Are you SURE chop suey is Chinese?

Because I’ve always heard the dish was a hoax perpetrated on gullible Americans, writes reader Margie. Margie, you are definitely not the only one who’s heard the same thing. In fact this particular rumor about chop suey has a pedigree nearly as distinguished as chop suey itself.

It dates back to 1904 in fact. That was the year that a Chinese cook by the name of Lem Sen hired a New York attorney to help him prosecute all the many thousands of Chinese restauranteurs in America who, he claimed, had stolen his recipe. So he said chop suey was a dish he’d invented in his restaurant in San Francisco, only few months before Li Hung Chang’s momentous visit to the US. It was an ersatz Chinese concoction made up to please American patrons. But then it took off — and Lem wanted both credit and compensation. Few people in the know believed Lem at the time, but the idea that chop suey wasn’t Chinese went Victorian-viral. The question so many food writers and historians have asked ever since is: why?

I believe I know the reason why most Americans were only too happy to believe such a thing. We foodies tend to go through three distinct phases when a new food trend comes along. Stage 1 is fascination and wonder at the whatever-it-is that bursts onto the scene. That’s followed by 2, joy and exultation as we explore the metaphorical (or literal) undiscovered country. Succeeding rapidly is 3, elite condescension directed at all those who have yet to get on the bandwagon. It’s this third thing that really ticks off regular people, and for very understandable reasons.

It was the same way then as it is now. Hipster types getting excited about a new thing and lording it over ordinary people — who couldn’t wait to throw it back in their faces. See there you obnoxious foodie fops! You’re being had — and you’re too stupid to notice! It was a sort of sweet revenge that felt way too good to ever let go of, which is why it’s endured for so long.

2 thoughts on “Are you SURE chop suey is Chinese?”

  1. Hello Mr Joe Pastry,
    I was hoping I’d find the recipe for a bread my mum made when she worked in a bakery in Toronto in the late 70’s. It was called Chop Suey and had glanced fruit and nuts in it. At some point the dough was placed on the counter, eggs added and it was chopped into pieces. It didn’t look at all appetizing but boy was it delicious fresh out of the oven or toasted. Did you by any chance come across it and or have a recipe?

    I’m feeling for all kinds of things from my younger days and that led me to your scones. They’re the closest to our S African version. Thank you so much. I used Nestle cream in a tin. Not quite clotted cream, but closer to the density than whipped cream.

    I’ve spent hours on here reading. Thanks so much. It’s such a pleasure.

    Carmen

    1. Hey Carmen!

      I have heard of that! It’s called Chop Suey Loaf in my experience, and there are several recipes for it around if you search for it.

      But thanks so much for the kind words. I’m very glad the site has been useful to you. I get a lot of pleasure out of writing it!

      Cheers,

      – Joe

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