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Chop Suey!

Chop Suey 1

This is one of the most tempting little books I’ve ever run across.  It found me at an antique show some months ago, and I really do mean it found me.  I saw it on a table, touched it — and couldn’t put it down.  That book was going home with me, no matter what the cost.  Fortunately, it was only ten bucks.

Since then, I’ve spent hours mooning over the book and pondering the mysteries of chop suey.  Its origins are murky.  Some claim that chop suey is strictly an American Chinese dish; yet Wikipedia states that, “ . . . in fact it appears to originate in Taishan, a district of Guangdong Province which was the home of most of the early Chinese immigrants; the Hong Kong doctor Li Shu-fan reported that he knew it in Taishan in the 1890’s.” That sounds all too sensible and rational, doesn’t it, when there’s so much mythology to enjoy?  Click on over to Wikipedia to read more.  It’s fascinating, if you’re into food history like I am.

Regardless of the truth, it seems logical that any version of chop suey which appeared in American Chinese restaurants in the 1940’s and 1950’s would be Americanized to death, just as all the other dishes were.  So who knows what authentic chop suey was?  Certainly not I, but now I have the advice of Madame Chiang to go on.

In the introduction, she notes that, “Hundreds of American housewives have often expressed the desire to receive the authentic recipes of Chinese dishes, which consist principally of vegetables and are easily digestible but contain the nutrition attested by leading dieticians.” This “digestible” thing was a big deal back in the 1940’s, when the book was published.  I’ve seen it countless times in old cookbooks and ads.  So, let’s make something digestible!

There are no less than a dozen chop suey recipes in the book.  I chose this one:

Chop Suey 6

Because I love the word “sub-gum.”  Really, that was the reason.  I have no idea what sub-gum means.  Let’s look it up.

Drat.  That wasn’t as exotic an answer as I was hoping for.  Damn near everything is sub-gum, if that’s what it means.  Well, never mind.  I still like the word.  On to the sub-gum chop suey!

I adapted the recipe to serve two.  Increase at will:

Chinese Sub-gum Chop Suey, adapted from Madame Chiang’s Chinese Cookbook (serves 2)

1/4 lb. pork, sliced very thinly
1/2 green bell pepper, diced
1/2 red bell pepper (the original calls for canned pimientos, but come now), diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1/4 c. thinly sliced bamboo shoots

Chop Suey 2

Notice everything’s cut up very small.  That’s Madame Chiang’s advice.

Chop Suey 3

Well, except the mushrooms.  Mushrooms are just all wrong when cut too tiny, so I ignored her instructions there.

8 oz. mushrooms, quartered
blanched almonds
soy sauce
1-1/2 tsp. cornstarch
cold water
1/2 tsp. molasses (seriously!)

Now, there are a couple of things about this ingredient list.  First, the text of the recipe says, “…add celery, water chestnuts…” without bothering to alert us to the water chestnuts in the ingredient list.  Said water chestnuts thus did not make it onto my grocery list, nor into the finished dish.  I think they’d be nice in it, though, so do buy some.

The other thing is that the original calls for “gourmet powder.”  All the recipes in the book do, although Madame Chiang kindly notes that it’s optional, and can only be purchased in Chinese stores (at least in 1946).  Can you guess what it is?  I’ll be collecting guesses in the comments, and I’ll tell you later.  Hint:  I left it out.

Okay, here we go.  Start the rice cooker and fire up the wok!

Stir-fry the pork in vegetable oil, and when it’s just done, add the celery, water chestnuts if you’re better about reading entire recipes before you go to the store than I am, and bamboo shoots.  Stir-fry a minute or two, but not the 10 minutes called for in the original recipe, unless you want mush.

Chop Suey 7

Add the peppers.

Chop Suey 8

Then the mushrooms.

Chop Suey 9

Now it’s supposed to simmer until everything’s tender.  Here again, I must deviate from the instructions of Madame Chiang.  It’s not going to simmer unless it’s got some liquid in it.  It’s just going to, well, burn and stick to the pan.  So I put the sauce in earlier than she does.

Make sauce by stirring together the cornstarch, water and molasses.  Keep adding water to it until it looks good and saucy.

Chop Suey 5

Throw that into the wok, lower the heat, cover and let it simmer while you get out plates and dig through drawers for chopsticks.

When the vegetables are done to your liking, season with salt, pepper and soy sauce.  You’ll want more soy sauce at the table, I’m guessing.  It required quite a bit.  Serve with almonds on top.

Chop Suey 10

The verdict?  Good, if a bit blander than what we’re used to.  Bland food was the in thing way back in the day — I’m always amused by the downright nervous hand with spices evident in vintage cookbooks.  Did you notice what wasn’t in this recipe?  No garlic or onion.

We liked it, though.  It’s very comfort-foody, and the molasses gives the dish the perfect vintage Americanized Chinese takeout joint touch.  (Who knew?)  Yeah, I’d make it again.  With the water chestnuts.  I’m going to try something else from the good Madame Chiang’s book, too.  I think chow mein has to be next, don’t you?  Perhaps with some little white takeout boxes to serve it in…

P.S.  In case you were worried, the chop suey was indeed perfectly digestible.


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  1. * Chris says:

    Looks really tasty! But yeah, I’d need garlic and more spice.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  2. * Jeanice says:

    That looks yummy!

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  3. * Cheryl S. says:

    Sounds exactly like something my husband would like. If he ate chicken. Bland and with no onions or garlic is right up his alley. Maybe I should make it with tofu.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  4. * Cheryl S. says:

    Oh, I forgot the mystery ingredient. I’m guessing MSG.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  5. * kmkat says:

    What exactly did digestible mean back in 1946? Low fiber? Non-spicy? Low fat? (greasy stuff gives me, um, er, pains)
    Re: bland food. I have a cookbook from the ’60s that is a collection of housewives’ and home ec teachers’ recipes. One for some kind of hamburger hot dish that has made us laugh for 35 years advises that, for the spicy version, add 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper. Yep, that megadose of black pepper really makes it spicy, all right.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  6. * Lorette says:

    Bland but digestible! Maybe some red pepper flakes would help, along with a generous portion of garlic and onion.
    And I’d bet MSG is the mystery “gourmet powder”.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  7. * mary lou says:


    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  8. * Carrie K says:

    That looks much better than the Panda Express I had today.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  9. * bezzie says:

    Is it opium? 😉
    That looks really good. Makes me almost regret telling my wok to take a walk.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  10. * Micki says:

    Perhaps I’m jaded, but I think “gourmet powder” certainly must be MSG.

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  11. * Master Engineer says:

    “Gourmet Poweder”, the central ingredient in all chinese take-out — MSG!

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  12. * Connie says:

    This looks good! My family would probably like this and is a good use for those smaller pieces of pork I have in the freezer. I would definitely add the water chestnuts. I make a kung pao shrimp that everyone likes and the sause has sherry in it. There is also garlic and chili’s which I have substituted thai chili sauce as I always have that and oh yes – fresh ginger! There is a little bit but not too much. I am going to guess the gourmet powder is the ever popular MSG?

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  13. * lydee says:

    lol! digestible!
    gourmet powder? I guess ginger, or chinese 5 spice

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  14. * Guinifer says:

    Hmmm, why would a brewing company make a cookbook?

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  15. * deb says:

    See – growing up our chopo suey looked a lot like hamburger hot dish!! I’m thinking there was absoltely NOTHING Chinese about it at all. It might have even had the dreaded cream of muchroom soup in it!

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  16. * stacey says:

    Oh wow, I thought I was the only person that had Madama Chiang’s Chinese Cookbook! I just posted about it on my own blog! Wow. Weird. I haven’t actually tried to make any of the recipes yet…as you said, the lack of spices and flavorings is a bit of a turn off. 🙂

    Posted 9 years, 4 months ago
  17. * Deborah K. Chapman says:

    grew up in late 50’s in St. Paul, Mn. My Dad would go to a Chinese Restaurant every Friday night to get Sub Gum Chop Suey. These people were immagrants to the US. It was the best I have ever tasted. Have never tasted anything that compared. Thanks for all of the recipes, haved tried them all and have never tasted anything to compare. Will keep trying! Thanks,

    Posted 9 years ago

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