Not your Mom’s Chop Suey
To say that chop suey gets a bad rap is a gross understatement. Its origins aren’t entirely clear, but some believe that while the wealthy miners were eating Hangtown Fry during the Gold Rush, Chinese immigrants with limited funds were scrounging together meals with whatever they could find.
Chop suey can translate as “chop into bits” or “odds and ends.” Everything from celery and carrots to chicken parts and onions (thickened with some kind of starch) went into this ultimate scraps dish.
It was among the first of the “Americanized” Chinese dishes, thought to be mild enough for Western palates.
From Amanda Gold’s 5 Classic Dishes published in the SF Chronicle, May 2009.
Ah yes, odds and ends in a wok, my favorite kind of thing. Back in the day, my Mom had a chop suey recipe — which no doubt circulated among the women at Westgate Methodist Church — that was made entirely of canned ingredients. This one — reinvented by the chef at Betelnut, an Asian restaurant on Union Street that’s been there as long as I can remember — is the antithesis of that; nearly everything is fresh. A trip to Chinatown was in order to deal with an ingredient list like this one that includes:
Shaoxing rice wine
fresh water chestnuts
Shanxi black vinegar
Hodo Soy brand yuba (tofu skin) omelet
Parked my scooter on Jackson Street at Stockton and went into the store on the corner. Right away, I saw fresh water chestnuts and picked out five. That set me back 35¢. That store had none of my other needs, so I crossed Jackson to the store on the other corner. Not much there, I went to the next store and scored the rice wine $1.59, and the bean sprouts 34¢. They had the black vinegar, but it doesn’t say Shanxi on the label. I have the same black vinegar at home. Most stores have ginger, but its in net bags of a pound or more.
I crossed Stockton to the biggest store on the block and bought one piece of ginger. Nowhere have I seen garlic chives or even chives. No matter, I don’t think this dish is going to break the bank.
I have everything else in my fridge or pantry.
Ready, set, chop…
The list of ingredients is long, but one thing about a stir fry, once stuff is prepped – and your mise en place better be all ready to go — badda bing badda boom, in minutes you’re done.
Reinvented Chop Suey
Adapted from the recipe by Alexander Ong, chef-owner of Betelnut in San Francisco Serves 4
* 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt – That’s easy, the salt jar sits on the back of the stove.
* — Pinch of white pepper – The only thing about this is I can’t get my fingers into the jar, so I have to dump some in my left palm, take a pinch, and scrape it back into the jar.
* 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil – easy enough
* 2 teaspoons + 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine – What I got was Shaoxing rice cooking wine — $1.39 for 25.3 ounces — that’s cheaper than water. Curiously it says on the label, “not for drinking.”
* 4 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced 1/4-inch thick (about 1/2 cup) – I got one thigh at GG Meat weighing 0.6 pounds. I used the whole thing. I put it in the freezer for 30 minutes to firm it up for slicing, could have been in longer.
* 6 tablespoons vegetable oil – Enough to cover the wok bottom and sides. I didn’t measure.
* 12 medium-sized shrimp (21/25 size), peeled and deveined – We always have a 2 pound bag of shrimp in the freezer. Threw 12 in bowl of cold water when I put the chicken in the freezer.
* 16 sugar snap peas or snow peas — C keeps a package of these for munching.
* 1/3 cup diced celery ( 1/2-inch dice) – Two or three chops from the top of a head.
* 1/2 cup diced onion ( 1/2-inch dice) – I used spring onion, about one.
* 1 cup diced Hodo Soy brand yuba (tofu skin) omelet – Got at the Farmers Market on Saturday.
* 1/2 cup roughly chopped maitake mushrooms – Ditto, about one clump.
* 5 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and diced 1/2 inch – I had never had a fresh water chestnut. I guess I thought they only came in a can – like when I was a kid, I thought milk only came from a truck in a bottle. They’re so tasty – not starchy – and so easy to find and prepare, I won’t go back to canned.
* 2 tablespoons finely julienned ginger – I used the medium microplane.
* 2 cloves garlic, minced – From a jar.
* 2 teaspoons Shanxi black vinegar (or aged balsamic vinegar) – My black vinegar is Koon Chun brand from Hong Kong.
* 5 tablespoons chicken broth – From a box, not enough to thaw a block of homemade stock.
* 1 tablespoon oyster sauce (without MSG) – Mine is Panda Brand Oyster Flavored Sauce and has MSG, I never thought to look. I guess what’s in 1 tablespoon won’t buzz me.
* 1 teaspoon sugar – Fine white sugar sits on the back of the stove beside the salt.
* 1 cup mung bean sprouts – Fresh and crunchy from Chinatown.
* 1/3 cup garlic chives, cut into 1-inch strips – These I never found. I used a sprinkle of freeze dried chives.
* 1 poached egg – You can do this at the end of prep, just before stir-fry and hold it in a warm oven.
Now, there are just four quick and easy steps:
- Brown the chicken.
- Add the shrimp and vegetables and stir until the shrimp turn pink.
- Add the liquids, stir over high heat for about 3 minutes until the liquid thickens.
- Off heat, add the sprouts and chives, stir to combine and serve.
I served the chop suey on warm plates over rice alongside Bonny Doon Vinyard Ca del Solo Estate 2009 Albarino, a light yet vibrant, crisp and briny white wine.
This dish is not packed with flavor, its more subtle and rich. Don’t know if you noticed, but it has no soy sauce. This blew Carol’s mind. She immediately went and got soy sauce to dump on it. I didn’t.
I used twice as much chicken as the recipe called for, and that was OK, but noticeable. Next time I’ll use half-a-thigh (what a concept). Carol complained that she only got four snap peas. I said, “perfect, there were 16 for 4 servings.” She didn’t buy that.
So I guess we disagreed on the wonderfulness of this dish. It’s way different than Mom’s Chop Suey and our other favorite from Jeff Smith, The Frugal Gourmet.