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Chop suey toss-up: American or Chinese

Updated on: 13 June,2024 09:58 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Shriram Iyengar |

Ahead of Chop Suey Day, we reach out to city chefs to understand the secret to this unique recipe that left a culinary and cultural imprint across the globe. Plus, a quick fire recipe, and places to savour the dish in Mumbai

Chop suey toss-up: American or Chinese

The dish was created by the Chinese chef Lem Sen in the Chinatown neighbourhood of San Francisco. Pics Courtesy/YouTube

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Chop suey toss-up: American or Chinese

Louis Armstrong sang paeans to it. Edward Hopper immortalised it on the canvas. Few dishes have enjoyed a cultural presence across genres as American chop suey. So much so that the dish has become a byword for a mish-mash in American culture, applying even to cinema. Born in the late 19th century, the dish finally found acceptance as an American creation on June 14, 1906. Ahead of the occasion tomorrow, chefs in Mumbai discuss why this ubiquitous dish has travelled the world.

Louis Armstrong

The simplest dish on the menu

It is very hard to go wrong with a chop suey. Although many say it is an American invention, it traces its roots to China. The words tsap tsui sometimes mean odds and ends cut up together. It basically evolved from leftover meat and vegetables put together with flavourful sauce, and served with rice or noodles. What made it popular was that it could be made with any combination of meat and vegetables.

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong

There are two types of chop suey — American and Chinese. The Chinese version is savoury, while the American version is sweet and sour, owing to the addition of ketchup. Interestingly, it is the American version that is quite popular among Indian patrons. We recently added a Szechuan version to our own kitchens.

While it is simple to make, the American chop suey requires a keen understanding of flavour balance. There is a combination of sauces involved, with sugar, salt, vinegar and ketchup coming into play. The balance of flavours has to be just right, or it can veer to being too sweet or too sour.

Huang Te Sing, corporate executive chef, The Oriental Blossom at Hotel Marine Plaza, Churchgate.

Balanced and easy

The chop suey (whether American or Chinese) is a popular dish with anyone who enjoys Indo-Chinese cuisine. It has also been a popular street food for decades, making it an all-time favourite amongst the elder generations. At its heart, it is a dish cooked in flavourful sauce and served with crispy noodles.

Artist Edward Hopper’s famous artwork, Chop Suey (1929). Pic Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons
Artist Edward Hopper’s famous artwork, Chop Suey (1929). Pic Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons

For any good American chop suey, the sauce needs to be well-balanced — savoury, slightly sweet but not overpowering. It should complement the rest of the ingredients and pull the dish together.

A well-prepared chop suey will have a variety of textures, with some ingredients being crisp and others more tender. If you want to enjoy it best, eat it immediately after it is made. That is when the flavours are at their peak, and the vegetables still have a crunch.

Neville Vazifdar, director, Kuai Kitchen, Bandra.

My favourite memory

American chop suey, from what I understand, is derived from pan fried noodles where you have a crisp noodle base topped with meat and vegetables in a sauce. My first memory was eating it at the now-shut Chopsticks restaurant, a family favourite, when I was probably four or five years old. The sweet and sour flavour and the combination of textures was like fireworks on your palate.

A good chop suey is defined by properly fried crispy noodles that somewhat hold their texture. The sauce must be the right balance of sweet and sour; it must have pineapple, and be topped with a sunny side up egg. Among the things to avoid: Don’t make the sauce too runny, or it will make your noodles soggy.

Chop suey by chef  Huang Te Sing with crispy noodles
Chop suey by chef  Huang Te Sing with crispy noodles

I think even though it’s disappearing, legacy restaurants continue to serve it because patrons enjoy it, and indulging in nostalgia once in a while is always welcome. One of my picks for American chop suey when eating out is China Garden at Kemps Corner or order it from Mr Chows. 

Chef Yajush Malik, partner, Gallops Restaurant

Try it at home

Vazifdar’s version of the popular chop suey
Vazifdar’s version of the popular chop suey

>> 1 onion
>> 1 green capsicum
>> 1 carrot
>> 1 cabbage
>> A few bean sprouts
>> 1 tomato
>> 10 tsp sweet and sour sauce
>> 10 tsp mandarin sauce
>> 10 ml oil to fry
>> Crispy noodles

Wok-toss all vegetables in oil, and then add sweet and sour sauce, mandarin sauce and vegetable stock. Cook for some time, and serve on crispy fried noodles.

Recipe courtesy Neville Vazifdar

Fill up on chop suey

>> China Garden
AT Om Chambers, Kemps Corner.
CALL 7900085881

>> The Asian Kitchen
AT Four Points By Sheraton, Vashi.
CALL 8879788845

>> Ling’s Pavilion
AT Near Regal Cinema, Colaba.
CALL 22850023

>> Meraki
AT Plot 1, Sector 19, Sanpada, Navi Mumbai.
CALL 8976808288

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