Chop Suey

Chop Suey

Chop Suey is a stir-fried dish which can include a variety of meat and vegetables in a cornstarch thickened sauce. While allegedly from the Guangdong Province, chop suey is widely believed to have originated in the US during construction of the Transcontinental Railway. Whatever Chop Suey’s origin, it’s become synonymous with American Chinese food.

One of the factors that influences the evolution of food as it migrates to a new land is the availability of traditional ingredients. When chop suey arrived with early Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, bokchoy, straw mushrooms and water chestnuts weren’t available here. So the immigrants did what any great chef would do and improvised, using readily available ingredients such as cabbage, button mushrooms and celery. In this version I’ve tried to stay true to the inauthenticity of American Chop Suey by using ingredients that would have been available around that time in the US.

I’ve chosen Choy Suey as my submission for this month’s Dinner and a Movie. Susan of Sticky Gooey Creamy Chewy is hosting this month and she selected Breakfast at Tiffany’s as the theme. While I’m sure others will post on the many merits of the film, I decided to tackle its biggest controversy. What does this have to do with Chop Suey you ask?

Produced in 1961 and loosely based off Truman Capote’s novella of the same name, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was filmed at the infancy of the Civil Rights Movement. Before the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and before Asian American actors like Pat Morita and George Takei were cast to play their own kind in leading (though arguably stereotyped) rolls.

It’s no surprise then, that in the grand old tradition of Blackface in theater, Mickey Rooney was cast to portray Holly Golightly’s yellowfaced neighbor Mr. Yunioshi. Is it offensive by today’s standards? Certainly. It reflects the mentality of a period in our history when it was perfectly acceptable to use minorities as the butt of all jokes.

But as someone who wasn’t born yet in 1961, I see Mr. Yunioshi as an enduring record of where perceptions have been, a benchmark to judge how far we’ve come in one generation and that’s something to be grateful for. It’s not to say that stereotypes don’t exist anymore, but it’s much harder for these anachronistic notions to thrive unchecked (just ask Alec Baldwin).

I chose to make this dish because there was a time, not so long ago when all Asians were Orientals* and all Orientals ate Chop Suey. As the quintessential yellowface of the culinary world, Chop Suey seemed like the perfect dish to represent Mickey Rooney’s roll in the film.

* In case you were wondering the term “orient” originally referred to the region now known as the Middle East.

Chop Suey

1/2 lbs pork cut into thin strips
1 Tbs dry sherry (or shao hsing if you have it)
2 tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp corn starch
white pepper

3/4 C chicken stock
1 tsp cornstarch

2 cloves garlic minced
1/2 stalk celery diced
1/2 onion diced
1/2 carrot shredded
3 button mushrooms cut into wedges
2 cabbage leaves cut into medium squares
10 sugar peas trimmed

1 package chow mein noodles
1 Tbs sesame oil

Marinate the pork in the shao hsing, oyster sauce, corn starch and white pepper for at least 1 hour. Add the chicken stock and 1 tsp of cornstarch to a bowl and stir to combine.

Heat a large pot of salted water and cook the chow mein noodles according to the package directions. When the noodles are done, drain and rinse then toss them in sesame oil to prevent them from sticking together.

Heat a wok or non-stick skillet over high heat until hot then add a splash of oil. Add the garlic and swirl around in the oil. Add the pork and fry until cooked. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Add some more oil if needed and fry the celery, onion, carrot, mushrooms and cabbage until they are all vibrant in color and mostly cooked. Add the sugar peas and cooked pork, then pour over the chicken stock mixture. Bring to a boil and allow the sauce to thicken.

Serve Chop Suey over the noodles, or rice if you prefer.

  • http://feedingmaybelle.blogspot.com/ maybelles mom

    I find it amazing how asian were portrayed in American film–really even today. There is the Peter Sellers being an Indian, Flower Drum Song, My Geisha… The Asian continues to be a strange minority both model and invisible and doesn’t fall into the mainstream of American cinema.

    But, as to the chop suey. Looks delicious.

  • http://feedingmaybelle.blogspot.com maybelles mom

    I find it amazing how asian were portrayed in American film–really even today. There is the Peter Sellers being an Indian, Flower Drum Song, My Geisha… The Asian continues to be a strange minority both model and invisible and doesn’t fall into the mainstream of American cinema.

    But, as to the chop suey. Looks delicious.

  • http://glutenfreegourmand.blogspot.com/2009/04/traditional-italian-pasta-carbonara.html Gina – The Gluten-Free Gourman

    I was mystified the first time I saw a black-and-white movie that had an Asian character. An Asian woman was being played by a white actress with black hair, probably dyed. I was young when I saw it, and it took me most of the movie to figure out that she was supposed to be Chinese. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t just get an Asian actress. That would have been so much more clear!

    When I think of Chop Suey, I think of the Edward Hopper Painting of the same name as the dish. The figures in it are white people eating Chop Suey at a Chinese restaurant. I read that this dish was very popular among white people in the 30’s.

    If I make it with rice noodles, is it still Chop Suey? Thanks for the recipe! I’ve never made this dish before. Now I know how. I like the fact that you are staying “true to the inauthenticity of American Chop Suey” for this movie. It’s very appropriate!

    • marc

      Actually it’s usually served with rice. I’m just more of a noodle person. I think it would go great with rice noodles or those clear “glass” noodles.

  • http://glutenfreegourmand.blogspot.com/2009/04/traditional-italian-pasta-carbonara.html Gina – The Gluten-Free Gourmand

    I was mystified the first time I saw a black-and-white movie that had an Asian character. An Asian woman was being played by a white actress with black hair, probably dyed. I was young when I saw it, and it took me most of the movie to figure out that she was supposed to be Chinese. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t just get an Asian actress. That would have been so much more clear!

    When I think of Chop Suey, I think of the Edward Hopper Painting of the same name as the dish. The figures in it are white people eating Chop Suey at a Chinese restaurant. I read that this dish was very popular among white people in the 30’s.

    If I make it with rice noodles, is it still Chop Suey? Thanks for the recipe! I’ve never made this dish before. Now I know how. I like the fact that you are staying “true to the inauthenticity of American Chop Suey” for this movie. It’s very appropriate!

    • marc

      Actually it’s usually served with rice. I’m just more of a noodle person. I think it would go great with rice noodles or those clear “glass” noodles.

  • http://www.whatdoiwant2cooktoday.blogspot.com/ Jan

    Oooh now I want to make this – it looks really delish!!
    Working till Thursday so will have to make it then.
    Great picture as always!

  • http://www.whatdoiwant2cooktoday.blogspot.com Jan

    Oooh now I want to make this – it looks really delish!!
    Working till Thursday so will have to make it then.
    Great picture as always!

  • http://alotonmyplate.blogspot.com/ Zabeena

    Hi Marc!
    I’m glad you commented on this aspect of the film. I saw an interview with the director on youtube, and he said how much he regretted the decision to have Rooney play Mr. Yunioshi.Quite rightly so. One squirms during his scenes; it nearly spoils the film.
    Brilliant choice of dish, it looks yummy!

  • http://alotonmyplate.blogspot.com/ Zabeena

    Hi Marc!
    I’m glad you commented on this aspect of the film. I saw an interview with the director on youtube, and he said how much he regretted the decision to have Rooney play Mr. Yunioshi.Quite rightly so. One squirms during his scenes; it nearly spoils the film.
    Brilliant choice of dish, it looks yummy!

  • http://colloquialcookin.canalblog.com/ Colloquial Cook

    [pling pling] Ooo dream maker, you heart breaker, whatever you’re chopping, I’m coming your waaaay [pling pling]

  • http://colloquialcookin.canalblog.com Colloquial Cook

    [pling pling] Ooo dream maker, you heart breaker, whatever you’re chopping, I’m coming your waaaay [pling pling]

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com/ Manggy

    Tusk tusk, Marc. This has a glaring omission: the canned crispy noodles! ;) Thank you for your commentary on the film. I never thought of chop suey as the yellowface analogy of food, but thanks for putting it that way :)

  • http://manggy.blogspot.com Manggy

    Tusk tusk, Marc. This has a glaring omission: the canned crispy noodles! ;) Thank you for your commentary on the film. I never thought of chop suey as the yellowface analogy of food, but thanks for putting it that way :)

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com/ Peter G

    Interesting to note how you made this dish and related it to “Breakfast at Tiffanys!”…I think it’s a great statement Marc. And your chop suey looks authentic too!

  • http://souvlakiforthesoul.com Peter G

    Interesting to note how you made this dish and related it to “Breakfast at Tiffanys!”…I think it’s a great statement Marc. And your chop suey looks authentic too!

  • The Little Teochew

    LOL. You will not be able to find “Chop Suey” on any menu in Asia ;)

    • Richa

      But that’s not true! I am from Nepal and we have it in every menu here. The only difference is that it has been adapted to a Nepali style :-)

  • http://thelittleteochew@blogspot.com The Little Teochew

    LOL. You will not be able to find “Chop Suey” on any menu in Asia ;)

  • http://www.culinarydisaster.com/wordpress Jeff

    You had me doubting you for awhile about the whole Breakfast at Tiffany to chop suey but you managed to pull it together. Also, in the process taught me something new. To me it is so amazing that even in the last 50 years (which is really no time) how much has changed. I can see that when we get together as a family and grandpa, dad, and brother are talking. They all have different viewpoints and different perceptions based upon the time they were raised.

    Oh yeah I guess the dish looks good to ;-) Awesome job as always!

  • http://www.culinarydisaster.com/wordpress Jeff

    You had me doubting you for awhile about the whole Breakfast at Tiffany to chop suey but you managed to pull it together. Also, in the process taught me something new. To me it is so amazing that even in the last 50 years (which is really no time) how much has changed. I can see that when we get together as a family and grandpa, dad, and brother are talking. They all have different viewpoints and different perceptions based upon the time they were raised.

    Oh yeah I guess the dish looks good to ;-) Awesome job as always!

  • http://cookappeal.blogspot.com/ Chef E

    I too have read that it started due to the railways, and it was a way to feed the locals who wanted to eat a version of their cuisine, so they threw it all together, and I know so many people who love this dish…nice on your end too!

  • http://cookappeal.blogspot.com/ Chef E

    I too have read that it started due to the railways, and it was a way to feed the locals who wanted to eat a version of their cuisine, so they threw it all together, and I know so many people who love this dish…nice on your end too!

  • http://www.foodgal.com/ Carolyn Jung

    I remember cringing in the theater when I first saw “Breakfast of Tiffany’s” at an Audrey Hepburn revival a couple decades ago. But you’re right — it is a great barometer to show just how times have changed. Your recipe is, too. Chop suey always makes me think of gloppy bean-sprout laden dishes crowned with those crispy La Choy fried chow mein noodles. Yours, happily, is a far cry from that, and epitomizes the fresh and healthy way we eat now.

  • http://www.foodgal.com Carolyn Jung

    I remember cringing in the theater when I first saw “Breakfast of Tiffany’s” at an Audrey Hepburn revival a couple decades ago. But you’re right — it is a great barometer to show just how times have changed. Your recipe is, too. Chop suey always makes me think of gloppy bean-sprout laden dishes crowned with those crispy La Choy fried chow mein noodles. Yours, happily, is a far cry from that, and epitomizes the fresh and healthy way we eat now.

  • http://duodishes.com/ The Duo Dishes

    Chop suey with noodles is the preference. So tasty that way!

  • http://duodishes.com The Duo Dishes

    Chop suey with noodles is the preference. So tasty that way!

  • http://cheffresco.com/ Cheffresco

    Looks delicious! What’s shao?

    • marc

      Shao Hsing is a type of Chinese cooking wine. It’s pretty similar to sherry so if you don’t have it you can substitute sherry instead.

  • http://cheffresco.com Cheffresco

    Looks delicious! What’s shao?

    • marc

      Shao Hsing is a type of Chinese cooking wine. It’s pretty similar to sherry so if you don’t have it you can substitute sherry instead.

  • http://passionforeating.blogspot.com/ Kristen

    This is such an improvement over the version my mom used to make! I think I will give it a go, looks fresh & what? None of that canned rubbish we used to eat as kids? Thank God!

  • http://passionforeating.blogspot.com Kristen

    This is such an improvement over the version my mom used to make! I think I will give it a go, looks fresh & what? None of that canned rubbish we used to eat as kids? Thank God!

  • http://www.sugarbar.org/ diva

    very interesting post! it got me thinking about American Chinese food and British Chinese food and how it all changes from country to country.

  • http://www.sugarbar.org diva

    very interesting post! it got me thinking about American Chinese food and British Chinese food and how it all changes from country to country.

  • http://thesplitpea.blogspot.com/ Eralda

    Great entry! And I like it that the ingredients you used are ones that were available back then. It’s amazing what happens when food crosses borders.

  • http://thesplitpea.blogspot.com Eralda

    Great entry! And I like it that the ingredients you used are ones that were available back then. It’s amazing what happens when food crosses borders.

  • http://rasamalaysia.com/ Rasa Malaysia

    Marc – this is the recipe that I don’t even know how to attempt. 1) I have never had one in my life, and not in the US, lucky?! 2) I can never figure out what choy suey means in Chinese, meaning can’t think of the Chinese words of chop suey. Here is what I think about Chinese food in America, at least we are trying to teach people the “better” and “proper” way to make them. :)

  • http://rasamalaysia.com Rasa Malaysia

    Marc – this is the recipe that I don’t even know how to attempt. 1) I have never had one in my life, and not in the US, lucky?! 2) I can never figure out what choy suey means in Chinese, meaning can’t think of the Chinese words of chop suey. Here is what I think about Chinese food in America, at least we are trying to teach people the “better” and “proper” way to make them. :)

  • http://stickygooeycreamychewy.blogspot.com/ Susan at Sticky,Gooey,Creamy,C

    Very insightful post, Marc. While there still is a long way to go, it is good to see how far society has come regarding racial and ethnic stereotypes.

    Your Chop Suey looks terrific! It’s fresh and light with lots of vibrant colors and textures. A far cry from my neighborhood take-out joint!

  • http://stickygooeycreamychewy.blogspot.com Susan at Sticky,Gooey,Creamy,Chewy

    Very insightful post, Marc. While there still is a long way to go, it is good to see how far society has come regarding racial and ethnic stereotypes.

    Your Chop Suey looks terrific! It’s fresh and light with lots of vibrant colors and textures. A far cry from my neighborhood take-out joint!

  • http://gottafindmypurpose.blogspot.com/ Katie

    Given what you wrote about the history of chop suey and your general interest in the history of food, I think you’d really enjoy Jennifer 8. Lee’s talk about hunting for General Tsao on Ted.com (if you haven’t already seen it). Check it out here: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jennifer_8_lee_looks_for_general_tso.html

  • http://gottafindmypurpose.blogspot.com Katie

    Given what you wrote about the history of chop suey and your general interest in the history of food, I think you’d really enjoy Jennifer 8. Lee’s talk about hunting for General Tsao on Ted.com (if you haven’t already seen it). Check it out here: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jennifer_8_lee_looks_for_general_tso.html

  • Stacey

    We have this at every big family gathering with beef pieces or turkey tails and vermicelli yum yum yum soy sauce, oyster sauce….

  • Stacey

    We have this at every big family gathering with beef pieces or turkey tails and vermicelli yum yum yum soy sauce, oyster sauce….

  • alice

    it means mixed food. chop (zchap) “mixed/varied” and suey (shong) “food/dishes”

  • Melinda

    Looks good.But the Philippine version of chop suey is the best because it consist of different kinds of vegetables…..like cabbage,green beans, sayotes,celery,carrots. cauliflowers, snow peas,green and red peppers and then saute in shrimp,chicken meat,liver,gizzard or with pork. eat it with rice or noodles.

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  • Jie

    Tried the chopsuey recipe….my family loved it!!!
    Thank you and more power.

  • UncleBucky

    If it tastes good, eat it! Chop suey, Gen. Tso, KFC style chicken… whatever. Be happy, that’s the point!

  • William Nash

    Chop suey, (literally “assortment of pieces”), is as different in contents and style as it appears on different American Chinese restaurant menus. I grew up in the Intermountain West where the Intercontinental Railroad finally hooked the east with the west coasts. The version found on most menus in that part of the country once were exclusively stir fried tiny slices of meat or seafood with vegetables, then snow peas and handfuls of fresh bean sprouts were thrown in last until heated throughly. It was very crisp and quite healthy main dish. Using noodles instead of bean sprouts was simply Chow Mein. Since most of the old Chinese restaurants have gone out of business it’s rare to find this variety of “Chop Suey.” Now it’s all fusion asian and no one remembers how to cook with bean sprouts. The recipe found here works very well at replicating what I grew up eating in those old western Chinese restaurants as long as I just omit any rice or noodles and replace with lots of fresh bean sprouts. It’s light, flavorful, and not overwhelmed with heavy sugar-loaded sauces. For me, using rice or lo mein makes the dish too heavy. After all, there are carbohydrates and then “good” carbohydrates.

  • TexanForever

    I’m now in my 80’s and I grew up on this stuff. Some version of it was usually on the menu of department store lunch counters (remember them?) or the local China Clipper Cafe of the ’50’s. The main ingredients were bean sprouts, a little celery, perhaps some cabbage, mushrooms, a few slivers of carrots (for color), some thin slices of pork and/or chicken, maybe some parsley and/or a few sweet peas, some onions and/or garlic, perhaps several snow peas and/or mushrooms, white pepper, and starch for thickening. …

    That said, the main “secret” ingredient that most people don’t remember is a pinch of GINGER. (Not too much, just a hint.) Regardless of the combination of veggies you use, ginger is the critical seasoning that makes it taste “right.” Celery is also critical. I spent several years trying to reverse-engineer into the correct combination before stumbling onto a reference to ginger, then it all fell into place.

    The new generation of real Chinese immigrants that have come to America with the authentic modern Chinese dishes have no idea what you’re talking about when you ask for “American style chop suey or chow mein.

  • chineserecipes.baobaotown.com

    looks Yummy, and have great nutrtion!! great recipes great share~~

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