A Classic Chinese-American Dish Takes On A Mexican Flair : The Salt Jocko Fajardo grew up in Arizona eating Mexican food. But his go-to comfort dish is a Chinese-American classic with a little Mexican thrown in. He tells us how the dish came to his family.
NPR logo A Classic Chinese-American Dish Takes On A Mexican Flair

A Classic Chinese-American Dish Takes On A Mexican Flair

Joaquin "Jocko" Fajardo makes a spicy Mexican version of chop suey, a classic Chinese-American dish.

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Joaquin "Jocko" Fajardo, 39, grew up in Tempe, Ariz., in a large family. Mexican food was an integral part of his upbringing. And yet, the dish that reminds him of home and family is a distinctly Chinese dish, or more accurately, Chinese-American dish: chop suey.

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Chop suey actually came to his family through a Mexican restaurant owned by his great-grandmother and great-aunt. Back in the 1960s, the two women owned a restaurant in Los Angeles. Next door to their Mexican restaurant was a Chinese restaurant. "It lasted for a brief time, and ultimately my [great-aunt] purchased the restaurant," says Fajardo. "They merged the two restaurants, keeping the Asian staff."

As the women taught their new staff to make the Mexican dishes on their menu, they also learned some Asian dishes. Chop suey was one of them. But his great-aunt added distinctly Mexican bits to the recipe: cumin, jalapeno and beans.

Jump to the recipe

The story behind the creation of this Chinese-Mexican fusion dish may seem surprising, but it illustrates a culinary exchange not uncommon in places where different cultures and cuisines coexist. And it is especially true of Chinese food in America.

Take, for example, the origin of chop suey itself. The dish originated in some of the first Chinese restaurants in America, many of them called chop suey houses. The story behind the dish's origin is filled with folklore, with many regions and people claiming to be its creator. But according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Transnational American Studies, there was no single creator. It probably evolved simultaneously in many restaurants. It was made by taking a humble dish made with fried animal intestines and vegetables and adapting it to the tastes of American customers.

"When Chinese restaurants in America began to serve the dish, they had the flexibility to use whatever ingredients were available and whatever sauces they found tasteful and convenient," writes Haiming Liu, a professor at California State Polytechnic University, in his 2009 paper. "There are many different versions of chop suey when it was first spread across America. The only common practice was to use a wok to stir-fry a bundle of ingredients with an innovative sauce."

The result was nothing like the original dish eaten in China, which according to Liu was mostly a home-cooked dish that also "varied from region to region."

It's not just chop suey that evolved to American palates. The vast majority of Chinese-American food did. In fact, Chinese cuisine in many countries has adapted to local tastes and ingredients.

Chinese-Indian food, for example, folds in Indian spices, paneer (Indian cheese) and plenty of Indian vegetables like potato, okra and cauliflower.

PeruvianChinese food blends in both cuisines and goes by the name of chifa. It includes fried rice, called arroz chaufa, that includes corn, a staple in Peru.

And as The Salt has reported, Chinese-Mexican food includes many staples of the local cuisine, like "light-yellow deep-fried chilis." There are also rumors of chefs at Chinese restaurants marinating their pork in tequila.

So it seems only natural that a cuisine that has adapted to local tastes around the globe would continue to evolve in restaurant kitchens. But what is unique perhaps about Fajardo's chop suey — he calls it chop suey with beans — is that it was revised and reinvented not in a Chinese restaurant, but in a Mexican restaurant. And this Mexican adaptation went on to become the restaurant's "family meal" — the employees ate this dish at work, Fajardo says.

His great-aunt even went on to teach the recipe to every woman in their extended family. "She believed that everybody should be able to feed their family at minimal cost," says Fajardo. The dish, with its simple and hearty ingredients — carrots, celery, beans, chicken (or any other meat or fish) — is healthy and inexpensive. "And it's something we came to know as auntie's stew."


Chop Suey With Beans And Rice Recipe

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally

2 celery stalks, sliced diagonally

1 onion, peeled, halved and sliced thinly

2 chicken breasts, halved and cut into 1/4 inch cubes

1 can water chestnuts (drain out the water)

1 cup bean sprouts

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

2 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 cup Basmati rice

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon diced jalapeño with some seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

Sea salt to taste

Rice

Cook rice in 2 cups of chicken stock. Simmer until two-thirds of the liquid has evaporated, then cover until the steam dissipates. Season lightly with salt.

Chop Suey

Saut carrots, celery and onion until onion is golden.

Add the slices of chicken and sauté until browned.

Add the sprouts, water chestnuts and black beans. Keep at a slow simmer.

Mix the remaining chicken stock with the cornstarch and jalapeño. Stir into the simmering chicken and vegetables in the pan. Allow to thicken slightly while stirring for 3-5 minutes. Season with salt to taste.

Serve hot over rice.

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