Recipies often have long, storied histories that are passed down from generation to generation. Even in a contemporary sense, it’s difficult to talk about beef bourguignon without mentioning Julia Child. When it comes to food from different cultures, however, we’re often clueless.
I couldn’t tell you very much about different types of curry for example, or the difference between various kinds of Korean rice bowls. Chinese food is no exception here, and I’m often out with a friend who wonders aloud what the difference between chop suey and chow mein is.
Luckily, I’m pretty well-read on that topic, so I can give an accurate answer. The two dishes are pretty distinct from each other in many ways.
Presented here for your education are some of the key differences between chop suey and chow mein.
Understanding Chop Suey
One of the most confusing things about chop suey is that there’s no formal definition of the dish. The name itself doesn’t refer to a single recipe. Instead, it’s the name of a family of related dishes.
Chop suey is a kind of stir-fry made with haphazard leftovers.
Usually, it’s meat, vegetables, and seafood mixed with a thick sauce and rice. Occasionally, however, you’ll see it served with stir-fried noodles instead. Some historians claim that the dish was initially noodle based. In any case, modern chop suey almost always is made with rice instead of noodles.
What About Chow Mein?
There are multiple variants of chow mein, too, but they’re all pretty distinct from chop suey. Chow mein is a stir-fried mix of crispy noodles, meat, vegetables, and seafood. The sauce is usually mostly just soy sauce, with no thickening whatsoever.
One popular chow mein variant, however, known as Hong Kong-style chow mein, is served with a thick brown sauce and especially crispy noodles.
Lo mein is another noodle-based dish that shares a lot of similarities with chow mein. In lo mein, the noodles are steamed instead of fried. If your local Chinese restaurant serves a stir-fried dish with soft noodles, vegetables, meat, and seafood, it’s probably lo mein. If the noodles are crispy, however, it’s definitely chow mein.
The Differences Between Chop Suey and Chow Mein
If you’re not sure about the identity of the stir-fried dish in front of you, here’s a checklist to guide your identification process
Is it made with rice or noodles?
A stir-fried rice dish is definitely not chow mein. You’re probably looking at chop suey instead. If your dish is stir-fried with noodles, it’s usually chow mein, but it might just be an unusual kind of chop-suey instead.
Does it have a thick sauce?
Chop suey usually is flavored with a thick gravy or other thickened sauce. If the dish in front of you has a thin sauce, it’s definitely not chop suey. If it’s got noodles, vegetables, seafood, and meat tossed in soy sauce, it’s probably chow mein.
Are the noodles fried?
If you’re looking at steamed noodles, you’ve got either lo mein or chop suey. In order for a dish to be considered chow mein, the noodles need to be fried. They don’t have to be super crunchy, but they should be slightly crisp.
Is the dish made with leftovers?
Authentic chop suey is made with leftovers stir-fried with rice or occasionally noodles. If your dish is fresh, you could argue that it’s not actually chop suey. If it’s a stir-fried dish made with leftover chow mein and a thick sauce, on the other hand, you’ve got a pretty confusing situation on your hands.
A Cornucopia of Options
One of the most confusing things about chow mein and chop suey is the inconsistent preparation. One chef might put shrimp and lots of garlic in his chow mein, while another chef might elect for no shrimp and fewer spices.
This can quickly lead to a situation where a person might dislike a dish because of one chef’s personal preparation. When it comes to chop suey and chow mein, be sure to try each dish from a variety of sources before you arrive at a judgment. You might be surprised at how diverse each dish can be!
The Differences In Practice
So there you have it! If you want a rice dish, get chop suey. If you want noodles, get chow mein. If you forget the difference, ask! Most restaurants are more than happy to explain what the items on their menu actually contain.
At the end of the day, however, you’re perfectly fine to order either. In both cases, you’ll get a stir-fried dish with lots of flavor and character.