Happy Chop Suey Day! A Brief Guide to a Quintessential Chinese American Dish

Happy Chop Suey Day! A Brief Guide to a Quintessential Chinese American Dish

“I am happy to be both Chinese and American.”
“You are like the Chinese dish the Americans invented. What do they call it?”
“Chop suey.”
“That’s it. Everything is in it. All mixed up.” 

Flower Drum Song

You’ve probably heard of chop suey (or at least the ditty), but do you know where it comes from and who invented it? Or, for that matter, what in the world it is? On this National Chop Suey Day, we bring you the answers to these questions and more.

What the heck is it?

Like "Flower Drum Song" says, chop suey has everything in it “all mixed up.” The dish is basically a stir-fry of meat, egg, and vegetables in a corn-starch-thickened sauce. The name — shap suì in Cantonese and zá suì in Mandarin — translates literally as “broken miscellany.”

Chop suey shouldn't be confused with chow mein. While chop suey might be served with rice or noodles, chow mein is a fried noodle-based dish with a thinner sauce, meat or seafood, and various vegetables.

Who invented it?

There are a couple of stories. One says it was a wily Chinese cook in 19th-century San Francisco. He threw together a “garbage” dish of random leftovers and sauce for some American miners who had rudely barged into his about-to-close restaurant. But we're not sure who the joke was on: the miners love it and the dish became a hit.

The more popular theory attributes the dish to a visiting Chinese statesmen named Li Hongzhang. Legend says that on this very day in 1896, he rejected the food served to him at a banquet and asked his personal chef to whip him something up instead. Perhaps with nothing at his disposal except odds and ends, Li’s chef inadvertently created the famous mixed dish.

Who really invented it?

Historian Andrew Coe says the Li Hongzhang story is most likely a myth since chop suey had begun to appear in the U.S. since at least the 1880s, namely “from the woks of early Cantonese American immigrants,” says the Smithsonian. Some anthropologists trace the dish back to a similar one in Taishan county of Guangzhou province. As for the trickster cook, it's a good story but one with little real evidence to support it. 

Either way "Flower Drum Song" got it wrong. Chop suey isn’t a Chinese dish invented by Americans but, like fortune cookies, a uniquely Chinese American one invented by Chinese immigrants who had settled in America.

The chop suey variations

American chop suey

Depending on where you live, you might encounter different varieties of chop suey. 

In New England are two kinds. Perhaps more Italian than Chinese, American chop suey is a fried or sauteed dish of macaroni, ground beef, tomato sauce, and vegetables such as green peppers and onions. The chop suey sandwich is a “concoction of roast pork or chicken, onions, celery and bean sprouts cooked in a thickened soy gravy and served on a hamburger bun.” Meanwhile over in the Southwest, you might find a Mexican-style chop suey complete with beans, jalapeno peppers, and cumin.

Hungry for more?

For more about food, feast on some fun facts about baozi, egg tarts, dumplings, and more. Or if you want to try your hand at making chop suey, check out our cooking implements.

[Images: "MOCA - Museum of Chinese in America, Center Street. NYC." by Carl Mikoy, CC BY 2.0; "Vegan Chop Suey with Tofu and Rice" by Marco Verch, CC BY 2.0; American chop suey by @maroononthemoon]

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