Chop Suey and Chow Mein in Chinese Cuisine

Chicken Chop Suey
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Chow mein is definitely one of the signature dishes of Chinese cuisine but chop suey is more like Western meets Eastern fusion food. I personally had heard of chop suey from American TV when I lived in Taiwan but I have never eaten it. Also because I’m based in the UK, I don’t even know of anywhere here that serves chop suey but then I don’t really go to Chinese restaurants or takeaways often for very obvious reasons.

Even if I were to go, I don’t think chop suey would be that high up on my list of things to try.

On the other, chow mein is considered to be a more authentic Chinese dish. At least I have been eating chow main all my life and when I lived in Shanghai and visited my relatives in different Chinese provinces I could still see chow mein in local restaurants and on their menus.

There are many different version of the story of Chop Suey but it’s wildly believed to have been invented in America by Chinese Americans. A very famous tale of chop suey is people believed this dish was created during the Qing Dynasty by Premier Li Hong Zhang, a Chinese diplomat and politician who visited America. Because he wasn’t used to eating Western food, he got his chef to use both Asian and Western ingredients to make the first chop suey.

Another story about Chop Suey is Li Hong Zhang wandered into a local Chinese restaurant after the hotel kitchen had closed and the chef of the local Chinese restaurant felt embarrassed that he hand nothing to serve Li.

So the chef came up with this “new dish” which was made up of the scraps of leftover ingredients.

Entertaining as these stories may be, the origins of chop suey may actually lie in the country side of Southern China. Southern China was the home of many Chinese American immigrants and according to anthropologist E.

N. Anderson, the idea of combining leftover vegetables and noodles into a single, stir-fried dish originated in Toisan, a rural area south of Guangdong. Since many of the original immigrants to the United States were from this region, they naturally prepared the type of food they were familiar with.

The historical background of chow mein is far less mysterious. Chow mein, or “fried noodles” originated in Northern China. While the chow mein served in take-outs and many American Chinese restaurants is designed to appeal to Western tastes, it is based on an authentic Chinese dish. Until relatively recently, many perceptions of Chinese food were based on early Chinese immigrants who came primarily from the Guangzhou region in Southern China. Guangzhou is well known for it’s Cantonese style food so since they ate rice, Westerners just assumed all Chinese people eat and sweet and sour dishes. However, rice is not the staple crop in the north, so in a way you could say noodles and chow mein represents a small part of the food culture of Northern China.

There are so many different type of the Chinese food out there and they are all equally delicious. Chinese food does have sweet and sour, black bean sauce, lemon chicken and so forth but this is only a tiny part of Chinese cuisine.

In the Kitchen:

Besides being easy to make, both these dishes are very adaptable. Like all Chinese food, what makes chop suey and chow mein memorable is not the specific ingredients so much as the balance between grains and vegetables. I often make them when I want to clean out the refrigerator before the vegetables go stale or you can use any ingredients you can get from your local supermarket/market.

While it’s preferable to have a wok, both these dishes can be made in a frying pan. I‘ve included several recipes to give you an idea of how much flexibility you have in deciding precisely what goes into each dish. And don’t be afraid to make

recipes to give you an idea of how much flexibility you have in deciding precisely what goes into each dish. And don’t be afraid to make substitutions if you don’t have all the ingredients called for in a particular recipe.

One final tip: don’t make both dishes on the same night - you’ll be eating leftovers for the next week!