Chop suey, made from scratch, is one of my “comfort foods”, one of my guilty pleasures. I like chop suey because it tastes yummy and is easy to prepare. It was not always one of my favorites, because I used to associate chop suey with the soggy, canned version.
When mom was having one of her super busy days, she dumped a can of it into a pan, heated it, then spooned it onto a plate. Bagged, chow mein noodles were sprinkled on top to provide crunchy texture. A bottle of soy sauce was mandatory. The canned chop suey was so bland, that I had to splash a lot of it on top to make the lunch palatable. It wasn’t very hearty, either. A couple of hours later, I was famished again. Because of its association with blandness I never ordered chop suey in Chinese restaurants.
This aversion was swept away after I ate some, prepared by my step-mom, Tippy. Her chop suey was so good, that I sometimes daydreamed about it. One afternoon, Tippy taught me how to prepare it from fresh ingredients. Because she never used recipe cards when preparing Asian dishes, I scribbled down some notes during Tippy’s chop suey lesson.
Tippy’s Vegetarian Chop Suey
First, she gathered the ingredients. The amounts were approximations of what I observed.
a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil, whatever’s on hand
a handful of sliced scallions
one or two cloves of chopped garlic
a couple of heaping handfuls of shredded cabbage or boc choi
one stalk of chopped celery (I don’t like celery, so I often eliminate this.)
one small can of sliced bamboo shoots, save the juice for later
a handful of sliced mushrooms
a tablespoon, or so, of tamari or soy sauce
a couple of generous splashes of toasted sesame oil
a tablespoon of (Thai) chili paste
exactly one and a half tablespoons of cornstarch disolved in one tablespoon of Japanese cooking wine
a cup or so of cubed, baked tofu (If you are not vegetarian or vegan, you can substitute chopped beef, pork, chicken, or shrimp in place of the tofu.)
a couple of cups of cooked jasmine rice
Heat the vegetable oil in your wok or a large skillet over medium-high temperature. When the oil is hot, fry the garlic and scallions until soft. Toss in the cabbage or boc choi, bamboo shoots, and the mushrooms, stir-fry it until the cabbage wilts. Carefully add the bamboo shoots’ juice, chili paste, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Bring the liquid to a boil. Next add the dissolved cornstarch as the thickener. Mix in the cubed tofu and stir-fry until everything is piping hot.
You’ve probably heard that chop suey is not a traditional Chinese dish, but is an American invention. One favorite story about it’s first preparation says that it was made by the Chinese ambassador’s cook to serve his American guests at a state dinner, August 29, 1896. The ambassador, Li Hung Chang, had asked the cook to prepare a dish that would satisfy both American and Chinese tastes.
Regular Americans were interested in China, after the ambassador’s visit. Soon, a chop suey fad swept over cities like New York and San Francisco where there were already several Chinese people living.
Left coast residents prefer another chop suey legend. In 1849, during the Gold Rush, Chinese workers flooded San Francisco because of their part in the booming economy. Naturally, Chinese restaurants sprang up. Macao & Woosung was the first one to open its doors.
The San Francisco tall-tale alleges that late at night, just as Macao & Woosung was about to close, a gang of drunken gold miners arrived and demanded something to eat. The cook supposedly took leftovers, then stir-fried everything together in a vegetable gravy then served the mixture alongside some steamed rice. He named his specialty “tsap seui” (mixed pieces). The English pronunciation of the Cantonese name sounds like chop suey. The miners enjoyed the slap-dash dish so much, that they came back the next evening for more.