Chop suey, moo goo gaipan, subgum chow mein—to the casual reader these words might sound like gibberish, but believe it or not they’re all examples of American culinary classics. American Chinese, that is.
Along with sodium and MSG, these dishes also come with a healthy dose of history, much of it urban legend. Take chop suey for instance, a mixture of meat and vegetables and egg cooked together with sauce. The story goes that this treat, whose name roughly translates to “odds and ends,” was invented during the 1840s California Gold Rush by a resourceful Chinese cook. Supposedly this man was getting ready to close up his shop for the night when a bunch of drunken miners stumbled in, clamoring for a meal. Annoyed, the cook served up a bunch of stir-fried leftovers, but to his surprise the miners actually enjoyed it. They wanted the same thing again the next night, the word gradually spread, and lo and behold, chop suey became a thing.
But some sources disagree with this account. They claim that it was created under entirely different, although also stressful circumstances. Their version of the story goes: a renowned Chinese diplomat comes to visit the US and decides to grab a quick late-night meal at a Chinese restaurant. The cook in the kitchen is at his wits’ end—the pantry is almost empty, the staff have all left. He gathers up what ingredients he has left and whips up something quick for the diplomat, who to his surprise actually likes it. Again, word gets around and chop suey becomes a staple of Chinese restaurants around the country.
Who knows which version is the real one? Actually, it’s likely that both are false; chop suey, or to be more accurate, “shap sui,” most probably originated in Taishan, China. Despite its beginnings, however, along with several other dishes it has since changed, becoming enshrined in thousands of Chinese menus throughout the last one and a half centuries.
By Chinese menus, of course, I mean American Chinese. And chop suey isn’t alone in its journey: egg foo yung, moo goo gaipan, chow mein, lo mein, and the now outdated term “subgum” can all claim Chinese roots but have been altered to cater to the tastes of a new audience. These dishes became saltier and meatier, and the spelling of their names changed as well, presumably to make them easier to pronounce for Americans; rarely will you find anything spelled “moo goo” in China.
You see, back before it was popular to eat “authentic” foreign food in the US, Chinese restaurants had move with the times. And they were pretty good at it: Chinese food went from having only a cult following in the 20s to becoming mainstream in the 60s. This progress was actually pretty impressive considering the early barriers it faced, including racism. There was a widespread perception that Chinese ate rats, for example, or cooked using unsanitary methods. A 1910s “Chinese-Japanese” cookbook reassures readers:
“When it is known how simple and clean are the ingredients used to make up these oriental dishes, the Westerner will cease to feel that natural repugnance which assails one when about to taste a strange dish of a new and strange land.”
By the 40s the repugnance had gone, but some doubts may have remained. Chinese restaurant menus like the one above retained separate sections for Chinese and Western food. For those diners who might feel nervous trying Special Almond Chow Mein for the first time, there’s always the comfort of a familiar Whiskey Sour to wash it down with, or Roast Maryland Turkey for the especially queasy. For connoisseurs, however, the bottom of the menu hints at a “special Cantonese dinner menu” available on request.
In fact, almost all of the dishes mentioned so far could be said to be Cantonese-American rather than just Chinese-American, reflecting the origins of most Chinese in the US during much of the 20th century. In case you’re not familiar with it, the Cantonese culinary tradition is actually a long, rich one emphasizing techniques like braising and steaming, and specializing in seafood and soups. The resulting flavors are well-balanced and delicate. Compare this with your average Chinese takeout in the US today, which contain satisfying yet sometimes overwhelming amounts of soy sauce and grease, and you can see firsthand how those traditions have for the most part been thrown by the wayside.
But in return for “authenticity,” Chinese food in the States gained cultural cachet. Nowadays, there are more “Chinese” restaurants in America than those of McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC all put together. Ironically, Chinese food has become a symbol of Americanness and even the basis of a well-documented Jewish tradition. Some people even speculate that the custom of brunch in the US started after exposure to Cantonese dim sum in the 1800s. However, even if that isn’t true, it’s still safe to say that the impact of American Chinese food has been long and far-ranging.
The cuisine itself has evolved too over the years. Dishes like ma po tofu (from Sichuan province), mu shu pork (from Northern China), and crab rangoons (possibly from Hawaii) began popping up in restaurants, clamoring for the attention of the American public. Chop suey and egg foo young were both eventually outshone by their new competitors and “subgum” is rarely used today, although chow mein and lo mein remain staples of American Chinese cuisine.
Although they may not be as popular as they were in their heyday, it’s still interesting think about all the history that these foods have in the US. Even a simple takeout menu nowadays can span more than a hundred years of immigrant legacy, each dish with its own story waiting to be told.
Click here for a fun food-themed homework assignment.
*Both images in this post are from the same 1940s American Chinese restaurant menu, courtesy of Renee Lajcak, Museum of Chinese in American (MOCA) collection.