'mixed pieces') is an American-Chinese dish
consisting of meats (often chicken, beef, shrimp or pork), cooked quickly with vegetables such as bean sprouts
, and celery
and bound in a starch-thickened sauce. It is typically served with rice but can become the Chinese-American form of chow mein
with the addition of deep-fried noodles.
Chop suey is part of American Chinese cuisine, Canadian Chinese cuisine, and Indian Chinese cuisine. Filipinos also have their own version of chop suey. The typical Filipino-Chinese variation includes wood ear (also known as tenga ng daga in Tagalog; lit. ear of the rat), carrots and chayote along with the cabbage. Some may even include bell peppers and/or cauliflower.
There are various colorful stories about the origin of chop suey. It is alleged to have been invented by Chinese immigrant cooks working on the United States Transcontinental railway in the 19th century and has also been cited in New York City's Chinatown restaurants since the 1880s. Other sources say that the dish (and its name) was invented during Qing Dynasty premier Li Hongzhang's visit to the United States in 1896 by his chef, who tried to create a dish suitable for both Chinese and American palates: when reporters asked what food the premier was eating, his cook found it difficult to explain the dishes, and replied "mixed pieces". Davidson (1999) characterizes these stories as "culinary mythology", citing Anderson (1988), who traces it to a dish of Taishan, the homeland of many Chinese immigrants. Chop suey first appears in an American publication as early as 1898. In his popular book, The Gangs of New York (1927), Herbert Asbury attributes the Americanized version of the term to a San Francisco dishwasher, calling it a bastardized version of the Cantonese phrase tsap sui, meaning "odds and ends", "miscellaneous pieces", or more simply "hash".
Generally, however, the name "chop suey" or "shap sui in Cantonese, and "za sui", when used in Mandarin, has the somewhat different meaning of cooked animal offal or entrails. For example, in the classic novel Journey to the West (c. 1590), Sun Wukong tells a lion-monster in chapter 75: "When I passed through Guangzhou (Canton), I bought a pot for cooking za sui - so I'll savour your liver, entrails, and lungs."
Use of the word in its Western sense was unknown to the Chinese language in pre-modern times. During his exile in the United States, Liang Qichao, a Guangdong native, wrote in 1903 that there existed in the United States a food item called chop suey which was popularly served by Chinese restaurateurs, but which local Chinese people did not eat. The term "za sui" (杂碎) is found in newer Chinese-English dictionaries with both meanings listed - cooked entrails, and chop suey in the Western sense.
This dual meaning has meant that some Chinese restaurants in English-speaking countries label mixed entrails as "chop suey" on their English menus.
Chop suey may be prepared in a variety of styles, such as chicken
, king prawn
, plain and special
. Plain, or vegetable
chop suey, is often one of the few traditional Chinese American take-out
dishes offered without meat
at many restaurants. Chop suey can also be translated as "left overs".
Chop Suey in American art and literature
Edward Hopper memorialized the dish in his 1929 restaurant painting, "Chop Suey." Even earlier, in 1914, Chinese chop suey appeared in the mainstream American novel.
Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis mentions the dish:
- 1914 Our Mr. Wrenn he wrote: "Well, down at the Seven Flowery Kingdoms Chop Suey and American Cooking there's tea at five dollars a cup that they advertise is grown on 'cloud-covered mountain-tops.
- 1920 Babbitt Lewis wrote: "Paul returned four days later, and the Babbitts and Rieslings went festively to the movies and had chop suey at a Chinese restaurant.
- 1922 Main Street contains the line "None of them save that city-rounder Harry Haydock had heard of any Chinese dish except chop sooey."
- 1929 Edward Hopper paints "Chop Suey" (which features part of a restaurant sign almost identical to the one in the photo at right). In all likelihood, the picture is meant as a joke by the notoriously misogynistic artist, for whom the term implied a culinary mishmash. As we see no food in front of the women in the picture, chop suey is more likely what they're talking rather than eating at the moment --that is, trivial effusions. Shortly thereafter, sometime between 1929 and 1931, Mark Rothko's Composition I [recto) closely and intentionally paraphrased Hopper's painting.
- "Chop Suey!" is a song by the alternative metal band, System of a Down
- The musical Flower Drum Song featured an ensemble number called "Chop Suey", which celebrated the melting pot culture of America.
- Chop Suey is part of a college cheer in the 1925 Harold Lloyd film The Freshman. His father is on his shortwave radio at the same time and hearing this, yells "I've picked up China!"
- Mystery writer Raymond Chandler wrote in Farewell My Lovely the famous line "I was having some Chinese food when a dark shadow fell over my chop suey."
- Chop Suey is the title of a 2001 film by photographer Bruce Weber, based upon his 1999 book The Chop Suey Club.
- One of the last remaining vertical CHOP SUEY neon signs in the world is located in Los Angeles, California, at the Far East Chop Suey restaurant in Little Tokyo.
- At the end of the 2004 film Crash, Anthony (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) releases all the "Chinamen" onto the streets of LA, and gives one of them $40 to "buy everybody chop suey".
- In the Disney film Lady and the Tramp, Jim-Dear mentions chop suey as he leaves the house to go buy watermelon for his pregnant wife, Darling.
- Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, 1999.
- E.N. Anderson, The Food of China, Yale University Press, 1988.