The Chop Suey Story
Lovo, vakalolo, rou rou and chop suey. The last dish might seem out of place in that list of traditional Fijian classics, but a sizzling hot plate of chop suey is just about as Fijian as it gets. Our Fiji-Chinese cuisine is a remnant of a rich migration of Chinese settlers who either arrived directly from Southern China or via Australia. Although chop suey has all but disappeared from Chinese restaurants around the world because of evolving tastes and competing cuisines, Fiji and many South Pacific nations still love and enjoy this classic dish of diced up meats and vegetables in gravy those settlers brought to the region in the 19th century. The origins of chop suey can be traced back to the Chinese diaspora during the mid to late 1800s, as waves of immigrants were drawn by gold rush fever across the colonies. They stowed aboard the British Empire ships headed to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America and North America. Most of those seeking their fortune came from the South China coast’s Pearl River Delta and particularly the town of Toishan via the nearby port of Guangzhou. It has served as a doorway for foreign influence since the third century and was the first Chinese port to be regularly visited by European traders, who called it Canton. British ships returning to Guangzhou with stories of new discoveries of gold further encouraged Chinese traders, cooks, carpenters and tailors to join the global gold rush. As the Chinese eventually settled into their new country, their unique style of cooking soon caught the attention of their European masters. To be Chinese in a Western country during this period was fraught with dangers from violent racism and social isolationism. However, the Chinese prowess with cooking a dish from barely any ingredients would help bridge that racial divide. One of the first and most enduring dishes was called “chow chop suey” – or fried bits and pieces. 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. For the Chinese newcomers, they could barely afford the luxuries of meats and fresh vegetables. They lived off the cheap animal off-
cuts of gizzards, livers, stomach and tripe. The traditional chop suey in those days was a toothsome stew of various animal parts, leftovers and cheap vegetables; sometimes taken from the garbage bins of restaurants and butchers. Most often than not, you wouldn’t know what animal the diced meat and offal came from. The use of cheap and discarded ingredients also meant that a plate of chop suey with rice was affordable for the curious European gold diggers. Yet despite its mystery contents, the delicious, silky, thick gravy made from cornstarch, stock and wine was an immediate winner. By the turn of the century, chop suey had made its way around the world. In the U.S. and Australia, chop suey became an exotic cuisine – a taste of the mysterious Far East. However by the 1960s and 70s, chop suey had become a cheap familiar food that was getting boring and tired. It was also becoming apparent that the chop suey recipe that became so famous globally wasn’t exactly a classic Chinese dish. The sweetened version with its thick gravy was an invention born out of the gold rush era and Chinese cooks adapting a wok-fried dish to Western tastebuds. According to one American legend of chop suey, one late night, a band of drunken miners stumbled into a Chinese tea house in the mid 1800s 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. Another origin story describes Chinese ambassador to New York, Li Hung Chang’s cooks inventing the dish for his American guests at a dinner on August 29, 1896. Composed of celery, bean sprouts, and meat in a tasty sauce, the dish was supposedly created to satisfy both Chinese and American tastes. No matter how it first came about, chop suey houses became a huge fad on the American dining scene, and after World War 2 spread to many of the American outposts including Australia and the South Pacific. 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 chefs like Julia Child and James Beard, Americans began to search for authenticity and uniqueness in Asian food. Chop suey was pushed aside in favor of Kung Pao Chicken, Peking duck and potstickers, and a once-favoured dish was relegated to the history books – overseas. Lucky for us, Fiji is like a culinary time machine when it comes to food and the ubiquitous chop suey is well and truly alive in local restaurants and some resorts. Cooking Chinese at home was once a big mystery but with supermarkets stocking more Asian sauces, dry goods and cooking equipment, preparing chop suey at home has gotten a lot easier. Since it originated in leftovers, it’s a great way to use up whatever’s in the fridge or yard. Don’t be intimidated by the list of specialty ingredients that are typical of chop suey such as Chinese cooking wine, sesame oil and chicken booster that add a great flavour boost to all your Asian dishes. But what sets a really good chop suey apart from an ordinary stir fry? It’s all in the gravy. A well seasoned, slow-cooked stock, Chinese wine and sugar combine with a slurry of corn starch and water to create one of the original Western-Chinese fusion dishes that has endured for two centuries. Despite its disappearance on the world culinary scene, I hope that chop suey will be around for another few centuries in the South Pacific.
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LANCE SEETO is a multi award-winning chef, media personality & food writer. He is currently the head chef at Malamala Beach Club, Fiji