Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chop Suey: Chinese Cuisine's Prodigal Son

Chop suey was nothing less than the poster child for Chinese-American food in the mid-Twentieth Century. Iconized in art (Edward Hopper) and song (Flower Drum Song), it was also the signature offering of many Chinese-American restaurants, judging from their signage, which displayed "Chop Suey" more prominently than the restaurant's name. The origins of chop suey have been extensively studied by Jacqueline Newman (at least two articles in Flavor & Fortune Magazine), Jennifer 8 Lee (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles) and by Andrew Coe in a new book named, yes, Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the Unided States, among others. Although evidence has been uncovered that chop suey has an antecedent in a south China dish named za sui ("mixed remnants") consisting of stir-fried chicken gizzards and other offal, something in our collective psyche seems to want it to be of American invention, our contribution to global Chinese cuisine. Several different stories have been cited to validate chop suey's American invention, the most accepted of which revolves around a traveling Chinese statesman named Li Hongzhang, of whom more below.

In researching another Chinese culinary mystery, namely why Anhui cuisine is named as one of China's "Eight Great Culinary Traditions" I kept coming across references to a dish named "Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch." This dish is usually listed as one of the four or five landmark dishes of Anhui cuisine, and one source describes the dish as follows:

Li Hongzhang hotchpotch is a popular dish named after one of Anhui's famous personages. Li Hongzhang was a top official of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 AD). When he was in office, he paid a visit to the US and hosted a banquet for all his American friends. As the specially prepared dishes continued to flow, the chefs, with limited resources, began to fret. Upon Li Hongzhang's order, the remaining kitchen ingredients were thrown together into an impromptu stew, containing sea cucumber, squid, tofu, ham, mushroom, chicken meat and other less identifiable food materials! Thus appetites were quenched and a dish was created.

"Li Hongzhang Hotchpotch," it is immediately evident, is the very dish we call "chop suey." So, an obscure dish with humble origins in China is reinvented and achieves fame abroad as the ultimate in adaptive cuisine, and then the land of its reputed creator is proud to welcome it home and bask in its reflected glory.

Go figure.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Did the Chinese invent the Turducken?

If you've listened to football broadcaster John Madden around Thanksgiving, or even if you haven't, you may know about "turducken." That's a mashup of the words "turkey," "duck," and "chicken" and the name of an over-the top Thanksgiving specialty. The turducken consists of a turkey stuffed with a duck, which is in turn stuffed with a chicken, all of the creatures having been first deboned. The chicken, in its turn is also stuffed with some form of conventional stuffing. According to the Wikipedia entry for turducken, this delicacy was apparently invented in Louisiana, possibly even by the legendary Paul Prudhomme. One shop in Louisiana prepares around 5,000 turduckens per week around Thanksgiving, and they are even available by mail order.

Surely such a monument to meat could only be born in America, or some other Western nation prone to fresser excess, right? Well not exactly. As every wise person knows everything originated in China, and could turducken be any exception?

While searching recently for information on the eats in Zhengzhou, Henan Province (where a friend has invited me to visit), I came across references to "taosibao" (套四宝), or "four treasures wrap." This was not some kind of Chinese burrito but, according to an introduction to the food of Henan I found on the web, a dish that existed at least as long ago as the Qing Dynasty:

The dish is famous for integrating chicken, duck, dove and quail that represent strong, fragrant, fresh and wild flavor respectively. The four birds are combined with the bigger containing the small ones, which are as a whole without any bone. Being placed in a fine pottery soup bowl with blue patterns, the dinners can only see a whole duck floating in the soup. After eating up the delicious duck, they will find a fragrant whole chicken. Eating up the chicken, they will again find a delicious whole dove in front of them. Finally, they will find a quail which is also as a whole and stuffed with sea cucumber puddings, shredded fragrant mushroom, and water soaked bamboo slice.
Well, it's not exactly a turducken, as no turkeys were apparently to be had, but the dish outdoes a turducken by having four birds telescoped into one instead of three. If a turkey had been available, you can rest assured that it would have formed a fifth layer of a "套五宝."

How does a taosibao go down? According to the same article, "
The dish contains several tastes, is neither fatty nor greasy and is tasty and refreshing. The customers praise that the course is strong, delicious, and nutritious so that the aftertaste is continuous." In other words, it's a gift that keeps on giving.