This week in Omnivorous I wrote about Berwyn's Czech Plaza, where Zdenka Manetti somewhat ruefully told me that the seniors who frequent her family's 48-year-old restaurant have a very low tolerance for salt. Czech food is hardly the most aggressively seasoned cuisine to begin with, so I was a bit surprised that one of its most popular dishes was probably the saltiest one I'd tried there.
Of course, the restaurant's recipe for chop suey—made with a "dash" of soy sauce—didn't originate in Bohemia. Zdenka says it long predated the late 80s, when the family arrived in Berwyn. Nor is chop suey the wholly American invention most people think. Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food says the various accounts of the dish's American origins are "culinary mythology." Chop suey really was born in rural Taishan, China, and it really was composed of leftover tsap seui, or "miscellaneous scraps."
What's certain is that for more than 100 years, Americans have made the glutinous slurry of chopped meat and vegetables from whatever was at hand. Esteemed investigator of culinary oddities Peter Engler has spotted variations in all sorts of unlikely places, from Manny's to Valois. There's even a tuna chop suey (*shudder*) at Tel Aviv Kosher Pizza.
I'm not sure where exactly the Bohemian influence comes in on Czech Plaza's chop suey, other than the presence of mashed potatoes on the side and a vague resemblance to goulash, but Zdenka was kind enough to adapt her mother's recipe for a home kitchen.
Bohemian Chop Suey
1½-2 lbs. pork cut into small cubes
1 onion, diced
½ stick margarine
1 cup beef broth
1 teaspoon garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 dash soy sauce
1 can chop suey vegetables (bean sprouts, water chestnuts, celery, etc)
½ cup diced red peppers
2 T flour
Saute onions in margarine until golden brown. Add the beef broth and bring to a boil, then add the pork. The broth should be just enough to cover pork. Add garlic powder, salt, pepper, and soy sauce. Simmer on low heat until the meat is almost soft but not yet completely done, about 45 minutes. Add chop suey vegetables and peppers. Cook a few minutes to incorporate vegetables. Prepare a thickening mix (roux) with the flour and warm water. Use about 1/2 cup warm water and dilute about 1 to 2 tablespoons flour into it. The consistency should be on the thin side and not a thick glob. While mixing the chop suey, slowly pour the flour mixture into the pot, constantly stirring. Let cook to desired consistency. If you want it thicker, add more flour. If it'is too thick, add a little beef broth. When it's done, reseason to taste. Serve with mashed potatoes or rice.
Doubrou chut! (Enjoy your meal)