp with those meats!  What we do enjoy adding to our Chop Suey are crunchy Chow Mein noodles! ... also La Choy!

There is almost no way to make a little bit of Chop Suey, so plan on leftovers!   This batch easily makes 8 servings! 

This post is part of my 2020 Vintage Vegetables project.  I’ll also add it to a couple blog parties, so make sure you check the list in my sidebar!   Enjoy.

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