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:
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
Notice everything’s cut up very small. That’s Madame Chiang’s advice.
Well, except the mushrooms. Mushrooms are just all wrong when cut too tiny, so I ignored her instructions there.
8 oz. mushrooms, quartered
1-1/2 tsp. cornstarch
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.
Add the peppers.
Then the mushrooms.
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.
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.
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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