Over the centuries, American-Chinese food has become an indisputably different animal from that of its home country.
This article from History Today untangles the history of “chop suey,” a fried meat-and-mixed-vegetable dish that became synonymous with Americanized Chinese food — so much so that it was rumored to be an entirely American invention altogether.
Long story short, the dish is of Chinese origin — likely from the Taishan region in Guangdong province, from where most of the Chinese immigrants to the U.S. hailed during the century following the California Gold Rush, when they were hired to work on the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Chinese Exclusion: Celebrating the Workers Who Helped Build the Transcontinental Railway
Written in Mandarin as za sui (杂碎), or tsap seui in Cantonese, the term can be loosely translated to “odds and ends.” But while in California these immigrants encountered little more than persistent racism and alienation, it wasn’t until they began moving to New York that their cuisine at least began to catch on with the surrounding community.
Author Alexander Lee attributes it to the fact that most New Yorkers lived in abject poverty at the time, and Chinese food — delicious meals often sold at around 1 USD a pop — provided the best bang for their buck. He writes:
“Generally known to New Yorkers as ‘chow-chop-sui’, it soon attracted the curiosity of those further up the social scale. Though comparatively few were tempted to try it, those who did were intrigued. In 1886, the journalist Allan Forman noted that, despite its ‘mysterious nature’, it was a ‘toothsome stew’; and nine years later, the first recipe appeared in Good Housekeeping, albeit with some rather un-Chinese ingredients thrown in.”
Chop suey — and the restaurants that served it — would go on to embody a strange paradox of dangerously cheap eats and and “urbane sophistication.” Read the full article for this strange but true story.
And for more information on how Chinese cuisine evolved back out west, check out our Chinese Takeout article charting the development of Chinese food in LA’s San Gabriel Valley.
Chinese Takeout: A Dining Upheaval in LA’s San Gabriel Valley
Header image: Pixabay
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