Joyce Wu

At the end of the week, my mother, exhausted from a day of work, did not know what to make for dinner. She rummaged through the fridge and look for any leftovers we hadn’t finished over the course of the week. Within 15 minutes, a steaming dish of tsap seui appeared on the table along with a bowl of rice for each of us.

Tsap seui, or known as chop suey in America, is a mix of chopped vegetables and chicken held together by a runny brown sauce. It can include a variety of other ingredients. One week, it may be a mix of snow peas, mushrooms and chicken; another week, it can be bean sprouts, celery and cauliflower. The sauce is made from soy sauce, a little bit of chicken stock and water. Eaten with white rice, tsap seui is an easy fix for the end of a tiring week.

It is not a particularly striking dish. Tsap seui takes less than a half hour to come together from the fridge to the dinner table, and much like the cooking process, the actual dish is easily forgettable. The flavor lacks much depth, and it isn’t actually a prized family dish from my mother’s otherwise really great cooking. The most variation we would get was an added layer of spiciness from some Sriracha. Tsap seui is somewhat bland, but it is filling, quick, and an easy way of clearing out the fridge.

Despite the lack of remarkability, tsap seui has always been a staple in my house for as long as I can remember. I always knew what to expect when I saw my mother chopping up celery and hearing the sizzling of water hitting the wok. Sometimes I would even bring some for lunch.

It was not until high school, however, did I realize that this dish was called chop suey. My mom never gave the dish a name, and to me, it was always a hodgepodge of stir fry vegetables.

Tsap seui has its origins rooted in the Toisan, a small region in the Guangdong province of China, where my family is from. A mostly rural, poor region, my ancestors would get by from getting creative with whatever vegetables they could find. Much like me, my mother grew up eating tsap seui as child on the farm.

Starting in the mid-1800s, many Toisanese farmers started immigrating from China to America, largely settling in Chinatown areas in California and New York. With slim chances of employment from many companies, many Chinese immigrants opened Chinese restaurants to make a living.

They sold dishes that you would expect from a typical Chinese restaurant—fried rice, chow mein and more. Then, starting in the late-1800s, tsap seui . This dish started to take over the country. Newspaper articles and advertisements started to appear as people became obsessed with chop suey. Because of its fairly subtle and unassuming taste, this dish was palatable enough for American consumers. For many, it was their first time trying the taste of soy sauce, a flavor that was unique to the East.

Nobody really knows how this dish became so popular. Many conflicting origin stories float around the history of the rise of chop suey. Some say that the dish was born out of the transcontinental railroad workers that entered a Chinese restaurant late one night. With nothing else to cook, the cook tossed together leftovers to make chop suey. Nevertheless, it soon became known as the national dish of China.

Chop suey was such a popular dish because it offered Americans an opportunity to try a cheap, yet “authentically Chinese” dish.

Many Chinese Americans took advantage of this craze by creating a brand out of it. Chop suey signs were everywhere, glowing red in the dark streets of New York City’s Chinatown. Starting in the 1930s, the chop suey lettering soon became synonymous with Chinese and continues to be used today, although in many problematic ways.

Although the popularity of chop suey has now been replaced by chicken and broccoli and General Tso’s chicken dishes at our local Chinese takeout restaurants, tsap seui is still a very special dish to me. Tsap seui means “mixed pieces” in Cantonese. It pays tribute to the mixed histories of my Toisanese ancestors and the identities of Chinese Americans.

Joyce Wu | joyce.wu@yale.edu  .