Chicken Chop Suey

I don't believe any casual treatise on Asian-style cooking would be complete without at least a reference to that old American favorite, chop suey. In California during the gold rush of 1849, there were many Chinese immigrants. Some worked building the railroads, some searched for gold and some worked in the service industries such as laundry, domestic service and food preparation. The Yankee gold miners had learned that, even if you didn't know what you were eating, a meal in one of those little Chinese restaurant shops could be rewarding with a good and tasty meal. The story goes that a hungry miner, arriving late and after hours, demanded a meal. The cook, was frantic because there was almost nothing left in the kitchen with which to prepare a meal. With the adamant customer waiting impatiently out front, the cook improvised with the meager provisions at hand and so was born chop suey. In essence, it became the first American fast-food and its popularity was wide spread.

The popularity of chop suey was long lived after it's gold rush era introduction. I have seen period photographs of 1940's San Francisco Chinatown. The ever-present red neon signs, Chop Suey, marked the locations of restaurants and cafes. Considering that the sign was written in English, it might well be assumed that the sign was intended for the visitor to Chinatown. As a visitor, you may not of wanted chop suey but the red neon signs marked the spot where food could be obtained - just like looking for the "golden arches."

Although chop suey was a featured dish at the little Chinatown "kitchenettes," it's well-known American origin was it's downfall. With the rising popularity of Chinese dining in the forty's and fifty's, people sought out more authentic Chinese dishes (little did they know that chop suey's replacements were equally Americanized). Your could usually find chop suey at the bottom of the menu as an entree but it was seldom included with the numbered dinners, you know, "...with 4 you get eggroll."

A recipe for chop suey is not iron-clad. It is a recipe of innovation and material at hand - more a recipe of style than substance. It is certainly similar to chow mein and lo mein. Where chow mein is served over crip noodles and lo mein is served over soft noodles, chop suey differs in that it is served over rice. Even the rice is optional. My very first recollection of chop suey was in the Paso Robles Union Elementary School cafeteria way back when. There you got a ladle full of chop suey in a bowl and is was served like a soup.

This recipe makes 4 to 8 servings depending on accompanying dishes. Although the recipe is Chicken Chop Suey, any meat or vegetable you choose can be substituted to make your very own version of chop suey.

Preparation: 1 hour 30 minutes Life Experience Recipe
Serves 4 to 8 persons
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
  • 4 stalks of celery, diagonally sliced
  • 8 button mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 spinach leaves, raggedly torn
  • 4 water chestnuts, sliced
  • 1 -2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 2 green onions, diagonally sliced, for garnish
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced, in rings
  • 1 Bell pepper, sliced, in rings
  • 1 cup bean sprouts, rinsed, drained
  • 1/2 cup Chinese pea pods (1/2 frozen 8-ounce box)
  • 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 tablespoon corn starch
  • 4 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  1. Cut the chicken across the into small, bite-sized morsels. Slice onion thinly and separate to make rings. Remove seeds and membrane frm pepper and slice to make thin rings. Slice celery diagonally to make thin crescents. Tear spinach leaves to make irregular pieces about an inch square.

  2. Heat wok and add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Stir fry the chicken until it is cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.

  3. In same pan, add remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add celery and cook 1 minute. Add onion and green pepper and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook, stir-frying, for another 3 minutes. Add bean sprouts, spinach leaves, pea pods, water chestnuts and reserved chicken. Continue cooking and stirring another 1 minute. Season to taste.

  4. Mix broth, soy sauce and cornstarch to make a slurry. (I know its not in the ingredients list, but one time you might like to add just a small pinch of sugar.) Add to the mixture in the wok. Cook and stir for an additional minute or until sauce has thickened. Serve over rice and garnish with the sliced green onions.

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