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Chinese Food in the USA
Fall Volume: 2004 Issue: 11(3) page(s): 10, 13, 14, and 29
Questions about chop suey abound (as do those about chow mein, but that is another subject). Newspapers and magazines, authors and editors, materials on the web, and folk in many countries, the United States no exception, ask or tell tales about this dish. Some are way off base, others adding tidbits to what is known. Here are some materials to educate about a dish Lynn Pan, the author of Sons of the Yellow Emperor (Kodansha International © 1990) calls “the best known of the Chinese dishes among foreigners.” She goes on to say that chop suey “is widely supposed to be an American invention.”
Really, what is this best known dish; and who and where was it invented? To answer the what: Pann says its basic recipe is chicken livers and gizzards fried with sliced fungi, bamboo shoots, pig’s tripe, and bean sprouts. In our youth, or since it went the way of all good things. We never had nor did we ever see a dish with all of these ingredients. If not that, then what is chop suey? As to where it came from, Pann says “it did not spring virgin from anyone’s brain in America.” So then where did it come from?
Many variations of one or another person’s tale, factual or not, invented or expanded, with identification of location or not, can be found; and clearly all of them can not be correct. Does anyone know what is? Here are some sources, gathered to put myth and misconception together, telling which are documented and which may come from the mouths of a dingo. Not wanting to be one of them, we sought out original sources, and a few early recipes. Then you can know and taste early versions of this much talked about dish, which the Chinese, using pinyin, now write zasui.
Generalists begin by searching encyclopedic sources, so we checked in several. Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion To Food, published in 1999 by Oxford University Press> There, he says that chop suey “may be the prime example of CULINARY MYTHOLOGY (cap’s his) invented in San Francisco towards the end of the 19th century...and spreading out from there to become a standard item in the American repertoire, and indeed all over the world.’ Davidson refers to Anderson’s Food of China, published in 1988 (Yale University Press), who speaks of Li Shu-fan’s 1964 volume titled Hong Kong Surgeon. But wait, that is getting ahead of the tale to be told.
Because one source can be a dud, we checked another encyclopedia. Chop suey, in Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas’ World History of Food, has no entry for chop suey. However, it did appear in conjunction with Chrysanthemum coronarium. There we found 'chop suey greens;' and they were also called 'Japanese greens' and 'garland chrysanthemum.'
Leaving that tome, we tried Chinese histories, they might provide something of value. There are only five in English that we know of. Several did discuss food in China or Chinese food in general, and four of these did not even mention chop suey. But before diving into them, we looked at early Chinese cookbooks published in the United States. There we found many recipe variations, even variations in spelling including 'chop suey, chop sooey,' and 'chop sooy,' to name but three.
The earliest source for this dish was found in the third earliest Chinese English-language cookbook ever located. It is a volume published in 1911 and housed at the New York Academy of Medicine. The book, written by a westerner, Jesse Louise Nolton, is titled Chinese Cookery in the Home Kitchen. This book was published by the Chino-American Publishing Company in Detroit, Michigan. About its Chinese Chop Sooy recipe, it says that “in its various forms, (it) is the foundation of all dishes served in the Chinese restaurants.” It goes on to say that “with any one of the many forms of Chop Sooy, combined with other appetizing ingredients and flavorings, the most delectable dishes can be evolved. Success in these combinations depends largely upon the ingenuity of the cook.” This book has ten different recipes to make this dish, not one with gizzards or tripe.
The earliest cookbook to use the term chop suey in its title was published in 1928; it si Mandarin & Chop Suey Cook Book. Like the first, it was not published on the east or west coasts where most Chinese lived at that time. This book was done in Chicago by the Pacific Trading Company. Another book with this dish in its title is the Girnau Chop Suey Chow Mein Cookbook. That volume was published 1931 by the Fredic H. Girnau Publishing Company in Los Angeles. These books were written by both Chinese and non-Chinese authors. The Nolton book, not paginated, has seventy-one leaves printed on one side, and thirty six recipes; Nolton was not Chinese.
The second book, no author given, is ninety-six pages and has seventy-seven recipes and a chapter titled Chop Suey. In it and elsewhere in its pages are a literal handful of recipes to make chop suey. The third book mentioned above is a forty-eight-page thirty-five recipe pamphlet. Its author identifies himself as a Chinese chef who has been practicing for fourteen years. In 1940, another book, simply titled Chop Suey, was published in Boston by the John Worley Company. 'Chop Suey' in a title next appeared in 1953. Then it was used in a thirty-four-page eighty-recipe pamphlet that had very few for chop suey. This booklet says it is published by Chop Suey and written by Ling Mei Mei.
Au Man Sing, who compiled and edited many booklets, is a certified chef. His publications which have many different titles have many chop suey recipes. We located ten of them published from 1932 through 1974. The first is titled Chinese Cookery and printed in Honolulu by Creart Press. It was republished as the Chinese Cookbook and then The Chinese Cook Book in 1936, and then redone many times thereafter. The last was called The Chinese Cookbook of Many Delights and was published across the country in Reading, Pennsylvania (by Culinary Arts Press).
Every one of Chef Au’s booklets have a chop suey section with a dozen different recipes and others elsewhere in his pages. One unusual one in the so-labeled section is for Winkle Chop Suey (winkles are snails). Other interesting titles are for Chop Suey Soup, Chop Suey Tofu, and Beef Heart Chop Suey. A few of these appear at the end of this article; but none include tripe or chicken livers.
Sonya Richmond in The Art of Chinese Cookery, a 1964 London hardbound published by W. & G. Foyle Ltd. includes an interesting four-page chapter titled: Chop Suey. She says, “Chop suey, though appearing in every Chinese cookery book and served in every Western Chinese restaurant, is not a creation of the Chinese.” Hers is the first cookbook to make such a statement; the others say nothing of its origin.
Richmond recounts a tale about an American restauranteur who invented this dish and why. About it she says: “that is the story. No doubt there are others equally improbable, but one fact remains...Chop Suey is a tasty and succulent dish and whatever the facts of its dubious origin, it...will remain a firm favourite with all lovers of Chinese style cooking.” She goes on to say “Chinese people do not spurn it, that it is eaten and enjoyed by Chinese both in their own country and in Western Chinese restaurants.” Oops, does she mean the Chinese brought this non-Chinese dish back with them to China? In her book, she offers four chop suey recipes including one for Fruit and Vegetable Chop Suey.
Now to some facts that hopefully make some sense. Chop Suey, as a dish in the United States and elsewhere, was known long before and after Nolton wrote about it. Henry Low, in a 1938 volume published by Macmillan in New York titled: Cook at Home in Chinese, includes a chapter titled: Chop Suey. It is twice as long as Richmond’s and includes twenty-two Chop Suey recipes. Some are a variation of one or another basic recipe already provided in his book. Most are ordinary. Not so the last one in the book called Sweet and Pungent Chop Suey.
E.N. and M.L. Anderson edited a chapter in K.C. Chang’s 1977 book called Food in Chinese Culture. In that chapter, titled: Modern China: South, readers learn that Chop Suey is not a made up American dish, but rather a distinctive regional variation from Toisan, an area south of Canton. They say it came to America with about half of all the early Chinese immigrants. Furthermore, they say that Toisan’s claim to fame is that it gave the world chop suey. In that chapter, they advise that the Cantonese words, tsap sui, mean miscellaneous things, or at worst, miscellaneous slops. They refer to it as a sort of hash of leftovers warmed up with bean sprouts and a very folk-like dish.
In that chapter, they tell a widely known myth that says: “One night, after hours, a Cantonese restaurant in San Francisco was importuned, by persons he could not refuse (drunken minors in one version, Li Hung-chang or other famed Chinese visitors in others) to serve food. However, he had no food left. So he stir-fried the day’s slops and created the dish. Its origin in old Toisan was traced down by the indefatigable hunter (of big game and food) Li Shu-fan (1964).” The author of Sons of the Yellow Emperor, on page 333, agrees saying “there is no doubt the dish (chop suey) had been an offer in restaurants in New York long before the story got about that is had its origin in America.
Some of these and other tales are cited in an article quoted in an earlier Flavor and Fortune issue (Volume 10(3) on page 6. These brought forth several queries and comments. In this issue in the Letters to the Editor on page 6 is one of them. Those that did not read that earlier F&F item, let us advise that it speaks to an 1848 Chinese Historical Society of America article about Chop Suey. This issue’s letter is in response to that and a query about this dish in America. Chop suey has a long history in America and a longer one in China. It is a dish still made in western and Chinese restaurants and still found in Western cookbooks. We located what may be the newest one, a recipe for Chicken Chop Suey in a 2003 volume titled Favorite Chinese Dishes. That book was sold in the United States but published by Parragon Publishing of Bath U.K., no author cited. Perhaps chop suey needs further exploration; and we do know a chap working on that very topic. Perhaps he will share it with us when ready for publication.
Several sources, Davidson included, cite Li Shu-fan's autobiography Hong Kong Surgeon to stand on the Chinese origin side of the story. That book was published by Dutton in New York in 1964. A quote in it from pages 211-212 was recently sent to us by John Thorne, editor of Simple Cooking, a great newsletter published and sent from PO Box 778, Northhampton MA 01061.
The Li volume (forwarded by Thorne) reads as follows: “Westerners, and many Chinese, believe that the popular dish called ‘chop suey’ is an American invention merely imitating Chinese cookery. Let me set the record straight: chop suey is actually a familiar Chinese dish originating in Toishan, where I spent by boyhood. The word ‘chop’I first tasted chop suey in Toishan in 1894, but the preparation had been familiar in that city long before my time. The recipe was probably taken by Toishan(ese) people, who, as I have said, are great travelers. Chinese from places as near to Toishan as Canton and Hong Kong are unaware that chop suey is truly a Chinese dish, and not an American adaptation. In 1923, when I passed through New York while campaigning for funds for the Kung Yee Medical College in Canton, I was shown a list of more than one thousand ‘chop suey’ restaurants in Greater New York alone. The owners, I was told, were invariably from Toishan or onef the neighboring districts where the dialect is slightly different from the Cantonese. These emigrants has originally come fr of the neighboring districts where the dialect is slightly different from Cantonese. These emigrants had originally gone to America during the early days of the Gold Rush in California (even today, San Francisco is still called ‘The Golden Hill’ around Toishan. When the Gold Rush was over they turned to operating laundries, and then chop suey houses.”
As to the taste of chop suey, Emily Hahn in The Cooking of China by Emily Hahn and the Editors of the Time Life Books (1968) says, “there is little we can say in favor of chop suey, a dish unknown in China. One explanation of its origin is that the dish was born when the famous 19th Century Diplomat, Li Hung Chang, traveling in the West as the Chinese emperor’s emissary, got indigestion from rich foreign food at banquets he had to attend. He had so agonizing an attack of biliousness following a hard week’s banqueting in the United States that his aide Lo Feng-luh suggested a bland diet. Between them the gentlemen thought up the plainest possible dish–a concoction of celery and other vegetables sauteed with a little park. Thus was chop suey born.”
Ms. Hahn goes on and says that ”According to another theory we can blame chop suey on America’s first transcontinental railways. To work on the building of them, indentured laborers were brought in by the thousands from southern China. Their American contractors learned that the coolies would toil patiently all day long, but had to have the rice they were used to. The American knew nothing about Chinese food, so they drafted cooks from the of the coolies themselves–self-made cooks whose highest talents could achieve nothing better than a sloppy stew ladled over rice. When the railways were finished and the workers were shipped home, some of the Chinese elected to stay in the United States. Among those who stayed were cooks from the old railway gangs, and they now set up in business for themselves, catering to other Chinese in humble sheds that were the first chop suey joints. When westerners found that the food was cheap they too became customers, always asking for chop suey because that’s all there was.” She and others are still telling that tale; is it out of ignorance?
Frederick J. Simoons, in Food in China says, there has been “controversy among Americans as to whether chop suey, still standard fare in many Chinese restaurants catering to the general public in the United States, is a true Cantonese dish or whether it developed in America. Suffice it to say that one is unlikely to find chop suey on the menus of better restaurants in Canton; that is seems to have originated in the Toisan area south of Canton.”
No doubt there are more tales about the story of Chop Suey. If you hear of others, do send them to us and we will forward them to the chap who may provide a more definitive tale. In the meantime, enjoy reading these recipes, printed in their original format, spelling and other errors included. The source of each recipe appears above it.
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