Mom's Chop Suey

My mom made this for us as kids in Ohio, and it usually made an appearance at church suppers and whatnot. I loved it!

Spam, as the meat of choice, was just right. Its saltiness and soft texture blends well with the salty over-processed texture of the canned vegetables, and is set off by the crunchiness of the canned noodles.

Who knew this wasn’t the real deal? There were no Chinese restaurants in Columbus, Ohio in the ‘50’s, or if there were, we didn’t go there.

Mom didn’t settle for just the can of chop suey, she made her own additions of the extra vegetables, but you needed the can of chop suey to get that dark brown sauce that was so good. This was a staple in our house.

Years pass and we’re living in Newton with kids of our own, Julia Child on the TV, and a new Vulcan restaurant range with six burners. So I go about recreating my mom’s chop suey using fresh bean sprouts, fresh vegetables and even fried, fresh Chinese noodles. And I made my own sauce, no cans for me (okay, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots are still canned). I stuck to the Spam, because after all, that’s “American.”

Folks, it ain’t the same.

In 1989, Jeff Smith came out with The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines: China, Greece and Rome, and I couldn’t wait to buy it; I loved his TV show. In it I found an excellent recipe for Chow Mein, Cantonese Style using pork.

Still, it ain’t the same, even if you substitute Spam for the pork.

Finally, I realized that to get that memorable taste and texture, I would have to recreate the all-canned variety. I never saw the recipe written down, and as a kid, I wasn’t privy as to what went into it, didn’t care.

chop suey.jpg

Mom’s Chop Suey

Note that the canned versions in the recipe are called Chow Mein. That’s a little white lie, but probably sounds better to the producer.

Chop Suey roughly means “chopped up odds and ends.” It is alleged to have been invented by Chinese immigrant cooks working on the United States Transcontinental Railway in the 19th century. Chow Mein is literally “stir-fried noodles,” usually a stir-fried dish consisting of noodles ,meat and vegetables. There’s nothing stir-fried about what’s in those cans.

2T vegetable oil
1 can Spam (12 oz.), cut into 1/4 inch by 1 inch julienne [I used half can regular and half can hot & spicy.]
1 can chow mein vegetables, drained (28 oz. La Choy Oriental Style Vegetable Mix & Seasonings [bean sprouts, celery, carrots, red bell peppers, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, baby corn])
1 can chicken chow mein (14 oz. La Choy [note: this comes attached to the above can of vegetables])
1 can sliced water chestnuts, drained (8 oz. Dynasty)
1 can sliced bamboo shoots, drained (8 oz. Dynasty)
Additional liquid: 2T soy sauce, 1/3C chicken stock, 1T cornstarch
1C fresh bean sprouts
1 can chow mein noodles (5 oz. La Choy)

1) In a large sauce pan, brown the Spam in the oil, two or three minutes.
2) Stir in the other ingredients, except the noodles and fresh bean sprouts, and cook until bubbly.
3) Mix together the “additional liquid” and stir in as as much as you need.
4)Stir in the fresh bean sprouts and turn off the heat.
5) Serve over rice and sprinkle the chow mein noodles on top. [Actually, I like the noodles on the bottom, they get all rubbery and gooey; I like that.]
I cooked this last night and it was better than I remembered. Can’t wait for the leftovers for lunch.

If you don’t need that memory jolt, here’s Th’ Frug’s version. Compare and contrast.

Chow Mein, Cantonese Style

The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines: China, Greece and Rome, by Jeff Smith, Wm Morrow 1989

3/8 pound Chinese dried egg noodles
1C pork, cut julienne

1T dry sherry
2T light soy sauce
1/2t freshly ground ginger

6T peanut oil for pan frying
1 yellow onion, sliced
2 ribs celery, sliced thin
3 Chinese dried mushrooms, soaked, drained and chopped
1/2C sliced water chestnuts
3 ribs bok choy, sliced

1T light soy sauce
pinch of sugar
1/4t salt
1T sesame oil
1C chicken stock
1T cornstarch
2C fresh bean sprouts

1] Bring an 8 quart pot of water to a boil and add the noodles. Carefully stir. When they begin to float freely, drain and rinse in cold water. Drain well again. Spread the noodles out on a large oiled broiling rack and allow them to dry for two hours. (You can use an electric fan to help them along.)
2] Heat a large wok and add 3 tablespoons of peanut oil. Place the noodles in the wok, all in a big nest, and gently pan-brown them on one side. Get them good and brown. Turn the nest and brown it a bit on the other side. Remove from the wok and allow to cool.

3] Marinate the cut pork for 15 minutes. Drain the marinade and reserve. Heat the wok and add 1 tablespoon oil. Chow the meat for a few minutes until tender. Remove to the serving plate.
4] Heat the wok again and add 2 tablespoons oil. Chow the onion, celery, and mushrooms until the onions are clear. Add the water chestnuts and bok choy. Remove all to the serving plate.
5] Mix the sauce, adding the reserved marinade. Place the noodles in the heated wok and add the sauce. Toss just to cover the noodles and add the meat and vegetable mixture. Gently toss and stir-fry all together until the noodles are tender but still a bit firm. Add the bean sprouts and toss just until they are hot, not cooked.

2 thoughts on “Mom's Chop Suey

  1. I DO remember Mom’s chop suey, but only vaguely.

    1. You guys are much older than I, and she fixed different stuff for Amy and me after you guys left home

    2. I was spoiled, and didn’t like anything other than tomato soup and cheese sandwiches on white bread. She didn’t push me to eat it.

    3. There WAS a Chinese restaurant out on Broad Street (toward the Westinghouse Plant) and she took Amy and me there as a treat. I got a cheese sandwich as I recall.


  2. I remember Mom’s chop suey well, primarily because I didn’t like it – though at 46 South Harris, that didn’t make a whole lot of difference. I loved the Chinese noodles with their extra crunchy texture, but Lord spare me from the rest of the slimy mess. Those evening meals that featured chop suey were ones where Toby didn’t eat too much.

    I often wonder whether I gave a lot of the things I “didn’t like” growing up enough of a chance. I remember well the list: cucumbers, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers and nearly every kind of squash. I now love mushrooms & onions, I eat cucumbers (after I remove the seeds) and will try a bit of pepper when it is on the plate, though I still don’t exactly care for the taste. The issue with the squash family is the texture – too mushy when cooked – but I love summer squash raw in salads.

    My change of heart in trying new things and eating nearly anything probably came from my travels all over the world and often not knowing what I was eating. I found some dishes that was really tasty were the same ones that I had, when growing up, rejected on principle.

    I’ll post some of my stories of foreign eating on the rectorsite once I figure out how to do so.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane…


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