It’s a popular belief that the iconic mixed vegetable and meat dish smothered in a starch-thickened sauce known as “chop suey” is actually American in origin instead of Chinese. But does this assumption actually hold water?
Widely believed to have been invented by Chinese Americans living in America, chop suey’s origins have sparked numerous conversations, debates, and, fortunately, some actual research. The beloved dish has way too many conflicting stories of origin that food historian Alan Davidson called “a prime example of culinary mythology”, which is said to be typical of popular foods.
According to one popular account, chop suey was invented by Chinese American cooks working on the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century.
In another story, it was said to have been created during Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang’s visit to the United States in 1896 in an attempt of his chef to create a meal suitable for both Chinese and American tastes.
Another version of that narrative claims Li had wandered to a local Chinese restaurant after the hotel kitchen had closed. The restaurant’s chef, reportedly embarrassed that he had nothing available to offer his VIP guest, invented a new dish out of leftover scraps.
Scholar Renqui Yu disproved such claims stating that “no evidence can be found in available historical records to support the story that Li Hung Chang ate chop suey in the United States.”
Yu pointed out that Li would not have needed to eat in local restaurants nor force his chef to invent a new dish since he brought three Chinese chefs with him. He concluded that the stories were perpetuated by Chinese American restaurant owners to promote chop suey by linking it to Li’s visit.
According to another myth, a Chinese chef in San Francisco was forced to serve something to drunken miners during late hours and he had no fresh food to offer. The cook decided to mix leftovers in a wok and then served the finished dish to his intoxicated customers. When Asked what the delicious dish was after they feasted on it, he answered with “chopped sui.”
What’s actually on record, however, is an 1884 article “Chinese Cooking” in the Brooklyn Eagle written by Wong Chin Foo. Chop Suey, he wrote, “may justly be so-called the ‘national dish of China.'”
A description for the dish in 1888 noted that it was a “staple dish for the Chinese gourmand is chow chop suey, a mixture of chickens’ livers and gizzards, fungi, bamboo buds, pigs’ tripe, and bean sprouts stewed with spices.”
“Chop suey”, pronounced “shap sui” in Cantonese and “za sui”, in Mandarin, has also appeared in early Chinese literature.
In the late 16th century classic novel “Journey to the West”, Sun Wukong tells a lion creature in chapter 75: “When I passed through Guangzhou, I bought a pot for cooking za sui – so I’ll savour your liver, entrails, and lungs.”
Li Dou’s “Journey in Yangzhou”, written during the Qing Dynasty, also mentioned the dish: “There are many snack bars in Xiaodongmen Street, some serve cooked mutton. They will treat you first with cooked and chopped sheep entrails as locally called refreshments, and then with cooked rice in mutton broth, one bowl for each.”
In the 1964 autobiographical “Hong Kong Surgeon”, Dr. Li Shu-Fan described chop suey as a local Toisanese dish (Toisan is a rural district south of Canton).
While the descriptions of these earlier version of chop suey dishes are almost entirely different from those served today, it can be argued that it has simply evolved through time or, perhaps, during its transition through adoption in Western countries.
Debates may still continue on how and when chop suey was originally created, but there is no denying how significant this iconic dish has been for the many Chinese-Americans who have struggled against racism and culinary prejudice while finding their way in a foreign land.