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What’s the Difference Between Chop Suey and Chow Mein?

Every now and then I like to dig in and compare “old school” dishes that most people have heard of but would have a hard time telling you what exactly they are and how they are different.  Today, we will dive into a couple stir-fry staples of the American-Chinese cuisine; Chop Suey and Chow Mein. 

We will shine some light on these classics of the American-Chinese restaurant scene and point out their similarities and differences.    

Chicken chow mein on a black plate on a bamboo placemat
Ezume Images / Shutterstock

What is Chop Suey?

Chop suey is a type of stir fry dish containing a variety of sprouts, vegetables, eggs and meats.  When stir-frying, ingredients are cooked in oils in a wok over high heat, stirring constantly.  It is a quick cooking method, perfect for a busy household or a bustling restaurant.  The chop suey is finished in a sauce, then served over rice or noodles.  

It does not have one clear cut list of ingredients making it a great solution for leftovers.

While not as widely seen on menus as it once was, you can still find chop suey in plenty of Chinese restaurants across the country and around the world.

History of Chop Suey

Close up of chop suey
Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

Like many dishes, chop suey doesn’t have a clear story of origin. There are a few different people that claim to have invented it.

One story says that chop suey was invented by a tired Chinese cook in San Francisco during the 1849 gold rush, who put together a dish made of leftovers to feed his hungry patrons. 

Other versions credit Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang with the invention. In 1896, during a visit to the United States, the diplomat asked his chef to prepare a dish for his American visitors that showed off Chinese cooking techniques but still catered to American palates.

Whatever the true origin story, we know for sure that chop suey was invented in the United States and is a symbol of the innovation and fusion cooking that characterizes Chinese restaurants in America.

What is Chow Mein?

Beef chow mein close up
Brian Yarvin / Shutterstock

Chow mein is a dish of stir-fried vegetables and noodles. The vegetables (sometimes with pieces of meat and tofu) are finely chopped and stir-fried in a wok. They are cooked down in a chow mein sauce, usually made of soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, cornstarch, and sesame oil. 

Meanwhile, the chef boils the noodles. Once the noodles are almost done, the chef adds them to the stir-fry and finishes cooking them along with the vegetables and the sauce. The noodles can be left slightly soft or fried until crispy.

How Chop Suey and Chow Mein are Different

Chop suey over rice
Wirestock Creators / Shutterstock

While sometimes they can be very similar, there are some general differences between chop suey and chow mein. 

A big difference between the two types of stir fry is how they originated. Chop suey is a relatively new dish that was invented by Chinese chefs in the United States. The roots of chow mein go back far longer. People in northern China have been eating dishes of stir-fried noodles called “ch’ao mien” going back many centuries.

Chow mein has to be served with noodles, otherwise it is a completely different dish. Chop suey is usually served over rice, but you can serve it over noodles as well.

Many chefs also only use vegetables in their chow mein. On the other hand, chop suey recipes often differ widely depending on who is cooking and what ingredients are available.  

Final Thoughts on the Difference Between Chop Suey and Chow Mein

Both chow mein and chop suey are stir-fried dishes with vegetables popular on Chinese takeout menus. However, they have different origins and often use different ingredients.  Our goal with each article is to continue to broaden your culinary world by enriching your culinary expertise. 

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Sashimi vs. Sushi: What’s the Difference?

How to Thicken Spaghetti Sauce: 8 Great Ways!

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