Knowing the Difference Between Chop Suey and Chow Mein

Sometimes you just can’t beat a Chinese take-out. With so many excellent options to choose from, Chinese cuisine is one of the few that taste even better when eaten at home, than when eaten in a restaurant.

person stir frying chow mein

But one of the issues that you might encounter with Chinese take-out is deciding what to order. After all, you can’t ask your waiter what they would recommend when there is no waiter.  That’s where we come in! Two of the most popular dishes in Chinese cuisine are chop suey and chow mein. In this quick guide, we’ll be taking a look at what these two dishes are, what makes them similar, and more importantly, what makes them different. So to find out more, keep on reading. 

What Is Chop Suey?

plate of chop suey

Chop Suey is, undoubtedly, one of the most popular dishes in American-Chinese cuisine. In this single dish, you get a little bit of everything, and that is why Chop Suey makes an entire meal in a single bowl. While Chop Suey is considered to make up part of Chinese cuisine, it is actually pretty unlikely that you would ever find this dish in China. This is because Chop Suey is an American-Chinese dish, created by Chinese immigrants for an American market.  Originally, Chop Suey was made using ingredients such as celery, bean sprouts, and meat. But over the years, this has evolved, and now it contains other ingredients such as noodles, rice, vegetables (onion/broccoli/carrots/etc.), sauce (soy/oyster/ketchup), and meat (pork/chicken/beef/shrimp). The exact ingredients will depend on what Chinese take-out you order from. Even with these changes, Chop Suey is as popular as ever, so now let’s take a look at what Chow Mein is. 

What Is Chow Mein?

plate of chow mein

By all accounts, Chow Mein is actually pretty similar to Chop Suey. If you were to look at a bowl of Chow Mein next to a bowl of Chop Suey, then you would probably struggle to tell the difference. This is because there are a lot of similarities between these two dishes, we’ll take a closer look at them later on. Unlike Chop Suey, Chow Mein is a traditional Chinese dish, and because of this it actually makes up quite a central part of Chinese culture. Even though it is an authentic Chinese dish, Chow Mein is also popular in most Westernized Chinese restaurants too, and it is easy to see why.  Chow Mein differs from country to country. So, the Chow Mein that you order in the USA will be different from the Chinese that you order in the UK and so on. But in most countries, Chow Mein will be created using ingredients such as Wonton noodles, vegetables (bell pepper/celery/onion/etc.), meat (chicken/pork/shrimp), and sauce (oyster sauce/groundnut oil). So now that we know what both of these dishes are, let’s compare them. 

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How Are They Similar?

First things first, let’s take a look at what makes Chop Suey and Chow Mein so similar. Well, the surface-level similarities of these dishes are pretty obvious. They come from the same cuisine, they use similar ingredients, and they have a similar appearance. But, let’s take a deeper look at some more similarities between these dishes.  Here are some more similarities between Chop Suey and Chow Mein:

  • Both dishes consist of meat, vegetables, and either noodles or rice. 
  • Both dishes have become insanely popular in Western countries all over the world. 
  • Both dishes have been around for centuries, and are staples in Chinese culture. 
  • Both dishes have been Westernized, and so their recipes have evolved. 
  • Both dishes are delicious and affordable. 

What Makes Them Different?

Even though these dishes might seem very similar, there are actually quite a lot of differences between these dishes. Now that we have looked at their similarities, let’s take a look at what makes them different from one another.  Here are some of the key differences between Chop Suey and Chow Mein:

  • Chow Mein is a traditional Chinese dish, Chop Suey is a Chinese-American dish. 
  • Chow Mein is a lot older than Chop Suey, so it has evolved a lot more throughout the centuries. 
  • Chow Mein was Westernized to suit Western taste buds, whereas Chop Suey was originally designed for these taste buds. 
  • Chop Suey can be created using either noodles or rice, Chow Mein is only ever made using noodles. 
  • Chow Mein is a traditional dish, while Chop Suey was created out of convenience. 

The biggest difference between these two dishes is the way in which they are prepared. Chow Mein is made following a strict recipe, whereas Chop Suey is usually made using a bit of everything.

Chop Suey was created out of convenience, and because of this, it can be created using a little bit of everything. Whatever you have lying around in the kitchen is fair game, and that is why this dish is more likely to taste different in different restaurants.  In contrast, Chow Mein is a staple in Chinese cuisine, and any alterations made to the recipe will be obvious. Despite this, most Chinese-American restaurants tend to put their own spin on this dish, creating a Westernized version of something that was authentically Chinese. 

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Written by Brian Nagele

Brian attended West Virginia University, then started his career in the IT industry before following his passion for marketing and hospitality. He has over 20 years experience in the restaurant and bar industry.

As a former restaurant owner, he knows about running a food business and loves to eat and enjoy cocktails on a regular basis. He constantly travels to new cities tasting and reviewing the most popular spots.

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