Food Stuff

Chinese soul food

"What in the world is that?" I asked about the steaming plate of food my gracious host placed before me.

"Chop suey. It’s Chinese."

Here I was, fresh from a visit to my birthplace in Taiwan, being schooled on Chinese culture by someone who’d never left Wayne County.

"Chinese, huh?" I stared at the brown mush. I could make out the rice, but I wasn’t sure about those chunks in the gravy. I didn’t make it past a second bite, yet I was fascinated by this Asiatic staple of fine urban dining.

Chop suey is a distinctly American dish, relatively unknown in China until World War II. A medley of stir-fried meat, noodles and vegetables, the name is a corruption of the Cantonese word for "garbage bits." Many believe it originated during the Gold Rush, when Chinese miners were forced to cook with whatever scraps were available.

Today, like liquor stores and storefront churches, you can find a chop suey joint on almost any inner-city block. The key point is inner city. Chinese restaurants specializing in chop suey are rarely found in the suburbs.

But if, like malt liquor, it’s so good, why don’t suburbanites buy it? Like malt liquor, chop suey seems to be overwhelmingly popular in the hood.

I decided it was time to bond with my fellow Detroiters. Unfortunately, after a few visits to various chop suey restaurants, I started to wonder about some of the less flattering myths.

Hmmm, maybe they do use rat meat, I thought.

My friends and I discussed why I held such disdain for "their" food, and I’d rattle off my reasons.

"How authentic is a Chinese food that comes in three flavors: white gravy, brown gravy and extra soy sauce?"

"How much does someone know about Chinese food when they eat shrimp fried rice with ketchup, or substitute rice with fries?"

I’d go on and on, finishing with a smug look on my face. I’d just have to educate these barbarians on the delights of authentic Chinese cuisine! But my friends would answer, sometimes defensively, "Well, it tastes good to me." Who was I to say what was good and bad? I lightened up a bit and visited some of the "finer" chop suey shops. As my friends pointed out, "You just have to know which ones to go to." And they’re right, some places are better than others. Not necessarily good, but at least I knew my chicken dish really was chicken. In all honesty, I could go the rest of my life without ever stepping foot into another chop suey restaurant. My friends and I might still disagree about the quality, but I appreciate the dialogue that has resulted over a plate of "Chinese soul food." We’ve talked stereotypes and issues of race and ethnicity while arguing about the benefits of cultural amalgamation. And yet we remain friends. Who would’ve thought a simple platter of food could’ve been so filling?– Daniel D. Zarazua


Drop by any Dunkin’ Donuts in Detroit on Wednesday, March 10, and get a free cup of coffee to celebrate the chain’s gazillionth cup sold. ... Giovanni’s Cafe Italiano, 31 N. Saginaw in Pontiac, is offering a wild game dinner prepared by Chef Timothy Giroux on Thursday, March 11, at 6 p.m. For tickets ($75 per person) or more info, call 248-334-5241.

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