Appetites and Afterthoughts

The chop suey symposium

Chop suey. Photo: dirkvorderstrasse

I’ve always thought chop suey gets a bum rap. It’s Chinese comfort food — the equivalent of my mother’s Depression-era hobo stew — a little of this, and a little of that. Mix it all together and it tastes pretty good.


Much scholarship points the origin of chop suey to the Guangdong Province of Southern China, where it was served as bits and pieces of this and that; a mixture of nourishing and tasty foodstuffs — a stir fry of various vegetables and organ meats. Cantonese emigres who settled in and around San Francisco worked for the miners and later laid track on the transcontinental railroad. Some became cooks and began serving tsap seui, which translates into “miscellaneous leftovers.” Other Cantonese found their way to New York City and took tsap seui with them. Wong Ching Foo in 1884 was quoted in the Brooklyn Eagle about something called “chop soly.”

Then in 1896 the Chinese ambassador, Li Hung Chang, served a distinguished group of American dinner guests a version of tsap seui. His dinner was a big success and was highly publicized. And so chop suey gradually spread throughout the country.


But there’s an uncorroborated story that chop suey was developed during the California Gold Rush in a San Francisco restaurant. It seems a group of drunken miners showed up late one night demanding to be fed. The hard-pressed Chinese cook scraped together what he had available — some vegetable scraps and a few chicken kidneys — heated it in his wok over a high flame, poured in some soy sauce, and served it forth. His chop suey was a success. When asked by the miners what it was, the cook replied, “tsap seui.” Sounded like chop suey. Soon every Chinese restaurant in San Francisco was serving it.


When I was a kid, chop suey was on the menus of most San Francisco Chinatown restaurants. Sadly, the chop suey days are gone, but not my memory of it.

If you bother to check out Internet recipes for chop suey, you’ll find most of them call for chicken or pork browned in a skillet with some canned chop suey vegetables tossed in, along with some chicken broth and a tablespoon or two of cornstarch for thickening. This is heated and poured over cooked rice. Well, O.K., if that’s what turns you on.


I’ve come up with my own version of chop suey, and I invite you to try it.

Cut a skinless, half chicken breast into small, thin strips and marinate them in soy sauce. While the chicken is marinating, chop a quarter head of cabbage into slaw-like strips, do the same with a couple of carrots, and also chop up one red and one green bell pepper and one medium sized yellow or white onion. You may want to add some broccoli flowers to this chopped vegetable mixture. Set all of these vegetables aside on a plate.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil in a skillet, dump in the chicken and stir-fry it over high heat for about five minutes. Then remove the chicken with a slotted spoon and place it on a warm plate.

Now add the vegetables and stir-fry them. When the vegetables have softened — but are not too soft — add the chicken and maybe a little soy sauce. Stir-fry a couple of more minutes and your chop suey is ready to go. No cornstarch!

Serve over rice if you wish.


Chop suey was memorialized in Flower Drum Song. Do you remember these lines from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical?

Chop suey, chop suey!
Living here is very much like chop suey.
Hula hoops and nuclear war,
Doctor Salk and Zsa Zsa Gabor,
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee, and Dewey,
Chop suey, Chop suey.
Or, how about these lines from an upcoming musical?
Chop suey, chop suey!
North Beach is much like chop suey.
Twittergrams and hashtag hash,
Take to bank, and get some cash.
Molecular cuisine, oh phooey!
Chop suey, chop suey.

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