How A Chinese Diplomat Made Chop Suey Famous

Chinese food is the go-to choice of takeout for most, coming next to only chicken in popularity according to data released by GrubHub and DoorDash (via Eater). The graphics show that Chinese was the most ordered cuisine in six states in the U.S. in 2015. While Chinese food is undoubtedly well-loved, you'll be surprised to find just how many of your favorite foods may not be found in China.

According to NBC News, General Tso's Chicken was the fourth most ordered item on GrubHub in 2015 yet is virtually unheard of in China (via Business Insider). Though inspired by spring rolls, egg rolls are the invention of Chinese-American restauranteurs. Even the iconic orange chicken was created by Panda Express in Hawaii, far from China. Chop suey is one such dish famously associated with Chinese food but whose origin is muddled in history.

A popular theory links the origin of chop suey to the very first wave of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in the 1840s, per Food Republic. While some worked as gold miners, others opened cheap restaurants, and it's here that the chop suey is presumed to have been born. Following violent attacks against the community and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, several Chinese immigrants moved to the more liberal city of New York, bringing with them the recipe for chop suey. According to History Today, legend says that it is here that a visiting Chinese diplomat by the name of Li Hongzhang encountered chop suey and made it the famous dish that it is today.

Li Hongzhang, the theoretical sensation behind chop suey

Although Hongzhang's first-hand experience with chop suey is a matter of dispute, legend says it was during a diplomatic visit to New York in 1896. History Today says it was at a banquet thrown in the diplomat's honor where the only Chinese dish on the menu — chop suey — won Hongzhang over. However, the site thinks that the theory was wrongly purported by newspapers at the time, a claim that author Andrew Coe also agrees with (via Food Republic). On the contrary, Coe claims that Hongzhang never actually ate the chop suey.

When Hongzhang visited the U.S. in 1896, he was the most high-ranking diplomat from China to have ever visited the country. The media was all over the diplomatic journey, there was a renewed interest in Chinese food, and newspapers presented chop suey as a dish that was "emblematic of Chinese food as a whole."

Following the sensational reporting of Hongzhang and his supposed encounter with the chop suey, socialites and members of the middle class rushed to get a taste of the dish themselves. Chop suey was no longer confined to San Francisco or New York as joints popped up all over the country, making it an exotic yet Americanized food that became popular among the masses.