Apple pie, fried chicken, hamburgers and chop suey. The last dish might seem out of place in that list of great American food classics, but we’d wager that a hot plate of chop suey is just about as American as it gets. Though once as ubiquitous as the egg roll, chop suey has nearly disappeared from restaurant menus, a victim of evolving tastes and its own questionably “authentic” pedigree.
Though nobody knows for sure, some say that chop suey first appeared in the United States during the 1840s in San Francisco. The Gold Rush was on, and Chinese laborers flooded the city to take advantage of the bustling economy. As soon as enough immigrants warranted it, Chinese restaurants began springing up; the first one, Macao and Woosung, opened its doors in 1849. According to legend, it was there that, late one night, a band of drunken miners stumbled in and demanded food. The exhausted owner went back into the kitchen, scraped old food off previous customers’ plates and onto new ones, doused the mess in soy sauce and presented it to his carousing clients. The miners were so impressed with the food that they returned the next night for more “shap sui,” which means “mixed pieces” or “odds and ends” in Cantonese.
No matter how it first came about, chop suey houses became a huge fad on the American dining scene. Entire restaurants were dedicated to variations on the dish, from pineapple chop suey to subgum chicken. The craze reached its heyday in the 1950s, with multiple canned and packaged varieties appearing on the scene for busy homemakers. But by the 1960s, thanks to influential figures like Julia Child, James Beard and Craig Claiborne, Americans began to search for authenticity and uniqueness in food. Chop suey was pushed aside in favor of Peking duck and potstickers, and a once-favored dish was relegated to the history books.
Lucky for us, it’s easy to fire up the culinary time machine and make a terrific chop suey at home. Since it originated in leftovers, it’s a great way to use up whatever’s in the fridge on a lazy evening in. Our version uses cooked chicken, pork or beef, with lightly cooked celery adding some crunch and carrots and red peppers lending some color. Don’t be intimidated by the list of specialty ingredients: Chinese cooking wine and Thai chili paste are available in the Asian sections of most well-stocked supermarkets, and they add a great flavor boost to all your Asian dishes.
HOMEMADE CHOP SUEY
Start to finish: 35 minutes
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup sliced scallions
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 cups sliced Napa cabbage
2 stalks sliced celery
1 8-ounce can bamboo shoots, drained and thinly sliced
2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms
3/4 teaspoon sugar
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon Thai chili paste
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon Chinese cooking wine or mirin
2 cups cooked chicken, pork or beef
2 cups cooked white rice
Chopped cilantro and sesame seeds for garnish (optional)
In a large nonstick pan or wok, heat the canola oil over medium high heat. Add the scallions and garlic and sauté until softened. Add the Napa cabbage, celery, bamboo shoots and mushrooms, and cook until the cabbage has wilted, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the sugar, chicken broth, soy sauce, chili paste and sesame oil and cook for 3 additional minutes, or until the liquids have come to a boil. Add the cornstarch mixture to thicken the sauce, and the meat to heat through. Serve the chop suey on top of the rice with the chopped cilantro and sesame seeds to garnish.