What is chop suey? In Chinese, the two characters for chop suey are pronounced "tsa sui" in Mandarin or in Cantonese "shap sui," meaning "mixed small bits" or "odds and ends." As a culinary term, shap sui refers to a kind of stew made of many different ingredients mixed together. Shap sui probably first came to the United States with the waves of Chinese immigrants drawn to the California gold fields. Most came from the South China coast’s Pearl River Delta and particularly the town of Toishan. In the 1870s, the Chinese were pushed from the American West by racial violence, migrating to cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. There Americans first noticed a dish called "chow-chop-suey."
New York's first Chinese restaurants caught the attention of a group of artists and writers called the Bohemians. In the 1880s, a few of them ventured down to Mott Street to eat:
"Chow-chop suey was the first dish we attacked. It is a toothsome stew, composed of bean sprouts, chicken’s gizzards and livers, calfe’s tripe, dragon fish, dried and imported from China, pork, chicken, and various other ingredients which I was unable to make out."
To their surprise, they enjoyed the experience:
"The meal was not only novel, but it was good, and to cap the climax the bill was only sixty-three cents!"
Soon thousands of non-Chinese were regularly making the trip to Mott Street to eat chop suey. Chinese restaurateurs also opened eateries outside of Chinatown, serving food adapted to the tastes of largely non-Chinese customers. Chop suey was standardized into a stew of easily identifiable meats cooked with bean sprouts, onions, celery, and bamboo shoots. By the 1920s, the dish had spread across the United States, becoming as popular as hot dogs and apple pie.
However, rumors spread that chop suey wasn’t really Chinese at all. Tales circulated that it was concocted by a San Francisco Chinese boardinghouse cook using scraps retrieved from the garbage. The "experts" who recounted these stories were usually Chinese diplomats or students for whom this Toishanese peasant food didn’t seem “Chinese” at all.
Chinese-American food peaked in the 1950s, the era of "one from column A and two from column B" family dinners.
Chop suey was now cheap, familiar comfort food. It was also getting tired. Chefs had been preparing chop suey for so long that they no longer cared about the results. Chinese-American restaurants slowly lost market share to pizza joints and fast food hamburger stands. In big cities, gourmets preferred the new Chinese restaurants serving Peking duck or the fiery dishes of Sichuan. And then in 1972 President Nixon went to Beijing, and Americans decided they wanted to taste the "real" food of China. "Fake" chop suey was a thing of the past.
Today, dishes like Kung Pao shrimp and chicken with broccoli (that are just as "real" as chop suey) rule Chinese restaurant menus. Chop suey is almost as dead as vaudeville, probably beyond revival. But if you go down to Chinatown, find a Toishanese chef, and convince him that you want Chinese-style shap sui, you will discover that it can be a toothsome stew.