Chop suey is somehow one of the most well-known and least known Chinese American dishes available today. It is a ubiquitous and delicious part of the Chinese American dining experience, but it has proven difficult to trace the origins of this dish, especially given how versatile and changing it is now and, presumably, has always been.
Here at Fly By Jing, we want to make it easy to begin bringing Chinese and Chinese American food flavors to your kitchen. That’s why we provide a wide variety of ingredients, from tribute peppers to preserved black beans, so you can start achieving the flavors you love and sharing them with friends today.
It’s also why we’re dedicated to sharing the history, stories, and culture surrounding our favorite dishes. We believe that the more we know about where great flavors and unique recipes first originated, the easier it will be to both recreate them ourselves and add unique and personalized touches to ever-evolving dishes—like chop suey!
What Is Chop Suey?
There are many variations of chop suey, which is part of the reason it can be so difficult to trace the true origins of the dish. Why you can prepare chop suey with many different ingredients, it traditionally features some kind of meat, eggs, and leafy or green vegetable like cabbage and bean sprouts. It is served in a thick sauce over rice, but you can also turn it into a dish like chow mein dish by serving it over stir-fried noodles instead.
Chop suey is an excellent dish for beginners looking to cook Chinese food at home or expert chefs who want to experiment with flavors and ingredients. It is an incredibly versatile meal, and you can substitute out your favorite meats and vegetables with ease, which makes it inexpensive, forgiving, and always delicious.
History of Chop Suey
It is almost impossible to pinpoint the true history of chop suey, which is another reason why this dish continues to be as popular and interesting as it is today. Many theories abound regarding where and how chop suey first originated, how it evolved, and who can be credited with the initial idea.
While some of the origin stories are little more than myth and others easily navigate the more believable line of the American immigrant food experience, the truth is that chop suey is a representation of more than just a great meal made of bold and delicious flavors.
It speaks to the challenging history of Chinese immigration into America and how an American Chinese culture was born out of social and political struggle, out of innovation, creativity, and opportunity.
Many of the origin stories for chop suey trace the dish back to China, pointing to its popularity in areas heavily populated by Chinese immigrants. The name in several Chinese dialects can be translated to “odds and ends,” an ancestor of the back-of-the-fridge dish that could be adjusted inexpensively and to fit your preferred flavors.
According to other stories, chop suey was, like crab Rangoon and fortune cookies, truly the product of American immigration. The Chinese immigrants that settled in the west during the Gold Rush founded successful restaurants that appealed to both American tastes—and wallets—and still provided their Chinese American communities with flavors of home.
More extreme myths and legends regarding this popular dish evolved. One included a chef named Lem Sen claiming the rights to the dish and attempting to keep any chop suey restaurant from recreating it without paying for the privilege.
Another story tells of an exhausted chef who had already closed his restaurant when diners asked to be served. In order to create something quickly, he added all the ingredients he had on hand to one pot and cooked them up. It is difficult to know if there is any truth to these stories, and their proliferation has only made chop suey a more mythical and interesting dish to be both enjoyed and discovered.
The chop suey story has also ridden the wave of a volatile American history. Anti-Chinese immigrant sentiment in the west led to the cross-country travel of many Chinese immigrants, who found their way to New York City, where many believe the origin of chop suey can be traced. It was embraced by the hipsters and artists of New York, which continued to add to its popularity. That chop suey restaurants didn’t serve alcohol meant they suffered no ill effects during the Prohibition Era and, indeed, thrived when many other establishments were shut down.
As American history grew and changed, so did the chop suey dish. In the 1940s, the ban on Chinese immigration was lifted, and more Chinese immigrants came into the United States, bringing with them unique flavors and ingredients from regions across China. Authentic Chinese flavors were shared, and Chinese establishments became more ubiquitous and universally accepted.
By that point, chop suey had become a dish all its own, perhaps inspired by Chinese recipes, perhaps not, but now easily created with ingredients accessible in the United States for an audience of diners from all over the world. It is a representation of food, culture, and history and speaks the equal parts unique and universal experience of Chinese American immigrants.
How To Make Chop Suey
One of the reasons why chop suey is such a popular dish is that you can make it at home and adjust it with ease. Here’s what you’ll want to know about tackling chop suey in your own kitchen.
The recipe for chop suey requires a few specific ingredients, but you can largely add whatever meat, tofu, or vegetables you have on hand. Here are a few ways to begin cooking up chop suey.
Meat or Protein: You can make chop suey with chicken, shrimp, fish, or pork, or change out the meat for tofu to make the dish vegetarian.
Pantry Staples: There are a few pantry staples you’ll always want to have on hand when making Chinese food at home. For this dish, that includes: oyster sauce, Shaoxing wine, light and dark soy sauce, and sesame oil, though find an oyster sauce substitute for vegetarian recipes.
Oil: When you stir fry or pan fry in Chinese cooking, you’ll want to use oils with a low flashpoint, like canola or peanut oil.
Stock: If you’re making chop suey with meat, chicken stock can help add a lot of great flavor. Swap it out for vegetable stock if you’re making the dish vegetarian.
Vegetables: This is the fun part. You can really add in all of your favorite vegetable options, but we recommend veggies like bean sprouts, bok choy, celery, mushrooms, carrots, and snow peas. Garlic is a staple of most chop suey dishes.
Cornstarch: Cornstarch can be used as a thickening agent to help make the sauce rich enough to coat the meat and vegetables.
Chop Suey Recipe
Step One: Make your chicken marinade and soak the chicken, then set aside.
Step Two: Mix the ingredients in your sauce together and set aside.
Step Three: Heat the oil in your wok and place down a layer of chicken or other meat.
Step Four: Cook your meat most of the way through. For chicken, aim for a light, golden brown. Remove from heat.
Step Five: Turn up the heat and begin cooking vegetables, adding gradually according to cook times.
Step Six: Add in your sauce and begin mixing with vegetables.
Step Seven: After the sauce begins to simmer, return your meat to the wok.
Step Eight: Add in your cornstarch flurry and stir until it reaches the right consistency. Then mix with vegetables and meat to ensure that everything is properly coated.
Step Nine: Serve over steamed rice and enjoy!
At Fly By Jing, we believe that Chinese food should be accessible to everyone. That doesn’t just mean exciting ingredients, like our spicy chili crisp or sweet and umami Zhong sauce. It also means the recipes that are integral to Chinese and Chinese American cooking and the history and context that makes them so special and unique.
Understanding where these great flavors come from and how they have changed and evolved over the years helps to provide insight into how you can make them at home. Each new iteration speaks to an evolution, not only of the chop suey recipe, but of the role of Chinese immigrants in America, how they were perceived, and what steps the country still needs to take to fully embrace all histories and all cultures.
Food speaks to so much more than flavor. It tells stories, serves as a narrator, and provides insight into what can still be achieved. Begin cooking up your own version of chop suey at home today.