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.

3 comments:

888 said...
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OysterCulture said...

I look forward to reading more of your account that Leela provided via Twitter. I've read both Jennifer 8 Lee's and Andy Coe's books, and found the subject very interesting. Thanks for doing all the research so I can focus on the results.

johnswift67 said...

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