Appetite City: Chop Suey

A few things to know after you watch the episode:

1. I don’t know what I was talking about, or what happened with the editing, but a gizzard does not help a chicken digest “meat.”  It’s a digestion aid in general, where chickens store small stones to help them grind food.

2.  Some people enjoy the texture of a chicken gizzard.  It’s been described by people who love it as “crunchy,” which is exactly how I would describe it.  It was like biting into a meat apple.

By the turn of the century, New York had a large Chinatown, although its expansion had been frozen by the strict Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  This law was the first to enforce a restriction on immigration in our country and did so on the basis of race.  Chinese workers, who were seen as a threat to the American economy because they would work longer hours for less pay, were banned entry to the United States.  They were not allowed to become citizens and were not allowed to send for their wives and children.

The result was a dominantly male enclave surrounding Mott street; many of the men worked and owned laundries and cooks, “female” work was one of the few jobs in which they could find opportunities.  Chinatown became an object of fascination for New Yorkers and tourists alike, and “slumming” parties (their words, not mine) were led through the neighborhood, complete with a guide and police escort.  In addition to viewing an opium-smoking demo, groups were almost always taken to the Chop Suey houses.  As a result, Chop Suey became a faddish dish in America.  By the 1920s it was an avant-garde dish for dinner parties, accompanied by an exotic “show you” sauce.  By the 1950s, housewives across American were stocking their cabinets with bottles of  Kikkoman and the dish became a weeknight staple.

The recipe I used for chop suey comes from a 1902 newspaper article that William Grimes dug up in his research for the book Appetite City.  You can read the full article, reprinted in the Pittsburgh Press, here.  Although the dish seems to be invented here in America, it’s one of those iconic foods whose origin is shrouded in myth.  Many stories exists, none of them seem to be factual.  But perhaps there wasn’t a single origin point; it seems more likely that America’s Chop Suey is the logical descendant of dishes available in China that use up little scraps of everything.  Perhaps no one before had named the adaptable stir fry that became so iconic to Americans.  From the Evening Post:

“Chop suey, the national dish of China for at least twenty-five centuries, bids fair to become a standard food in this country.  There are some 60 Chinese restaurants scattered over the different boroughs of Greater New York, whose cheif attraction is this popular composition, and several American restaurant have endeavored to take advantage of its popularity by adding it to their daily bill of fair.  There is a rediculous amount of mystery concerning the dish.  It is simple, economical, and easily made.”

Give it a try, and decide for yourself.

***

Chop Suey
From the New York Evening Post, 1902. 

1 lb pork
2 chicken livers
2 chicken gizzards
1/4 lb celery
1/4 lb canned mushrooms
1/4 lb bean sprouts
4 tb oil
1 tb chopped onions
1/2 clove garlic
salt
white & red pepper
Worcestershire Sauce or Shoyu (Soy) Sauce

1. Make rice.

2. Cut pork into 1/4 inch pieces. Dice chicken livers and slice chicken gizzards.  Slice celery; finely chop onions and garlic. 

3. Put oil into a skillet over high heat. Add meat, celery, and fry until lightly colored.  Add 1/2 cup boiling water, onions, garlic and seasonings.  Cook approximately five more minutes, or until nearly tender, stirring constantly; then add mushrooms and bean sprouts and cook two minutes more.

4. Add a teaspoon shoyu sauce and serve over rice.
***

3 Responses to “Appetite City: Chop Suey”


  • Um, yeah, the gizzard is NOT in the mouth. HELLO. It’s part of the digestive system and is down there with the stomach, the liver, and such. A simple google search you would’ve avioded this problem. Also, this is confusing. The Chinese “expert” who was on before you said that Chop Suey is an AMerican invention, then you say it’s “authentic” Chinese. So who do we believe?

    • No, the gizzard is not in the mouth, it is an organ. As I mentioned, I don’t know if I misspoke and the editors took it as gospel; or if it just got edited oddly. Apologies.

      It is confusing; the way I understand it, Chop Suey can be thought of like the hamburger and the hotdog. Both had ancestors in Germany, where sausages and ground meat patties had been made for generations. But a “hamburger” didn’t exist until it was placed on a bun (possible with condiments) in America. So it’s a dish that has roots on a foreign shore, but could only come into its own once it reached America and combined with foods and culture here.

      Reqiu Yu talks about this in the essay “Chop Suey: From Chinese Food to Chinese American Food” in Chinese America: History and Perspectives (1987). I haven’t found a copy online, but I did come across this other essay from 2009 that looks fascinating, although I haven’t read it yet: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2bc4k55r;jsessionid=04DC201B365B9ABEAFD1A8A8D1454EA3#

      I’ve heard lots of origin legends for chop suey, but for me they sound like just that: legends. What does everyone else think?

  • I’ve been loving the program so far, Sarah… Great job.

    I remember hearing once chop suey came from San Francisco… combination of many things brought from dock and railroad Chinese and changed for the American palate… but there was a CHinese dish that sounded like that with lots of offal..sad it has become bland and American.

    I think you are right though… so many versions. Somewhere along the line it picked up those crunchy noodles and a glistening sauce. Looking up classics like burgers and pizza and chop suey… well hard to say where the original is. Oh yes, I also remember reading that the name is some really bad western interpretation of spoken Chinese.. that I do believe! Chop Chop is pigeon Chinese for hurry up –– original fast food???

Leave a Reply