Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking
As with chow mein, chop suey is a simple Chinese-style dish that can be adapted to what you happen to have in the kitchen. There is no universally-agreed recipe, but wherever I have eaten it, the common denominator has been bean sprouts, so that is what this recipe is based on.
Many Chinese recipes use monosodium glutamate, but we’re going to do without it. It is a kind of salty flavor-enhancer that occurs naturally in certain foods, but eventually some scientist made it as a powder. It’s about as traditional as chicken nuggets, so you can live without it. The Chinese did for thousands of years.
We’re using chicken, but you’ve seen a Chinese menu: you could do it with pork, beef or prawns. The chicken is pre-cooked – maybe the remains of a roast. Just pull it apart into strips a few inches long.
The way I see it, this is a light dish full of vegetables, with plenty of gravy at the bottom, the meat or seafood for protein, and rice on the side for energy and bulk.
Vegetables are mainly water, and bean sprouts particularly so. That is probably why there is that old thing about having a Chinese meal and being hungry again an hour later. If that happens, though, it just means you didn’t eat enough rice.
The water chestnuts are there purely to add to the Chineseness of the dish. If you’ve never knowingly eaten them before, they don’t have a pronounced flavor but they do have a surprising crunchiness.
The ingredients are just suggestions. The only must-have is the bean sprouts.
Sugar snap peas
Pak choi (chopped)
Water chestnuts (canned)
Strips of chicken (already roasted or fried)
Garlic (finely chopped or crushed)
Heat a little oil in a wok or a big frying pan and quickly do the garlic, but don’t let it burn. Add half a cup of water and half a chicken stock cube, then the sugar snap peas and the pak choi. When the vegetables have cooked down a bit, add the bean sprouts and water chestnuts and stir well to get everything juicy with stock.
Then add the chicken and season to taste with soy sauce, salt and pepper. If you like a lot of gravy, add some more chicken stock.
Serve with boiled rice and lap up the compliments from people who think you’ve done something difficult.
If you don’t use pak choi or sugar snap peas, just get something green in there. Savoy cabbage, celery tops, broccoli florets or spinach, maybe. You can slice some mushrooms thinly and add them early on with the garlic. If you can’t find any water chestnuts but you do see bamboo shoots, use them. You’re not slavishly following orders – you’re creating something.