Chop Suey

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

chop suey a dish whose ingredients can vary—indeed, its very nature is that this should be so—but which usually includes things like bits of pork or chicken, beansprouts, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and other vegetables such as celery, all chopped, plus soy sauce and perhaps some stock; the whole to be stir-fried or simmered and served with rice or noodles.

Chop suey may be a prime example of culinary mythology. The general perception of this dish in the western world is that it is a sort of parody of Chinese food, invented in San Francisco towards the end of the 19th century and spreading out from there to become a standard item in the American repertoire, and indeed known all over the world. Various accounts have been given of its birth. They all agree in supposing that a Chinese cook, confronted by a demand for food at an hour when none of his proper dishes was still available, improvised a mixture from leftovers and then, in response to questions from the people who had demanded food, said that the dish was called ‘odds and ends’ in Chinese. However, there are numerous candidates for the role of the demanding diners: drunken miners, a San Francisco political boss, railroad workers, a visiting Chinese dignitary who was suffering from indigestion, etc. etc. This variation in the supposed identity of principal characters is typical of mythology.