Chop suey and Immigrant food


This is the inspiration for today's post. It's a painting called Chop Suey by the American artist Edward Hopper, recently sold for US$91.9 million. This year I have a desk calendar simply called Art, with a different picture every day, except at weekends when we are, for some reason - probably economic - restricted to one picture for the whole weekend.


Anyway this is today's picture. I rather liked it. It is somehow serene. And the colours are just perfect. The lady in the picture is apparently his wife, and muse Jo. She is also the lady with her back to us and the half face on the left of the picture. I am not familiar with the works of Edward Hopper although it is a name that is vaguely there in my head. He lived from 1882-1967, so one of that generation that saw enormous changes in the world around them. Crinolines to mini-skirts, horse-drawn carriages to the jumbo jet, hand written and hand calculated accounts to computers. And so on. Mind-blowing.


But this is a food blog and of course, my real subject is chop suey. Seeing those two words made me realise that although I was very familiar with it, and though it had featured on the menus of all the Chinese restaurants of my youth, it is not a term that is current today. Well I don't think so. I don't have a lot of Chinese cookbooks, but I checked all three of the likely Charmaine Solomon books that I have and chop suey does not appear in the index. Not even in the Encyclopedia of Asian Food. I don't remember it turning up in the various foodie magazines either. I racked my mind to see if I could remember what chop suey was but all I could come up with was some glutinous sort of concoction that included what were then exotic things like baby corn and bean sprouts. So of course I had to look into it.


Just to emphasise how my initial suspicions that this was not a 'real' Chinese dish are correct I actually found a recipe for something called Chop suey chow mein, which combines the two most common dishes - along with sweet and sour - on those long ago Chinese restaurant menus.


So where does it come from? Well sort of from China. Well it's another one of those dishes with two or three different origin stories none of which are really verifiable. In Mandarin there is a phrase 'za sui', which means 'bits and pieces'. Wikipedia has this as tsap seui meaning 'miscellaneous leftovers' so let's not quibble because it's basically the same. Wikipedia also says that it could be that it was a dish from Taishan in the Guandong province from where many Chinese American immigrants came. Then there's the Chinese Americans working on the railroads story, the story about the visiting Chinese politician who either had his chefs invent it, ate a meal of 'this and that' or had a chef in a restaurant throw it together out of odds and ends. But odds and ends - you get the picture. A dish concocted from leftovers.


Take this one step further and those leftovers are offal. Well that's another story too.


The point really is that it's not a true Chinese dish but a dish either invented for Western tastes, or by immigrant Chinese who could not get the ingredients they needed to cook something authentic. In an article in The Guardian, called Down with Chop Suey, Alex Renton, although talking about Britain sums it up thus:


"Chinese restaurants have been around in Britain for over 120 years, long enough for their cooking - with some honourable exceptions - to become totally divorced from anything you might eat in China." Alex Renton - The Guardian


Which can be applied to any immigrant cuisine. Indian food is a prime example of this, with many 'modern' Indian dishes really being British inventions think Butter chicken - and this process began well before the immigration of Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans into Britain. It began back in colonial India where dishes such as Country Captain were invented. Indian food, however, has moved on. Yes you still get a lot of those Anglo Indian dishes in Indian restaurants, but there are plenty of Indian restaurants around the world which do strive to serve 'authentic' Indian food and also to invent new really Indian dishes. The reason for this is two-fold - the availability of the necessary ingredients and cooking implements, and the desire of the customer to genuinely learn about other people's food - encouraged by all of those travel/food documentaries and books - as well as a less worthy ambition to be 'authentic'.


It would seem though that at least in Britain things have not improved on the Chinese restaurant scene, with Alex Renton asking:


"why is the average British Chinese take-out still so, well, horrible?"


I wonder if it is? Is it the same in America? I don't think it is here. Maybe we have more Chinese immigrants, though I would find that rather hard to believe. Maybe the bulk of our Chinese immigrants are more recent than those in America and Britain. Although even here we have had Chinese immigrants since very early on in modern Australian history. And yet your average local Chinese restaurant here is large, and largely populated by Chinese families and groups all tucking into food that doesn't look at all Australian. Where else can you get chicken feet? Then there are lots and lots of very expensive high end Chinese restaurants, which presumably only serve the very best. Certainly not leftover food.


To emphasis the horror of chop suey, two things. Alex Renton talks of chicken chop suey with chips which used to be Butlin's most popular dish, and American chop suey - a version of which is shown on the left, and which you can see is rather more Italian than American. Indeed if you look at the recipes for American chop suey you will find that it's a sort of bolognaise with nowadays some Worcestershire sauce in the mix and in times gone by soy sauce. Why on earth it is called chop suey is anyone's guess. Well I suppose the best guess is the 'odds and ends', 'miscellaneous leftovers' thing. But American chop suey is now a recognised traditional American dish. A kind of mac'n cheese thing. Some even talk of 'authentic' recipes. Which is interesting is it not? A bastardised dish that evolves into a traditional even authentic 'classic'.


There are current recipes for chop suey out there though. Here are three, to demonstrate how different they all can look. Top left is a recipe from Food Ideas via Taste.com. The introduction to the recipe says: "Use up the leftover vegies in the fridge with this quick and easy Asian-style noodle dinner.". Leftovers again. Below that is the Recipe Tin Eats lady's Chop suey - chicken stir fry. I cringed a bit when I saw these words in her introduction to the recipe: "a saucy chicken stir fry loaded with tender pieces of chicken, vegetables and smothered in Chinese brown sauce just like you get at the best Chinese restaurants!" and further on: "the general characteristic is that the sauce is a fairly light brown colour, there is plenty of it ... and it’s pretty thick so it clings to your rice or noodles." Now that is probably a pretty fair description of what I remember chop suey to be, but it's not that tempting is it? Now to be fair to her she does use rather more authentic ingredients such as shoaxing rice, oyster sauce and choy sum but still her assertion that you get this at the best Chinese restaurants is a bit suspicious I think. I must ask the Chinese ladies in my Italian class next time I go. The last dish in the larger picture is from the website The woks of life where it is simply called Chicken chop suey. This lady does at least admit that it is a Chinese American dish, but actually it is similar to the one from Recipe Tin Eats, just slightly different vegetables.

Not, I think, a dish that I shall be rushing to make, but then I'm not a really huge fan of Chinese food for some strange reason. And we do seem to have bastardised it more than most other cuisines. Maybe because authentic Chinese food has lots of questionable - to us - ingredients. I remember being directed to a restaurant in Hong Kong when we asked the hotel for a recommendation for authentic Chinese, where the menu was largely in Chinese, customers were playing mahjong out the back and there were various meats hanging up that didn't look like anything we knew. I think we eventually picked some kind of chicken dish with the help of the waiter which was actually pretty good, but we were definitely somewhat daunted and overwhelmed by the experience.


Does the same thing happen to all immigrant cuisines I wonder? Has it happened to the Italians for example? Well I suppose - there is the mac'n cheese phenomenon and the pineapple pizza, but I'm guessing that on the whole the food you get in a good, or even almost good Italian restaurant is pretty much what you would find in a restaurant of similar standard in Italy. Well that's my experience anyway. Ditto for the French and the Greeks. Probably the Middle-Eastern, and Spanish too. But what about Mexican? There are plenty of aberrations there. Is it just the immigrants that have flooded into America, been Americanised and then re-exported? Are the Americans less likely to be adventurous when it comes to food. They do tend, as a nation that is, not necessarily individually, to be rather more insular than the British for example. And definitely more so than the Australians. Will the same happen to the African cuisines that we shall eventually be more familiar with? Let's wait and see.


Evolution - that's what it is. Chop suey though is one of those things that should probably be left to go extinct, although that first one from Food Ideas doesn't look too bad, and I guess we do all have a go at stir fry every now and then with the fridge leftovers. My nephew describes stir fries as things moved around quickly in a wok in oil with a gravy! Well something like that, Mm.

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