Chop suey is unknown to most Chinese other than those from Kwantung Province. However, it was this cheap and simple dish that became the icon of Chinese food in the U.S. before the advent of new Chinese immigration beginning in 1965. But why was it chop suey that became so important out of the rich repertoire of Chinese cuisine? What was the social and cultural context that facilitated the popularity of chop suey?
Chop suey first made its presence felt in the U S in the late 19th century. At that time, under the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were expelled from lucrative jobs and forced to enter the service sector. Many Chinese chose to work in the restaurant industry. Due to the decline of Chinese customers after the Exclusion Act was passed, Chinese restaurateurs had to court customers from outside the Chinese community. Chop suey was a stir-fried mixture that originally included chicken gizzards and liver, pig’s tripe, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, etc. “Chop suey” means animal intestines in Cantonese. In order to attract American customers, Chinese restauranteurs needed to adapt their food to American eating preferences and avoid offending the American palate. “Controversial” food items needed to be removed in order to gain recognition by mainstream American customers. Thus, when chop suey appeared in Chinese restaurants serving American clientele, meat usually took the place of intestines, which were often perceived as “inedible” in America, and celery and onions were usually added. In this way, this dish took a new form in America. Chop suey might have a country origin from Kwantung Province, but it is generally considered an American creation. Chop suey, which was not only agreeable to the American palate, but also full of exotic flavors, won the hearts of many American eaters. It satisfied American eaters by providing them with a cheap and convenient culinary alternative, as well as with the feeling of “eating the cultural other.” Very quickly, it became a well-known dish to Americans. Thanks to the popularity of chop suey, “chop suey houses” were established in large numbers in big cities like San Francisco and New York. The New York Times exclaimed in 1900 that “judging from the outbreak of Chinese restaurants all over town, the city has gone ‘chop suey’ mad.”
Chop suey was so popular that customers even requested it at non-Chinese restaurants. In the 1920s, food companies like “La Choy” began to produce canned chop suey ingredients. And mainstream cookbooks and women’s magazines began to give recipes for chop suey, as well as other popular Chinese dishes. This made it much easier to prepare Chinese food in non-Chinese restaurants as well as in Chinese restaurants operated by non-Chinese restaurateurs. Furthermore, this made the Americans who developed an interest in chop suey from their dining experience in Chinese restaurants capable of preparing Chinese food in their home kitchens. During the Second World War, chop suey and chow mein were served as army food. Veterans who had acquired a taste for Oriental food during the war created a demand for such food when they came home. An Italian-American entrepreneur, Jeno Paulucci, capitalized on the opportunity and founded the brand “Chun King”. Paulucci’s company manufactured prepackaged Chinese food such as canned chow mein and chop suey. Mass-production of Chinese food suggested that Americans incorporated chop suey and chow mein into their daily diets.
Why did the simple and humble dish chop suey become the icon of Chinese food? Seeing Chinese as an inferior race, European Americans could not accept Chinese food as a high-class cuisine. They were unwilling to spend a lot of money on dishes that seemed strange and even challenging to them. Thus, only a few number of selected Chinese dishes appeared on restaurant menus. These dishes were usually highly adapted to the Western palate and relatively cheap in price. In this way, sophisticated Chinese cuisine, which is famous for its great variety, was reduced to cheap food for the satisfaction of European Americans. Unlike previous scholars who usually view the acceptance of “chop suey houses” by American society as a suspension of racial prejudice when it came to eating, I see Chinese restaurants in this early period as a reflection of white supremacy. Through consuming the exotic Other and shaping it into the way they expected, American white society manifested a tendency of cultural appropriation and cultural colonialism of other races within the American borders. The racial relation between the mainstream and the Chinese community before 1965 can be reflected well by food.
The situation didn’t change until the arrival of new immigrants in the latter half of the 20th century. When new Chinese immigrants brought new types of Chinese food to the U.S., chop suey gradually lost its historical attraction.