What does chop suey and the richest 7 foot tall Chinese basketball player have in common?
They both come from the same Southern province of Guangdong (Canton) in China, the birthplace of Chinese volleyball and the famous Asian dish that has been enjoyed across the world for centuries.
China literally is translated to the "middle kingdom" and the gigantic Yi Jianlian probably ate a lot of chop suey when he was younger, as his ancient forefathers developed the quick method of frying different ingredients with sauces and herbs. Chop Suey means "assorted pieces" and originated from Taishan (Toisan) in the South, which was the home to many of the early Chinese immigrants to the United States. They fled during China's Opium Wars to find opportunities overseas and to help build the American and Canadian transnational railway. Chow mein means "fried noodles", and originally came from Northern China, as wheat, not rice, was the main crop in that region. It was in the North that this noodle dish was born to become a Chinese culinary institution around the world like pasta is akin to Italian cuisine. As many of these Chinese immigrants settled in all part of the world as cooks, carpenters, book keepers, tailors and traders, their unique style of cooking followed them.
In Bessie Ng Kumlin Ali's book "Chinese in Fiji", she tells of one of Fiji's earliest Chinese settlers, Moy Park Ling, who also came from the same town of Taishan around 1873. Selling drapery, tea and groceries, he advertised in the Fiji Times under his trading name Houng Lee and Co, which was to be the start of a family dynasty whose descendants have continued to this day in Fiji. But the first Chinese to have arrived in Fiji was almost 200 years ago. Luis and Saoo were on board the American brig Eliza, which was shipwrecked off Nairai in the Lomaiviti group of islands in 1808, and were possibly the first Chinese to introduce chop suey to native Fijians. Unfortunately for Luis and the infamous Charles Savage, the European beachcomber who influenced Fiji's early clan wars with his introduction of firearms and gunpowder, were both killed and eaten by natives at Black Rock in Bua around 1813. But probably not as chop suey!
Although still popular in Fiji, chop suey hardly exists in modern Asian cuisine today, as the days of the unidentifiable, oil-soaked vegetables in sauce seasoned with Chinese salt (the asthma-triggering monosodium glutamate, MSG) has been replaced by a healthier stir-fry or wok-fry dish of fresh vegetables, herbs, exotic sauces and a lot less oil. The Australian Chinese dishes have their roots in Hong Kong-style cuisine with its years of British influence, and has developed into a fusion of Western presentation and technique, that sees the vegetables still green and crunchy but not overcooked, and the removal of any added MSG to suit European palates. MSG is a hidden trigger for people susceptible to asthma or breathing difficulties, and should be avoided wherever possible. Although Fiji still allows MSG to be imported as an additive, many countries including Australia, have banned the product as it is recognised as a dangerous food chemical linked to many diseases and disorders. Keeping the vegetables just-cooked helps retain their nutrition and fibre, something that all Fijians need to understand is healthier for you. I know a lot of older Fijians who prefer their vegetables to be soft and mushy, but the essential minerals and natural fibre that we need from eating raw vegetables is lost. Less packaged and tinned foods, plus a lot more raw fruits and semi-cooked or raw vegetables is the key to a healthier Fiji. As is less meat and lots more fresh fish.
I've eaten at a number of the Chinese restaurants in Fiji, some not so good, and if you recall, some that gave me a running stomach! Preparing food in the tropical heat opens the door to many potentially dangerous practices, with chicken and rice being the top two ingredients that must be carefully stored and prepared at the right temperature. Both these ingredients can spoil fast and even though they may both look ok after many hours at room temperature, hidden bacteria thrive in chicken and rice when left outside the food safety zone of between 5 and 60 degrees Celsius for more than four hours. This bacteria is a guaranteed, one-way trip to the toilet during the middle of the night and next day, so drink plenty of ginger in tea or clear broth to help settle the stomach if it happens!
I grew up on chow mein noodles with lots of garlic, ginger and gravy, splashed with a hot chilli sauce, and I remember my grandmother always saying that "noodles are long life, so the more you eat the longer you'll live!". My dad also makes incredible Chow Mein, but when it came to asking your Chinese parents for recipes, they would always say "I don't know. I just cook it". And if you dared ask about the measurements the answer was always "I don't know. Until it tastes right!". It wasn't until I got a lot older and more interested in becoming a chef that I started to take notes. My chefs on Castaway Island always laugh when I bring out my original notebook of secret Asian recipes, with techniques from the many Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai and Japanese chefs that I have met along my career. Over 20 years old, this small school book is covered with sauce and oil stains, and resembles something out of an Indiana Jones movie, as each page represents a different kitchen, a different mentor and different time of my life. A relic and memory of my Asian heritage and cooking background! So today I've dusted off that book, and share one of my favourite recipes for a healthy chow mein noodle dish.
* Lance Seeto is an international food & travel writer and Australian Executive Chef based at Castaway Island, Fiji. Follow his culinary adventures on Facebook at Fijian Food Safari or www.fijianfoodsafari.com