Chop suey is not the only Chinese-American dish that has little connection to Chinese cuisine. But it is unique in its popularity and how well known it became in the late nineteenth century–decades after the first wave of Chinese immigration to America in and around the Gold Rush period in the mid-1800s. By the time chop suey came started being written about, there were Chinese-American communities in many places in the country. The dish, which became popular with white Americans, played an important part in the formation of Chinese-American cuisine and its early popularity.
Here are three things to know about chop suey, an American staple.
It’s a Chinese-American dish, not a Chinese dish
“The generally accepted wisdom 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,” writes Monica Eng for the Chicago Tribune.
Whatever its origin, chop suey quickly became a familiar part of Chinese-American cuisine–many early restaurants that served Chinese-American food were known as “chop suey houses,” according to Rhitu Chatterjee writing for NPR. “Chop suey” roughly translates to “assorted mix,” writes Ann Hui for The Globe and Mail–and that’s exactly what chop suey is. “The only common practice was to use a wok to stir-fry a bunch of ingredients with an innovative sauce,” Professor Haiming Liu told Chatterjee.
Nobody’s sure exactly where it came from
“Few people agree on the exact provenance of the dish,” writes Eng. One theory is that the dish was created by Li Hongzhang, a Chinese statesman who visited the United States in 1896. As the story goes, the diplomat didn’t like the food at a banquet, and had his personal chef prepare an alternative from the available ingredients.
“I think it is entirely a myth,” anthropologist Bennet Bronson told Eng. “By 1896, it’s clear that chop suey was already in existence here.”
Chop suey started appearing in the 1880s, Bronson said, and it became a fashionable food for non-Chinese Americans–even though anti-Chinese racism was entrenched in law in the 1880s, as it would continue to be for decades.
A group of New York artists and writers helped spread the taste for chop suey in that city, writes Andrew Coe for The Spruce. One among them described chop suey as “a toothsome stew, composed of bean sprouts, chicken’s gizzards and livers, calfe’s tripe, dragon fish dried and imported from China, pork, chicken, and various other ingredients which I was unable to make out.”
“By the 1920s,” writes Coe, “the dish had spread across the United States, becoming as popular as hot dogs and apple pie.”
It’s still changing
Chop suey has become a staple of American Chinese food menus, writes Coe–so much so that it’s fallen out of popularity. But, writes Chatterjee, the dish still has some tasty surprises that you won’t see on every menu. Take the chop suey prepared by Jocko Fajardo. It's a family recipe that incorporates cumin, jalapeno and beans–all ingredients common to Mexican cuisine.