Wor Sue Gai and Claiming Local Identity
Wor Sue Gai is a local favorite that can be found on the menu in almost every Chinese restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. Literally translated, Wor Sue Gai means “Wok Seared Chicken.” While different restaurants may have slightly varying versions, Wor Sue Gai generally seems to be a portion of de-boned chicken (breast or thigh) that is breaded or battered, deep fried, and then sliced. This sliced chicken is then served atop a bed of lettuce (generally shredded iceberg lettuce) with a gravy ranging in color from orange to brown that is drizzled over everything. According to Steve Yee, preparing Wor Sue Gai requires several steps. Yee is the third-generation owner and operator of Ding Ho, one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Columbus, Ohio. He states:
To make the Wor Sue Gai is a very long process. You gotta take a whole chicken and simmer it in the broth for about forty-five minutes. You gotta let it cool down, the chicken, then you gotta debone the chicken. Then you gotta bread the chicken, fry the chicken, and that’s a lot of work (Steve Yee 2007).
According to my internet searches for the recipe, chopped or slivered almonds sprinkled over everything also seems to be an essential part of the dish, giving rise to its alternate name: Almond Chicken or Almond Boneless Chicken.
What is particularly intriguing about this dish is the claim that it is a local creation although the exact origin story is a bit murky. “We’re [Ding Ho and Wing’s] one of the original inventors of the Wor Sue Gai, with Wing’s on East Main. We’re trying to figure out who did or [if] both came up with the original concept of it,” claims Yee (Steve Yee 2007). In continuous operation since 1955, Ding Ho is a rich repository of memories and information about Chinese restaurants in Columbus. Wing’s is another long-standing Chinese restaurant in Columbus, located in the East Side of the city in an area called Bexley. Kenny Yee (no relation), the owner and operator of Wing’s Restaurant, agrees that Wor Sue Gai is a dish that “basically you can only get in the state of Ohio. It originated in Columbus” (Kenny Yee 2007).
Unlike many other dishes offered in Chinese restaurants, Wor Sue Gai has not been the subject of debate about authenticity. Neither restaurant critics nor patrons have questioned whether or not it is truly a "Chinese" dish that has traveled from China or whether it was a bastardized creation for the American palate. Its purported origin story already places it in America, not China, although its association with things Chinese remains. Thus, Wor Sue Gai raises some intriguing questions about its identity. In terms of Chinese food, most people would likely agree that if a dish was made in America, then it is not really “Chinese.” Yet Wor Sue Gai is not really subject to those types of questions. While it is understood to have originated on American soil, it retains its association with Chinese restaurants, especially since it is generally not found in non-Chinese restaurants in Columbus. People do not seem to have issues with its level of Chinese authenticity or inauthenticity but simply accept that it is found in Chinese restaurants. Thus, this paper will not define characteristics of Chinese cuisine and then attempt to determine whether Wor Sue Gai is “authentic” enough to enter those ranks. Instead, I explore the multi-layered and somewhat muddy background of a Chinese restaurant dish and examine its implications for claims of authenticity in cuisine.
Authenticity and Folklorists
Folklorists, as well as many scholars in other disciplines, understand authenticity as a construct. They recognize that cultural practices deemed traditional may have been altered over time by a variety of modifying influences, or have foreign, capricious, or recent origins (Bendix 1997, Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). For many scholars, then, the notion that authenticity exists is a fallacy. They encourage dismantling the idea of authenticity, claiming that its use has been more harmful than helpful if cultural practices are held to such standards of scrutiny. Adding to folklorists’ skepticism of authenticity is its intersections with ethnicity. As Regina Bendix states, “Ethnicity and authenticity have grown to be uneasy partners in areas other than folkloristics”(1997:210). Scholars such as Bendix point out that the concept is perpetually shifting so that there is no stability. She writes, “Authenticity thus proves to be contextually emergent, lacking the essence that human beings have wished to attach to it” (Bendix 1997:210).
While this may be true, history has forced some ethnic groups into identifying and using authenticity as a means of empowerment. Authenticity continues to be a powerful ingredient in the self-realization, identity, and political power of ethnic groups despite its contextually emergent nature. For example, academic disciplines impose standards and ways of thinking that nurture ideas of authentic essentialism in the study of ethnic identity and lawmakers rely on notions of authenticity in deciding which projects to nurture and dole public funds to. These are unavoidable facts in the pairing of ethnicity and authenticity. Bendix recognizes the complications and potential downfalls of ascribing authenticity to any cultural expression but she does not seem to recognize its empowering possibilities. In her concluding remarks, she writes that she “advocates laying to rest the use of authenticity within scholarship, and it constitutes my effort to undermine the social and political power of discourses on authenticity” (1997:227). In addition, Bendix contends that “Rather than giving in to the temptation of constructing new, elusive authenticities, cultural scholarship aware of the deceptive nature of authenticity concepts may turn its attention toward learning to tell the story of why human search for authenticity and why this search is fraught with such agony” (1997:227-228).
Bendix is correct in thinking that scholars must be aware of the complexities, complications, and deceptions that authenticity may engender, yet we must resist the temptation to dismiss and undermine it because of these potentially harmful scenarios. Authenticity certainly has been used to dominate and to disempower, but people also find value in claiming authenticity as a tool of empowerment and resistance. While authenticity can be used to oppress, as Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger have shown in The Invention of Tradition (1983), it can also be used to legitimate and empower groups that have been historically disempowered. Therefore, rather than expunging authenticity as a superfluous aspect of cultural expression, a more valuable way to understand authenticity is to acknowledge and embrace its existence, and to examine how it is being used. Rather than disregarding the concept entirely, it might prove more useful to reexamine assumptions about authenticity. We may be better served to accept that there are multiple authenticities and accept it as an unstable concept. As a powerful tool that ethnic groups have used to gain recognition and voice, it cannot be so easily dismissed. Such a move would leave ethnic groups with less power to dismantle cultural hegemony. While Wor Sue Gai does not currently hold such political power for any group, it is an example of how authenticity can be viewed as empowering.
The Story of Wor Sue Gai
That Wor Sue Gai was created in Columbus is a widely held belief in the city. Anecdotal stories and conversations with restauranteurs and acquaintances reinforced the strength of this idea. Yet it seems curious that this seemingly common dish would have originated and spread from a city that was not known for having a large Chinese population. I am familiar with the names of many Cantonese dishes through my research on vintage Chinese restaurant menus and my own Cantonese background. While I was not specifically aware of this dish, it seemed familiar enough – the “wor sue” transliteration indicated Cantonese or the Toisan dialect – the languages of most of the Chinese population in the United States up to 1965. The “gravy” conjured up the vague orange/brown-color of the sauce often ladled onto Egg Foo Youngi and other Chinese dishes frequently found on vintage Chinese restaurant menus. Other similar-sounding dishes include Wor Sue Ap/Opp (the Toisan pronunciation of “gravy duck”) or Wor Siu Ap/Opp (roasted duck). The name “Wor Sue Gai” did not seem to indicate any particularly outstanding characteristic or hint at any locality. In fact, it seemed to be just another standard dish, similar to chow mein in ordinariness though perhaps not quite as commonplace. However, after reviewing several Chinese restaurant vintage menus from cities across the United Statesii, I discovered that while some restaurants offered Wor Sue Ap/Opp, none of them listed Wor Sue Gai as a dish, indicating that it was perhaps indeed a more obscure dish than I had previously assumed. It seemed strange that if there was Wor Sue duck, cooks would not think of making Wor Sue chicken.
Documentation of the dish itself is difficult to track. Spelling is an issue when conducting research on Wor Sue Gai as there were no standardized transliterations of Cantonese used in print. The dish has been spelled variably as “Warr Shu Gai” or “War Su Gai.” In addition, it may have been listed under other names such as Almond Boneless Chicken. But even under the same name (especially with a more broad name as Almond Boneless Chicken), the recipe itself might be different from what is generally understood to be Wor Sue Gai in Columbus.iii
Wor Sue Gai appears on internet food discussion boards such as Chowhound.iv There are several threads where posters seek or reminisce about this dish. For example, one poster states, “I'm a transplant from SE Michigan. Most Chinese restaurants in that area serve a dish called ‘Almond Boneless Chicken’ or ‘Warr-Shu-Gai’……. Have any of you spotted this dish anywhere in the DC area?”v Another poster laments, “I have heard this is a Detroit dish - we certainly ate it in every Cantonese restaurant there - it does not seem to exist in Chicago….. The man needs his War Siu Gai and he needs it now! Can anyone help?”vi Despite the numerous Chinese restaurants located in these cities, Wor Sue Gai is not to be found in the cities to which these Michigan transplants have moved. The fact that it cannot be found in the Chinese restaurants of Chicago or DC indicates that, unlike chow mein or fried rice, Wor Sue Gai may not be part of standard Chinese restaurant fare as I had originally assumed. The fact that posts about Wor Sue Gai generally involved asking others where they might find it, also indicates the dish has a type of uniqueness, in this case, a regional uniqueness. Indeed, all this lends validity to the idea that it might very well be a localized regional dish.
It is also interesting to note that several of the posters mention Detroit, or more frequently Michigan, in relation to Wor Sue Gai, either noting that they (the posters) were originally from Detroit or other areas of Michigan where Chinese restaurants always offered it or speak of the dish as having originated from Detroit. Other online searches also indicate a Detroit connection. One food blogger writes, “Tonight I had the guts to try and replicate a chicken dish that is popular in Chinese restaurants around Detroit, MI. It's [sic] proper name is Wor Su Gai, but my family calls it ABC, short for almond boneless chicken” (Unsigned 2007). Like the posters from Chowhound.com, the blogger indicates that the dish in the version that she is accustomed to (in Detroit) cannot be found in her current locale: “I can only get this when I visit my family up north. I have been to many a chinese [sic] restaurant around here in Atlanta and not one has come close. So when I browsed the web for a recipe I was jumping for joy when I actually found one” (Ibid). Her recipe is taken from About.comvii and on the site, there is an introduction to the recipe: “War Su Gai is a Chinese-American dish consisting of deep-fried chicken that is coated with a flavorful gravy and garnished with almonds. Although not widely available, it's a specialty in Detroit, Michigan, Columbus, Ohio, and no doubt a few other areas” (Parkinson n.d.). Here we see another claim for its Detroit connection as well as a Columbus connection. And in a 1991 email, Leah Smith claims:
Warr Shu Gai or Almond Boneless Chicken, like chop suey, is a Chinese-inspired American dish. So far as I have been able to determine, it originated in Detroit. It was a favorite dish of my childhood there. Every Cantonese restaurant in the area serves it, but I've never been able to find it outside of Michigan. Descriptions of it to Chinese restaurant personnel elsewhere have been met with blank stares (Smith 1991).viii
Based on these internet discussions, it would appear that Wor Sue Gai has a stronger association with Detroit than Columbus.
This raises the question of whether Steve Yee, the owner of Ding Ho, may be incorrect in his claim that Ding Ho or Wing’s invented the dish. One poster on Chowhound.com explains Wor Sue Gai’s beginnings in a way that seems to definitively place Detroit as its birthplace:
The reason that it developed in Detroit is because it was easy to make cafateria [sic] style and many of the cooks at the automotive plants were Chinese immigrants, so like most Chinese American dishes it was adapted to cooking early in the morning and being ready to compile about 4 hours later. Most true Chinese dishes are stir fried and served immediately. Not conducive to serving cafeteria style. Local resturants [sic] adapted to customer demands and started making this adaptation. So there is the connection: Detroit=automotive plantscafeteria=chinese immigrant cooks=War Su Gai. Thats [sic] my theory and if Pearls [sic] in Birmingham Michigan is still around Pearl could cooberate [sic] that theory (she was the Head Cook at General Motors). Lets [sic] hope the recipe doesn't die with the auto industry.ix
There are several fascinating elements to this story. First, the poster links Wor Sue Gai with the Detroit auto industry and by doing so, reinforces the dish as American-made – much like the Detroit auto industry. Another point of interest is the conception of cafeteria food versus Chinese cuisine. Chinese dishes are stir-fried and served immediately while cafeteria food (read: low quality food) requires advance preparation to be put together hours later. In fact, Wor Sue Gai is a labor intensive dish that involves several steps. It seems an unlikely candidate for cafeteria style food.
What is remarkable about this story is not that it provides any definitive or true origin of Wor Sue Gai. In fact, it not a definitive explanation, nor do we know if it is true. What is revealing about this story is that this popular dish, found in several Chinese restaurants, is presumed to originate in America. The actual origins of the dish are unknown or not clear, which allows for a creation story that is located in an American context. It is worth noting that in this story, Wor Sue Gai is not presumed to be just a Chinese dish; instead, it is a dish created in America by a Chinese cook for American tastes and is thus an American Chinese dish. Much like the ruminations that often accompany chop suey (Coe 2009, Calvin Lee 1958, Jennifer Lee 2008, Liu 2009, Yu 1987), information about Wor Sue Gai follows a trope about Chinese food in the United States: the belief that much, if not all, Chinese food in America is somehow fake, made-up, or bastardized for American tastes. Like chop suey, Wor Sue Gai is a popular dish on Chinese restaurant menus (at least in Columbus and apparently Detroit), but it is also seen as having been invented in the United States.
Chop Suey and Chinese Cuisine
Until relatively recently, chop suey was found on the menu of almost every Chinese restaurant. For the better part of a century, it was touted as the quintessential Chinese dish – a mixture of small bits of meats and vegetables in an indeterminate sauce. Today, however, chop suey is one of those dishes that many people consider to be an inauthentic representation of Chinese cuisine, a dish created by Chinese cooks in America for the unsuspecting white American palate, and its presence can mark a Chinese restaurant as inauthentic or old-fashioned.
There are two main stories about the origin of chop suey. One is that hungry miners wandered into a Chinese restaurant and the chef had nothing but leftover pieces which he cooked into a hash called “chop suey” (Lee 1958: 27). Another is that Li Hongzhang, a high-ranking diplomat from China, visited the US in 1896 and had his chefs prepare a meal for his hosts in reciprocation for their hospitality. However, unsure that the dinner guests would be amenable to more traditional fare, he instructed they cook American meats and vegetables in a Chinese style and named it “chop suey”(Lee 1958: 28). Alternate versions of the diplomat’s visit claim that he was not accustomed or fond of Western so food and so he either went to a Chinese restaurant and ate chop suey or had his chefs prepared chop suey for him (Yu 1987). But in fact, journalist Andrew Coe, author of Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States, maintains that Li never did eat chop suey during his visit to the United States. He writes that newspapers, unsure of what Li was really eating, widely reported him as doing so, most likely, as he explains it, “because chop suey, the only Chinese dish most white Americans had tasted, had become emblematic of Chinese food as a whole” (Coe 2009: 163).x A third, lesser known version involves Lem Sen, a San Francisco cook, who insisted that right before Li visited the United States, Lem invented chop suey at the behest of the owner of a bohemian San Francisco restaurant who wanted a dish that would pass as Chinese and satisfy the current interest in China due to the diplomat’s impending visit” (Coe 2009:176, Lee 2008:61).xi All these origin stories place chop suey in the context of America as an invented dish created by Chinese cooks for the American palate. To lend even more credence to the idea that chop suey was an American creation, one often hears stories of Chinese from or in China who do not recognize the dish or who have never heard of it. Coe tells us that a 1904 Boston Globe article profiled six Chinese students who claimed that they had never heard of chop suey until they arrived in the US (2009:177). After all, it only seemed logical that someone from China would be in the best position to know about Chinese cuisine and whether chop suey was Chinese or not.
However, Coe seems to imply that chop suey was in fact a dish that was already being eaten by the Chinese as a Chinese dish. He cites the journalist Allan Forman who wrote of an 1886 dinner at Mong Sing Wah’s in New York city in which a lawyer friend ordered in Chinese, “chow chop-suey, chop-seow, lanonraan, san-sui-goy, no-ma-das” (2009:158). Coe describes the meal as “not a banquet of rare ingredients imported from China but a meal off the menu – the everyday restaurant food eaten by New York’s Chinese” (2009:158). And the six students from China who had never heard of chop suey until they came to the United States? Two of them hailed from areas close to the Yangzi River and the rest from Guangzhou. In other words, they were not familiar with chop suey because they were not from the Pearl River Delta area of China which Coe states, “would have an outsized influence on the American perception of Chinese food” (Coe 2009:100). What Coe is referring to is the Toishan area/county by the Pearl River Delta in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong from which most of America’s Chinese population hailed from prior to 1965 due to America’s restrictive immigration laws. Thus, Chinese cuisine in the United States was essentially the regional cuisine of the Pearl River Delta. As further proof, Coe cites Hong Kong surgeon Li Shu-Fan’s memoir:
I first tasted chop suey in a restaurant in Toishan in 1894, but the preparation had been familiar in that city long before my time. The recipe was probably taken to America by Toishan people, who, as I have said, are great travelers. Chinese from places as near to Toishan as Canton and Hong Kong are unaware that chop suey is truly a Chinese dish, and not an American adaptation (Coe 2009:161).
Chop suey is indeed a familiar dish from the Pearl Delta county of Toisan. My own family hails from that region and I recall my mother, born in the 1930s, who never cooked anything that resembled an American meal, often prepared what she identified as “chop suey” as one of the dishes for the family meal and it was never considered “American.” In her version of chop suey, celery, onions, daikon, mushrooms, and either pork or chicken were stir fried together with oyster sauce. According to my father,xii chop suey was eaten in China, but there it referred to a technique that became popular during the 19th century before it became known in America as the name of a specific dish (Yan 2012).
Chop-suey itself it is not a particularly unique or imaginative use of ingredients. It is not like putting bacon and chocolate together where you have savory and sweet combined or the blurring of meat and dessert foods in combinations that are not usually put together. In a culinary tradition that includes the technique of stir-frying chopped meats and vegetables together, it is not inconceivable that a dish such as chop suey could have come from China. Chop suey is a very practical type of dish. In fact, as the conversation with my father suggests, chop suey is not even the name of a dish; it is more like a type of dish. The translation of “chop-suey” means “bits and pieces” and the “chow chop-suey” that Allan Forman and his friend dined on in 1896 means “stir-fried bits and pieces.” Essentially, chop suey or chow chop suey is taking whatever you have in the kitchen (perhaps leftovers), cutting it up into small pieces, and stir-frying them together. So if perhaps you are in a Chinese (home) kitchen and you dine on a dish of stir-fried sliced pork or chicken or any other meat with chopped vegetables and you ask your host, “What is the name of this delicious dish?” If your host replies, “Oh, it’s just chop suey,” what he or she is essentially saying is, “Oh, it’s just leftovers” or “Oh, it’s just a hash I threw together” or “Oh, it’s Mystery Surprise.” It’s not the name of a dish; it is meant as a general catch-all description of smaller bits of food put together and stir fried. It is a humble food: plain, simple, and economical. It is homestyle Chinese food of the Toisan Chinese; essentially it is peasant food.
When Americans first began to take notice of chop suey, it was a little unclear what it consisted of. The bits and pieces that make chop suey could be anything, such as gizzards, sprouts, or fish, for as Coe writes that “in nineteenth century New York, the definition of chop suey was anything but fixed” (2009:160). Because Chinese chop suey meant that anything could be thrown together and stir-fried, it could be leftovers or it could be could whatever the cook felt like putting together that day. The theory often bandied about Chinese foods becoming Americanized because of substitution or adaptation because of the unavailability of specific ingredients does not really apply here because of the chop suey principle of various bits and pieces thrown together. There is no must-have ingredient to substitute. This flexibility is perhaps what allowed chop suey to become known as “Americanized.” For example, Shiu Wong Chan’s The Chinese Cookbook has this to say about a chicken chop suey recipe: “This dish is not known in China. From its name it means simply a variety of small pieces. However, the principles of Chinese cooking are the same” (Chan 1917:37).xiii Chan identifies chop suey as a Chinese cooking method and this echoes my own feeling that chop suey as a method, or a cooking principle, is rooted in Chinese cuisine.
However, for many people, what makes a dish Chinese is not the principle but the ingredients. In the case of chop suey in the United States, the burden of authenticity seemed to whether you had the proper ingredients, whatever they may be (and indeed, as Coe noted, it was not so clear cut). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yes, Chinese ingredients and vegetables were not as widely available as they are today and substitutions most likely did occur. But chop suey did not necessarily require substitutions as it was already a flexible dish. It may have, apparently, been presumed to contain a set list of ingredient substitutions (which it did not), and any change or “substitution” would thus be described as “Americanized.” Chop suey in one form could conceivably be “Americanized” if the ingredients are say, chopped potatoes, ham, and cheese cubes stirred fried in wok because they are ingredients that are not usually utilized in Chinese cuisine. But if such a dish did exist, it would be less “substitution” than perhaps a deliberate creative endeavor. But if the principles are still the same – chopped bits and pieces stir fried together – it could still be chop suey.
Coe writes that the idea that chop suey is not Chinese had “staying power” (Coe 2009:177) despite the lack of documentary evidence for stories of the miners or of Li Hongzhang’s chop suey adventures during his American visit. He points out that the idea of chop suey as a big hoax continues in popular culture from the headlines of a 1918 Philadelphia inquirer that announced “The Origin of Chop Suey Is An Enormous Chinese Joke” to Jennifer Lee’s proclamation that it was the “biggest culinary joke played by one culture on another” (Lee 2008:49). He observantly notices that in all these cases of chop-suey-as-fake-Chinese-food, it is the American who is the butt of the joke, “too ignorant to recognize real Chinese food” (Coe 2009:177) and “too stupid to know that they were essentially eating garbage” (Ibid:178). He writes that “the punch line about eating garbage suggests a veiled revenge (analogous to the chef spitting in the soup) for decades of mistreatment. Call it a myth that conveys a larger historical ‘truth’” (Coe 2009:178). Coe is onto something in that statement. The persistent labeling of chop suey as fake Chinese food for stupid Americans may very well indeed suggest an anxiety about the Chinese and their mysterious cuisine. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese culture was still something that was unknown and to be feared; it represented a site of fascination and exoticism. But what could be known was chop suey, the somewhat “addictive” dish that the Chinese made in their restaurants. One part of the search for authentic Chinese food (depending on who you were – a non Chinese versus a Chinese person) may have been the desire not to be the butt of the joke, to not be the “ignorant” American. Despite the “addictive qualities” that made one go to a Chinese restaurant again and again for chop suey, you were not taken in by that incredible “hoax.”
But the larger historical truth may not be the revenge fantasy that Coe seems to think. Chop suey is a food of the “contact zone” which Mary Louise Pratt describes as “the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict” (Pratt 1992:6). Chop suey as a contact zone food does not mean that it is a hybrid, like the creolization of languages. It is a contact zone food because it raises questions about identity and power relations. The larger historical truth that Chinese food in America reveals is perhaps that Chinese food often represents this search for the authentic, a direct and verifiable connection to the Chinese motherland.
Back to Wor Sue Gai. The frequent mentions of the Detroit connection may indicate to some that Wor Sue Gai did originate in Detroit rather than Columbus. However, it does not necessarily mean that Steve Yee or Kenny Yee are incorrect in their origin stories. It is possible that Ding Ho or Wing’s created the dish and the recipe made its way north to Detroit via a restaurant patron who enjoyed the dish or perhaps an associate of the restaurant who later moved to Detroit and that Detroit embraced it even more than Columbus did. While both Steve Yee and Kenny Yee are unclear as to who created the dish, Ding Ho or Wing’s, they do believe that it originated in Columbus. After all, it does not appear to be part of the Chinese restaurant menu lexicon in other cities. In addition, Ding Ho and Wing’s have always offered Wor Sue Gai on their menus, and both are among the oldest Chinese restaurants in Columbus. Thus, the idea that Wor Sue is a Columbus invention is not an unreasonable conclusion to make.
Efforts to track the origins of Wor Sue Gai are as much about satisfying a simple curiosity about how this popular dish came to be as a desire to understand its connection to China. Origin stories are comforting; they can tell us exactly how, where and how something started without the ungraspable nebulosity of the unknown. As Jennifer Lee wrote about her wish that the story of Lem Sen inventing chop suey was actually true, “These symbolic characters make the mess of history more streamlined, palatable, and digestible – not unlike Americanized Chinese food. Against a backdrop of chaos, there is a single pleasant narrative” (Lee 2008:64). More importantly, in the case of foodways, it tells us how we should treat/view a dish by situating it in the realm of the inauthentic or authentic. Origins of food seem to be important, especially for food that doesn’t seem “American” in the context of the United States. Knowing the origins of Wor Sue Gai will decide whether it is Chinese or “Americanized.” If we know that Wor Sue Gai was invented in Columbus (or Detroit), then we can say that it is not really Chinese because it was invented in the United States. Then we are not the butt of any joke, armed with the sure-fire knowledge that puts us in on the “know.”
For any cultural expression, it is important to make the distinction about the type of authenticity that is in question. In the case of Wor Sue Gai, authenticity is not about whether this dish is truly part of the cuisine of China. It seems accepted that it is a product of America though an “exact” origin story could confirm the suspicion. When people talk about the authenticity of Wor Sue Gai, however, they are usually not talking about whether it is Chinese or not. Rather, they are talking about how it is made and whether it is good or not. Some people in Columbus are passionate about their Wor Sue Gai. One regular diner at Ding Ho states:
What I like about the Wor Sue Gai the best is the chicken – the way it’s cooked and breaded on the inside and they have a sauce. The sauce was over it. And the diced onions. And I like the almonds that they crunch up on them. The almonds are sort of my favorite on it and I always like extra almonds. You know it makes it taste better. I love chicken so well . . . When they make it so moist and it’s just got a different taste. It’s something about the sauce mixed in with the chicken and the onion, with chopped up onions, green onion. It’s something about just the taste that’s just. . .It’s like eating a potato chip. You can’t eat one and I’m saying you sort of get hooked on it, you know. Like my son said, last week we come over to here to eat, he said, hey dad, I could eat it every day of the week and I sort of chuckle to myself. It’s the same way I feel from all those years I’ve been eating since the late sixties and seventies. I’ve ate Wor Sue Gai at other places and it’s just really not even close to being the taste.….I just love the taste of Wor Sue Gai (Follrod 2013).
The process and labor involved in making Wor Sue Gai seems to require several steps that are not as quick and easy as chop suey. Steve Yee does not use the actual word “authenticity” when he described the process of making Wor Sue Gai, but he has an idea of what “real” or “authentic” Wor Sue Gai is. He observes, “There’s a lot of imitations….Whereas a lot restaurants call that Wor Sue Gai and you buy chicken breasts and batter it and deep fry it and call that Wor Sue Gai” (Steve Yee 2007). His meaning is clear: there is a real Wor Sue Gai and a Wor Sue Gai that is not so real. Here, authenticity seems to be conflated/equated with quality or effort. The use of just chicken breasts rather than simmering the entire chicken is a fast food short cut that is obviously not as good as the process he believes is required for Wor Sue Gai. For the short-cutters, Wor Sue Gai is not about process but simply about deep frying battered chicken breasts. And that is the issue Yee seems to have with this type of Wor Sue Gai – that the cooks did not really understand what constitutes the dish. For Yee, the burden of authenticity lies within the entire process of simmering, deboning, breading, etc in making Wor Sue Gai. For the short-cutters, the element necessary to make the Wor Sue Gai is the battered deep fried chicken breast. What we see here is a differentiation of what people mean by authentic in the very same dish. Authentic Wor Sue Gai is about process.
In the cases of chop suey and Wor Sue Gai, it is important to note that the flavor of the dish is not contested in terms of its Chinese-ness. For the diners who are not intimately familiar with Chinese cuisine, an origin story that links it directly to China might be enough proof that it is Chinese. The fact that it is served by Asian people might also be enough verification. Or that the other diners in the restaurant are Asian. Perhaps it is because diners who are not intimately familiar with Chinese cuisine may not know enough to make assessments of authenticity based on flavor and must rely on other cues to validate a restaurant’s authenticity or inauthenticity. In such cases, how can one know what is authentic Chinese food? Elizabeth Rozin states that it is possible to re-create the flavors of any cultural cuisine by identifying and isolating the different flavors (or spices) that are used in combination in any particular culture. She writes, “A flavor principle, then, is the taste that results from a mixture of several flavoring ingredients that are used together frequently and consistently within a cuisine, a taste that can be abstracted and described apart from the basic foodstuffs the ingredients interact with (Rozin 1973:3). In order to approximate or at least come close to recreating authentic cuisine from a specific culture, one must understand the flavoring principles behind their dishes. So for instance, if one wanted to prepare a dish that tasted West African, one would use tomato, peanuts, and chili as the primary ingredients. While Rozin admits that a dish outside its home origin may not be reproduced with absolute authenticity since ingredients may be slight different or cooking techniques may vary, “with time and effort, authenticity can be achieved” (1973:4). The achievable authenticity is in the flavor even in approximation. Rozin comments, “The flavor principle idea proposes that seeming or theoretical authenticity may be a more valid goal and in fact permits mastery of a foreign cuisine without the necessity of conforming absolutely to the limits of that cuisine – in short, liberation from the non-essential and freedom improvise” (1973:4). Thus, authenticity or mastery of a foreign cuisine is not so much an exact reproduction as it is an understanding of the underlying flavor principles that make up a culture’s cuisine.
What is important is not so much how Wor Sue Gai came about, who invented it, and where it was invented. It may or may not have originated in Columbus. It might even be found in other cities besides Columbus or Detroit. What is important to note is that it is a Columbus dish. At the same time, it is also a Detroit dish. It is also a Chinese dish. It is also an American dish. What Wor Sue Gai tells us is that like any cultural expression, it has multiple layers in its identity and multiple co-existing identities that are not contradictory. What makes it all of these things is not a linear origin story that neatly lays out the birth of an immutable dish. What is important to note is that Wor Sue Gai is all of these things because they all claim Wor Sue Gai. It is a local dish because it is embraced by the people of Columbus and Detroit. Authenticity is not about origins so much as it is about claiming and who claims the cultural expression as rightfully their own.
1. Egg Foo Young is an essentially a fried egg patty. Two or three raw eggs are mixed with chopped onions and bits of meat such as pork, chicken, beef, or shrimp. Sometimes spring onions and/or bean sprouts are added. The mixture is then deep fried and seved over rice with gravy ladled on top of everything. The dish also has variations in spelling and may also be spelled as Egg Fu Yung.
2. I own a small collection of vintage Chinese restaurant menus that I purchased individually on eBay. The menus were generally dated as being from the 1940s to the 1960s. Although the actual date of any given menu can be difficult to verify, the pricing and the types of dishes offered indicate a time period prior to the 1970s.
3. Although there may be variations on the spelling, I use “Wor Sue Gai” to reference the dish.
4. Chowhound is the discussion board of www.chow.com and describes itself as “community of discerning eaters share information and opinions about cooking and restaurants.” Please see http://chowhound.chow.com/boards.
5. jahrjame, 2007, Almond Boneless Chicken in DC area?, Nov 1 http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/456433 (accessed July 20, 2012).
6. Madd, 2002, ISO War Siu Gai - Almond Boneless Chicken, Dec 3 http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/111872 (accessed July 20, 2012).
7. About.com provides content on a variety of topics and is owned by the New York Times Company. More about the company can be found at http://www.advertiseonabout.com/about-us/.
8. Leah Smith’s 1991 email about Wor Sue Gai appears on several different sites. I found and used her email from the following link: http://kabish.com/recipes/recipes.php?id=147 (accessed July 20, 2012). In addition, portions of her email that identify the origins of Wor Sue Gai have been reproduced in varying forms to accompany reproductions of her recipe which she claims to have obtained from the Detroit Free Press. However, a search of the Detroit Free Press’s website yielded no information on Wor Sue Gai in any of the spelling variations.
9. dave59, 2009 reply comment to thread entitled “Please Describe Almond Chicken To Me,” June 12, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/16141 (accessed July 21, 2012).
10. Coe also states that the New York Journal painstakingly recorded every bite the diplomat ate in public and every move of his four chefs and according to the records, chop suey was not one of the things he ate (2009:163).
11. Both Coe 2009 and Lee 2008 reference the original story that was reported in the New York Times in 1904.
12. My father was also trained as a chef in Hong Kong in the 1950s and opened a Chinese take-out in Baltimore for over thirty years.
13. Actually, the Chinese characters printed before the recipe is “Stir Fried Chicken Slices” but in English, it was printed as Chicken Chop Suey.References Cited
- Bendix, Regina. 1997. In Search of Authenticity: The Formation of Folklore Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Chan, Shiu Wong. 1917. The Chinese Cookbook. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company.
- Chowhound. http://chowhound.chow.com (Accessed July 20, 2012).
- Coe, Andrew. 2009. Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Follrod, Ron. 2013. Interview by the author, Columbus, Ohio. April 14.
- Hobsbawn, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. 1983. The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Lee, Calvin. 1958. Chinese Cooking for American Kitchens. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Lee, Jennifer. 2008. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. New York: Twelve Press.
- Liu, Haiming. 2009. Chop Suey as Imagined Authentic Chinese Food: The Culinary Identity of Chinese Restaurants in the United States. Journal of Transnational American Studies 1 (1):12; available at: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2bc4k55r 28.1. ISSN: 1940-076.
- Parkinson, Rhonda. N.d. War Su Gai, http://chinesefood.about.com/od/poultry/r/War-Sui- Gai.htm (accessed Friday, July 20, 2012).
- Pratt, Mary Louise. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge.
- Rozin, Elizabeth Rozin. 1973. The Flavor Principle Cookbook. New York: Hawthorn Books.
- Smith, Leah. 1991. Email about Wor Sue Gai. http://kabish.com/recipes/recipes.php?id=147 ( accessed July 20, 2012).
- Unsigned. 2007. Wor Su Gai or Almond Boneless Chicken. Culinary Infatuation (blog). December 28. http://culinaryinfatuation.blogspot.com/2007/12/wor-su-gai-or-almond-boneless-chicken.html (accessed Friday, July 20, 2012).
- Yan, Heung Ming. 2012. Telephone conversation with the author. July 27.
- Yee, Kenny. 2007. Interview by the author, Columbus, Ohio. September 25.
- Yee, Steve. 2007. Interview by the author, Columbus, Ohio. September 10.
- Yu, Renqiu. 1987. Chop Suey: From Chinese Food to Chinese American Food. Chinese America: History and Persepctives 1:87-100.