In a way I’m as interested in the bastardisation of food as I am in original, bona-fide, pukka version of a dish. Perhaps even more so. Go into a bookshop and sniff around the Chinese bit of the cookery section. You will find several earnest volumes on ‘authentic’ regional Chinese cookery. But how many books are there on the 20th century Anglo-American interpretation of the ‘Chinese’ takeaway, as eaten since the 1920’s? Or for that matter, the fascinating- and historically important- story of Chinese restaurants in the West?
Take Chop Suey. If you stopped someone in the street and asked them to name a ‘Chinese’ dish, this would be the one, wouldn’t it? Perhaps with the exception of Chow Mein. That would be the other contender. But it may surprise you to learn that Chop Suey is, quite probably, an American invention from the 19th century or early 20th century.
Where to start? There are many different theories and legends concerning the mysterious origins of Chop Suey. The unlikely semi-offical story is that the dish was invented by a chef at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco for the visit of the Chinese premier, Li Hongzhang, in the 1890’s. But we do know that by the end of the nineteenth century, a dish known as Chop Suey, or similar, was in existence. Wikipedia tells us:
Chop suey appears in an 1884 article in the Brooklyn Eagle, by Wong Chin Foo, “Chinese Cooking," which he says "may justly be called the "national dish of China". An 1888 description states "A staple dish for the Chinese gourmand is chow chop svey [sic], a mixture of chickens' livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, pigs' tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices."In 1898, it is described as "A Hash of Pork, with Celery, Onions, Bean Sprouts, etc."
During his travels in the United States, Liang Qichao, a Guangdong (Canton) native, wrote in 1903 that there existed in the United States a food item called chop suey which was popularly served by Chinese restaurateurs, but which local Chinese people did not eat.
Another theory suggests that Chop Suey was brought to the Old West by Chinese coolies building the railroads, or by Chinese miners at the time of the Californian Gold Rush, an idea that Wikipedia dismisses somewhat loftily, but which strikes me as eminently plausible considering the influx of Chinese immigrants to America during the mid to late 19th century. And here’s yet another yarn:
In the 1860’s, a Chinese restaurant cook in San Francisco was forced to serve something to drunken miners after hours, when he had no fresh food. To avoid a beating, the cook threw leftovers in a wok and served the miners who loved it and asked what dish is this—he replied Chopped Sui.
And what is Chop Suey? That’s a difficult one. Meat of some form (chicken, beef, pork or prawns) is stir-fried quickly with shredded vegetables (cabbage, bean-sprouts and sliced celery) and bound up in a glossy, gloopy, starchy sauce. There are numerous Chop Suey recipes on the net. Take your pick.
Here’s a version from ex Davis Cup tennis player, diplomat, Cambridge graduate and all-round Good Egg, Kenneth Lo:
Chopsuey (From Kenneth Lo’s Chinese Food, Penguin Books, 1972)
For 5- 6 people
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 oz meat (pork, chicken, lamb or beef)
2 tablespoons soya sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 tablespoon tomato sauce (or pureé)
4 tablespoons chicken broth
dash of pepper
2 tablespoons of lard
4 spring onions (cut in 2. in segments)
1 clove garlic (crushed)
1 slice root ginger (finely chopped)
¾ llb bean sprouts
½ teaspoon MSG (or ½ chicken stock cube)
Beat egg and make a thin omelette in a small omelette pan in 2 tablespoons of oil, and put aside.
Slice the meat thinly and then into matchstick strips. Fry in 2 tablespoons oil for 2 minutes over high heat. Add sugar, soya sauce, tomato sauce and half the sherry. Continue to stir fry for half a minute. Add chicken broth and pepper. Heat until the mixture boils. Stir gently for ½ minute and withdraw from fire.
Heat lard in a saucepan. When it has melted, add spring onion and crushed garlic and ginger. Stir fry for ½ minute over high heat. Add bean sprouts and sprinkle with salt. Continue to stir fry over high heat for 2 minutes. Add the meat and gravy from the frying pan. Turn, toss and stir for 1 minute. Sprinkle the contents with MSG and the remaining sherry. Continue to stir fry gently for ½ minute. Pour the contents into a serving bowl, and serve, capping the dish with the omelette.