Thursday, July 30, 2009

Chop Suey! Chop Suey! Read All About It!

I got an email from Andrew Coe last week. Andy is an old acquaintance I hadn't seen in years, a friend of friends. In fact, I had last seen him in 1992 at the Hong Kong office of one of our mutual friends, a publisher of guidebooks. Andy wrote to tell me that he'd just published a history of Chinese food in the United States, and that while he had been doing his research he kept stumbling on this blog. Did I want his publicist to send me a copy? I bit without hesitation.

Chop Suey is quite a fun and informative read, especially for anyone with an interest in Chinese cuisine in particular or foodways in general. It is a bit slow out of the starting gate, however, as the first two chapters deal with the early history of Americans in China and their encounters with both the food and the culture in perhaps too much detail for most readers. These two chapters account for about a quarter of the book and should probably have been condensed into one. The third chapter gives a nice overview of the history and principles of Chinese cuisine, providing background for the meat of the book, his tale of how Chinese food in the U.S. morphed into a Chinese-American hybrid from the late 19th century through the mid-20th.

I learned, among other things, that chop suey, the archetypal Chinese-American dish, started out as a stir-fry including organ meats that originated in Toishan (or Toisan), in southern China, not far from Canton but with a dialect and cuisine all its own. (Coe should probably have discussed in more detail the distinction between Toisan and Cantonese Chinese ((often lumped together)), and their relative influences on Chinese food in the U.S.) Over time, chop suey morphed into the standardized bland stir-fry of meat and vegetables that was more suited to American tastes.

Coe quotes copiously from primary sources, and this gives the book a lot of flavor. It's interesting how many early commentators on Chinese food described stir-frys of chopped ingredients as akin to "hash."

Though the first Chinese restaurants sprung up in the west, during the gold rush, Chinese chefs were more often serving American food to Americans. Anti-Chinese sentiment (and legislation), however, eventually made the American west an inhospitable place for Chinese-Americans. It was in New York's Chinatown, toward the end of the 19th century, with the aid of thrill-seeking bohemians, that Chinese food would become popularized--and, eventually, standardized and Americanized.

Using chop suey as a leitmotif, Coe tells the story of the development in the 20th century of the southern-Chinese-based restaurant cuisine that dominated American dining-out culture for so many years. I do wish he had spent more time discussing other common Chinese restaurant dishes and their provenance, such as moo goo gai pan, wor shew opp, and my beloved butterfly shrimp.

The last chapter deals with post-Cantonese developments in Chinese food in the U.S., using Nixon's China trip as a pivotal moment (though already some Mandarin and regional restaurants had been introduced in the preceding decade). And once again, as the subtle and delicate food of southern China had formed the basis of a dumbed-down Chinese-American cuisine for so many years, a fascination with the spicy cuisines of Hunan and Sichuan (relatively authentically represented when first introduced in the U.S.) quickly led to a seismic shift in Chinese restaurant cuisine. Now, instead of fake southern Chinese food, everybody in America was eating fake northern and western Chinese food.

Last night I attended the publication party at Andy's home. Among the food on hand was some chicken chop suey, from Hop Kee, one of Chinatown's oldest restaurants. It was as bad as I had remembered, astoundingly bland, and below is probably the most unappetizing food photo I've ever posted on this blog (Lupa's turd of pork notwithstanding).


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