Is it Chinese or is chop suey hooey?
By Monica Eng
By Monica Eng
Poor chop suey.
Once the darling of the classic "Chinese-American" cuisine, today the meat and vegetable (usually bamboo shoots, celery and bean sprouts) mixture has been relegated to Chinese takeout joints and old-fashioned chop- suey house holdovers with the neon signs and the checkerboard linoleum floors.
But the rise and fall of chop suey is about more than just food fashion. Chinese-American teacher and foodie Soo Lon Moy and Field Museum anthropologist Bennet Bronson explain that the dish's fortunes were tied up in history, geography, socio-economics and American immigration reform.
The two pieced together the story of chop suey as part of an exhibit for the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago.
Over chop suey, chow mein, egg foo yong and moo goo gai pan at Orange Garden, one of Chicago's oldest Chinese-American emporiums, they told the tale:
Q. The generally accepted wisdom on chop suey is that it emerged from the woks of early Cantonese-American immigrants in the late 1800s, adapted to locally available foods and tame European-American tastebuds. But few people agree on the exact provenance of the dish.
Bronson: There was a theory that Chinese diplomat Li Hung Chang came to the United States in 1896 and didn't like anything at a banquet until his cook took some scraps of what was around and called it chop suey. But I think it is entirely a myth. By 1896, it's clear that chop suey was already in existence here.
Q. What about the theory that says it was born when hungry gold rush miners came in to a restaurant demanding food and the angry Chinese chef threw together some old garbage, called it chop suey and everyone loved it?
Bronson: Chop suey never appears in American literature until 30 years after the gold rush period, so, so much for that theory. But there is a real dish from Taisan (a region of Canton from which many early Chinese immigrants hail) called chop suey (or tsap tsui). But that Taisan dish has quite different ingredients. The thing that confuses everybody is that from its name, which roughly means bits and pieces, it sounds like you just throw anything in like a leftover type dish, but in fact it has fixed ingredients that don't vary that much.
Q. How and when did it become so popular here?
Bronson: Sometime in the late 1880s, chop suey suddenly appears from nowhere, and for some reason it catches on in a big way with the foreign (non-Chinese) population. Even when people are bitterly anti-Chinese, they still kind of like Chinese things.
Q. So chop suey enjoys this long honeymoon in the Chinese-American food palaces ... but then falls off in the late 1960s. Why?
Bronson: Before the 1960s, you had very limited Chinese immigration to the United States (due to the Chinese Exclusion Act), and most of the cooks are non-trained chefs improvising and learning on the job. But starting in the mid-'60s you have people sponsoring their relatives to come here, and they had to have training and certificates from cooking schools. And when these trained chefs arrived, that's when chop suey began to decline.
First of all, you are finally getting chefs who are trained in real Chinese food. Also in the '70s and '80s, with Americans becoming more exposed to Chinese culture through books and travel, you get a greater demand for authentic food. And then, with more new Chinese immigrants arriving, you see the revival of Chinese restaurants for Chinese people.
Q. So once you have all these new immigrants, you get this big divide between what Chinese customers want to eat and what non-Chinese customers want to eat. How did restaurants deal with it?
Bronson: It's still a problem. You certainly want to have two menus if you can.
Q. You talk about different waves or generations of Chinese-American cuisine. What are you specifically referring to?
Bronson: Well, in the first generation, you have things like chop suey and chow mein. Then in the mid-period, you have sweet and sour pork, egg rolls, moo goo gai pan and egg foo yong. Even later, you have moo-shu pork and General Tso's chicken.
Moy: Most of these dishes are either eaten in China or they eat something like them in China but under different names. It is the name that is more unfamiliar than anything else.
Q. So here are our fortune cookies. Don't tell me, they're an American creation, too.
Bronson: Yes, this is a perfectly good Chinese-American treat, too. They say it could have been invented by a Japanese guy and his daughter in the 1930s and '40s, or a Chinese guy who was passing them up after World War I in California with happy sayings trying to cheer people up.
Moy: This is truly an American invention, but in 1992 there was a guy who owns a won ton noodle factory in Long Island who planned to open a fortune cookie plant in Guangzhou (in China) because so many American tourists were asking for them at the end of a meal. My gosh, anything to please the American tourists.
Q. So deep-fried chicken chunks in a sweet sauce is not called General Tso's chicken in China?
Moy: The way it's prepared with the deep frying and the really heavy syrup is not even known in China. Tso was a great fighter who tried to put down the Muslim rebellion. Some historians went back to his village and interviewed his great-great-great grandson, and no one there had ever heard of General Tso's chicken, but the people were so shocked to hear that millions of people in America had heard of their ancestor. I think a Chinese-American cook just made the dish, took his name and made it famous.
Bronson: General Tso's chicken showed up in about the last 30 years. I think it is all a part of how Chinese cuisine continues to evolve.
Q. So what's the next big Chinese cuisine that will hit America?
Bronson: I think it will be Hangzhou cuisine, also known as Zhejiang cuisine. It's from the province where Shanghai is, and it's considered the greatest of all Chinese cuisines. Plus, most of the guys running China come from there. You have things like beggar's chicken wrapped in mud, lots of freshwater crab and freshwater shrimp cooked in chrysanthemums and others cooked in a wine sauce.