1887 Chop suey described in Australia

Chicken chop suey. Image: Shutterstock

In 1887, a column widely syndicated in Australian newspapers introduced readers to the joys of a Chinese restaurant in New York. As well as explaining the intricacies of chopsticks and waxing lyrical about the perfection of Chinese rice, the column talked about “Chow Chop suey” (or, in what was obviously a typographer’s error, “Chowchopsney”). The dish was described as “a very palatable stew made of bean sprouts, chicken’s gizzards and livers, calves’ tripe, chagon fish dried [possibly a type of carp], pork and a number of other ingredients”.

According to Miranda Brown, writing for Atlas Obscura, at that time chop suey was considered a fine dish, worth of a place at the most lavish banquets.  Brown challenges the popular legends about a dish which, she acknowledges, has become degraded over time, in America as much as it has in Australia. She contends that the name, rather than meaning “odds and ends” or even “garbage” is actually derived from the Toisanese tsaap slui (雜碎), a set phrase that refers specifically to entrails and giblets, and that it had noble origins in China as early as the late 18th century.

A prevailing myth, both in America and Australia, is that chop suey isn’t Chinese at all but was invented in the USA as a cheap way to feed Chinese and non-Chinese miners on the goldfields. While this is not true, it’s fairly certain that the dish made its way to Australia via the US. In 1900, an article in the Ballarat Star referred to the “Chinese cookery fad” in America,  and described chop suey as a “supreme favourite” with English-speaking restaurant-goers.  The article, which is painfully racist and patronising about Chinese people, describes the dish as:

… a moist mixture of chicken, lentils, and spices, with a flavoring of onions, and is eaten with a gravy of the drawn blood of chicken, flavored with a peculiar Chinese decoction.

By 1909, chop suey was served as part of a novelty dinner given by a society figure in Melbourne. The reporter’s scorn for the Chinese was still evident. Guests at the party, he wrote, dressed in the “loose garb of the heathen Chinese” and the menu included “bird’s nest soup, rice a la Chinese, chop suey and other heathenish-sounding dishes”.

The term “chop suey” soon became widely recognised in Australia and became a synonym for miscellaneous bits and pieces. In 1919, a “Vaudeville Chop Suey” was presented at Perth’s Melrose Theatre. The term was later used as the title for a newspaper column of news snippets and for a music hall review. It was also sometimes applied, in a dismissive way, as a synonym for “Chinese”.

By the 1920s, recipes for chop suey were appearing in Australian papers. They bore little resemblance to the original. The offal had gone. Among the earliest, published in 1924, was the recipe for “American Chop Suey”.

Cook three slices of diced bacon until they are a golden brown and crisp; add one half a pound of chopped beef and one finely chopped onion, and cook until the beef begins to brown. Add one and one-half cupfuls of spaghetti or macaroni, and salt, pepper and soy sauce to season.

Even allowing for the confusion of spaghetti with noodles, there’s little that is Chinese about this. In fact, chop suey should not have noodles at all. Over the years, it became confused with chow mein (meaning fried noodles). Both dishes were subjected to relentless westernisation, to the point where, by the 1980s, most self-respecting Chinese restaurants had removed them from their menus.

In 1951 Sydney’s Daily Telegraph wrote of the “growing popularity of Chinese food”, asserting that quite a few local housewives would be serving a Chinese meal instead of the traditional Christmas dinner. That was, perhaps, going a little too far but certainly, in the 1950s, Australian cooks began to experiment with what they imagined to be Chinese dishes.

In 1955, the Australian Women’s Weekly published a recipe from noted chef Tony Clerici. His version included chicken, ham, pork meatballs, celery and bamboo shoots, and his introductory comments are revealing.

“This well-known Chinese dish called chop suey literally means mixed fragments,” says Tony, of Sydney’s Colony Club. “It is served in most Chinese restaurants, and because it has no strong flavor or taste it is likely to appeal to Australian palates.”

From the average home cook’s point of view, chop suey, chow mein and another dish called kai see ming all ended up being more or less identical, especially when, in the mid-1950s, packaged dried soup appeared. Dehydrated chicken noodle soup soon became the essential ingredient in all of them, alongside cabbage, beef mince and onion. The following recipe, from the revered Country Women’s Association, includes chopped pear, but green beans, capsicum and soy sauce were often included.

500 grams mince meat
1 large onion
1 tablespoon butter or margarine
¼ cabbage, shredded
250 grams pear, cut up
Packet chicken noodle soup
2 teaspoon curry powder
¼ cup rice, uncooked
3 cups water

Cooking method: Frying
Brown the mince and onion in butter or margarine in a fry pan.
Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for about ½ hour.
Serve with buttered crusty bread.

These days we’re profoundly suspicious of what we think of as quasi-Chinese dishes like these. Versions may still be found in restaurants with chow mein, with properly crispy noodles, perhaps enjoying a rehabilitated reputation. And, no doubt, in some Australian kitchens, people are still stirring up a mix of mince, cabbage and onion, chucking in a few bean sprouts if they’re going gourmet, and calling the result chop suey. If the kids like it, why not? At least there’s no tripe or giblets.

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