The Chop Suey Story

mailife - - Contents - Words and pho­tos by LANCE SEETO

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

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