Chop Suey

Chop suey’s story is a bit like the egg roll that we discussed previously. Unlike the egg roll, however, there’s a Chinese city that might claim some of the credit.

Supposedly, “shap sui” is a transliteration of Cantonese meaning something like “mixed pieces.” At some point between the late 1880s and early 1900s, American-Chinese chefs started using this term to apply to a mixture of diced meat and vegetables in a starch-thickened sauce. By the 1940s it was immensely popular, and it remained so until the late 1960s or early 1970s, when a misplaced lust for “authenticity” (whatever that is) pushed it off many menus.

Some modern sources have stated that Toisan, south of Canton, does indeed have a “shap sui” dish, where leftover vegetables were mixed together with meat and sauce. As many early Chinese immigrants to California were from Toisan, it’s entirely possible that chop suey was an import.

I don’t think these theories are really at odds, primarily because the definition of the dish is so necessarily broad that there’s no way to distinguish one chop suey from another based on the description. I mean, under the definition, chow mein is a chop suey. Sliced fish in bean sauce is a chop suey. If you put spring onions in it, egg drop soup is a chop suey. Anything that is a protein with chopped vegetables in a starch-thickened sauce is a chop suey.

If what we’re fighting over is the dish, then I’d argue the dish was probably made for centuries by different people in different places using whatever vegetable and proteins they had. If what we’re arguing about is the name, then let’s share credit (the Cantonese for writing it and the Americans for mishearing it) and stop worrying about it.

And in general, as I’ve said before, you should accept cultural authenticity as a guidepost but utterly reject it as a prison. The only authenticity that matters is personal authenticity. (For example, if you grow up next to a Jewish deli in an Italian neighborhood, then a corned beef focaccia sandwich is authentic.)

ksu_folder A family recipe provided by Jennifer Kiel of Washington, DC, from her mother-in-law’s collection, started in Kent, Ohio.

Chop Suey

Chop suey can be prepared ahead and served anytime.

6 medium sized onions
2 large stalks celery
1 large can bean sprouts
1 can mushrooms
1-1/2 lbs. chopped veal
1/2 lb. chopped pork
3 Tbsp. soya sauce
2 Tbsp. cornstarch

Cut onions and celery together, cover with cold water and bring to a rolling boil for 15 minutes. Drain, add liquid from bean sprouts and mushrooms. Saute veal and pork in bacon fat until golden brown.

Add meat and mushrooms to celery and onions. Cook 45 minutes.

Add bean sprouts. Dissolve corn starch in soya sauce, then add to mixture and boil five minutes, stirring constantly. Soya sauce can be increased for higher seasoning. Serve with fluffy rice or chow mein noodles.

Yesterdish suggestion: If you use fresh bean sprouts, please cook them for at least 30 seconds before taking the dish off the fire. Bacteria love bean sprouts.

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