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FOOD HOLIDAY: National Chop Suey Day (What Is Chop Suey?)

Many people refer to chop suey as a Chinese-American invention, like fortune cookies. But that’s a myth that keeps getting perpetuated.

There are several myths about how chop suey was invented in the U.S.

Chop Suey is actually is a prominent dish in Taishan, in the Guangdong province of southeast China. It is a city of 95 islands and islets in the Pearl River Delta.

A dish called tsap seui is common in the area, and Guangdong province was the home of many early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. [source]. Thus, when immigrants from that area opened restaurants, it was on the menu.

A stir-fry recipe, chop suey means “assorted pieces.” These can include beef, chicken, quail eggs or other cooked eggs, fish, pork and/or shrimp, plus vegetables such as bean sprouts, cabbage, celery and snow peas. Starch is added to create a thickened sauce from the oil and wok drippings.

American variations have included vegetables popular that are not in the original Taishan recipe; for example, broccoli, carrots, onions and zucchini. Numerous American recipes also “specialize”: beef chop suey or chicken chop suey, for example, instead of a mixture of proteins.

In China, chop suey is typically served with a bowl of rice. Chow mein is chop suey that ditches the rice and adds noodles* to the recipe. In other words, if your “chop suey” contains noodles, it’s chow mein.

For a moment of beauty on National Chop Suey Day, take a look at photo #2, the painting of a chop suey parlor (as some such restaurants were called many years ago) by the American painter Edward Hopper. Here’s more about the painting.
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[1] Chop suey has an assortment of meats and vegetables, a thick sauce and no noodles. If it has noodles instead of rice, it’s called chow mein. Photo © Dušan Zidar | Fotolia.

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey
Edward Hopper, Chop Suey Parlor, 1929 (photo courtesy Wikipedia).

*There are two styles of chow mein: crispy chow mein, which uses fried, flat noodles; and soft chow mein, which uses spaghetti-style noodles. “Chow mein” means stir-fried noodles. “Subgum” means “numerous and varied,” a chow mein that is a combination of ingredients (see chop suey list above) instead of all vegetable, all chicken, etc.


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