Chinese restaurants were few and far between in nineteen-fifties Bombay . There were only about six of them, all at the other end of town. Consequently, going out for Chinese food was a rare treat . Usually we went to the Kamling on P.M Road, sometimes Nanking or Fredericks. Just entering the restaurant and getting a whiff of the smells, so different from those of Indian cooking, was a delight. Even now, the smell of sliced chilies steeped in vinegar takes me back to those days.
We always ordered the same dishes: Egg rolls, Sweet and Sour Pork, Fried Rice, Chicken Chow Mein and Chop Suey. Real Chinese Food !! This was before Szechuan and Hunan cuisines became popular and this was the only Chinese food we knew.
When I came to the States in the late sixties, I ate my share of chow mein. In my student days, most times, it was a can of La Choy or Chun King chow mein quickly heated and poured over hard brown noodles. Gloppy and not particularly tasty, even with generous amounts of soy sauce, but a welcome change from TV dinners of Salisbury steak , meat loaf or fried chicken. Occasionally I sampled the chow mein from Cantonese take-outs; it was better, though still not what I remembered from my Bombay days.
Chop suey , however, had completely disappeared. The Chinese take-outs that dispensed other staples like egg rolls , fried rice and chow mein seemed not to have heard of chop suey. I never once saw it on their menus. It is only recently I found out the history of this dish and the reason for its banishment.
Chop suey is described as ” meat ( chicken, beef, pork or shrimp) and eggs, quickly cooked with vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage and celery and bound in a cornstarch thickened sauce”. There are many versions of its origin. One early account claims that the name is derived from tsap seui which means ” assorted leftovers” in the Taishan dialect spoken in parts of Guangdong province. Most other versions discount the Chinese origins of chop suey and claim that it is actually a Chinese American dish. One version says that it was invented by Chinese American cooks working on the trans-continental railroad in the 19th century. Another says that it was invented by a Chinese cook to satisfy a bunch of drunken miners who descended on his restaurant after hours and demanded to be served. He was out of food and,to avoid being beaten up, he stir fried some left over meat with vegetables and a sauce that he concocted. The diners loved the dish and asked for its name. ‘ Chopped suey ( chopped leftovers)”, he replied. They turned up again the next night and the next and demanded chop suey and thus was born the most popular Chinese dish of the early 20th century.( Isn’t the story very similar to the genesis of Chicken Tikka Masala in England or Buffalo Chicken Wings in upstate New York?) So popular did the dish become that many restaurants had neon signs advertising chop suey and the name even made into the lyrics of popular songs. While there can be no definitive opinion about the origins of chop suey, it seems more likely than not that it did originate in America , not China.
Around the nineteen sixties, chop suey fell out of favor with Americans because of it’s dubious authenticity; they wanted real Chinese food, not a Chinese – American hybrid. A decade later, Szechuan and Hunan cuisines took America by storm as American taste buds woke up. Cantonese food fell out of favor and chop suey disappeared from Chinese restaurant menus.
What now puzzles me is the connection between chop suey and chow mein. The latter’s name is reputedly derived from chau meing or fried noodles but the ingredients of both dishes are strikingly similar. Reading articles to define the differences between the two only leads to confusion. For instance, one article I read states that chop suey is always served with rice , never with noodles. The next article that I see contains a chop suey recipe that calls for ” one cup chow mein noodles”. Go figure! The only differences I have been able to pinpoint are that chow mein originated in China and it is a blander dish than chop suey. Luckily, there are plenty of recipes for both dishes on the internet and I will be cooking ( and eating) both dishes in the very near future.
One dish I will not be making is American Chop suey which is defined as ” elbow macaroni, cooked ground beef, sautéed onions and green peppers in a thick tomato sauce; a dish prepared in a fry pan rather than baked in an oven.” Ugh!