Monday, June 18, 2012

As American as Apple Pie - Chop Suey:

A dish of chop suey
Photo by Gurav Vaida

There was a restaurant in Honk Kong that advertised real American Chop Suey.  To the author’s knowledge the word in Chinese probably means “leftovers” or “assorted pieces” since that was what it was originally made from in its birthplace of San Francisco, California in the 1850’s.  The 49ers were followed by gold hunters from all over the world flocked to California including many Chinese.  For the most part these were single men and very few of them knew how to cook.  Not all of the Chinese were bereft of cooking skills and those who could cook quickly set themselves up as restaurateurs.  it wasn’t too before the “round eyes” as the white gold miners were called discovered the Chinese restaurants and liked the food.  One of the problems facing the Chinese was that many of the traditional ingredients they were used too weren’t available in America, so in the best tradition of Chinese cooking they just grabbed anything that came to hand that was edible.  The net result was Chop Suey that is about as American as apple pie.  The only thing that was Chinese about it was that it was made by Chinese cooks.  Chop Suey was made for the round eye miners after the cooks had already fed their regular Chinese customers, and was traditionally made from the leftovers although the round eyes were unaware they were being served with gussied up Chinese leftovers. 

Chop Suey is translated into “mixed pieces” as that is what it is made from, but it was made mostly of makeovers.  Traditionally it could contain chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or seafood along with vegetables like cabbage and celery as well as bean sprouts.  The whole dish was bound together with a corn starch sauce that acted as a binder.  Typically Chop Suey was served on a bed of rice although occasionally it was served with fried noodles when it became an American-Chinese dish called Chow Mein.

Aside from America Chop Suey is eaten in many other parts of the world; Canada is one of these countries where a variation of American Chop Suey was developed and is termed Canadian-Chinese cuisine.  There is another variant that is eaten in India and is known an Indian-Chinese cuisine.  An even further variant of this dish was developed in the Philippines where it is called Filipino-Chinese cuisine.  In the Philippines the dish contains ‘wood ear” also called “ear of the rat”, carrots and chayote along with cabbage and sometimes bell peppers.

The actual origin of this dish appears to be the province of Guangdong from the district called “Taishen” where many of the Chinese miners in the California gold rush came from.  There are many stories telling about its invention in America including tales that it was invented by the Chinese laborers working on the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860’s but the actual invention predated the railroad.  No matter where it was invented or where it spread all over the world where most people think it is a strictly Chinese invention; it isn’t.  Many hands worked on the development of this truly International-Chinese cuisine.

Chop Suey, Wikipedia the free encyclopedia,      

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