Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dining In-A Culinary Tour of America: Monterey Park, California

The City: Monterey Park
Why Monterey Park, you might ask. I chose this city because it is one of the smaller cities in California with the highest percentage of Asian/Asian Americans in their community. One of my only rules about this series is that I cannot choose a city I have been to before. Being that it is the Lunar New Year celebration right now, I wanted to feature that in this week's blog post. Since I have been to San Francisco, which might be the obvious choice for California and Lunar New Year, I had to get creative in where I chose to "visit". Other cities around the nation that have large Asian and Asian American populations are already slated for posts later on in the year for other events I want to feature in this series.

The population of Monterey Park, as of 2013, was 61,085. Of that total, 62.9% of the people are Asian or Asian American. 47.7% of those people are Chinese or Chinese Americans. The next greatest percentage of the total population is 30.3% being Hispanic. The East Los Angeles College, located nearby, is the city's largest employer.

Monterey Park is 10 miles east of Los Angeles, in southern California. It was founded on May 29, 1916. By the 1920's, Asian farmers began to come to the area to work and live. Over the years, attempts were made to limit the amount of Asian people moving to the area, but none of them were successful. In the 1970's and 1980's, the city council tried to pass "English only" ordinances two different times, and both attempts failed. In 1985, they successfully passed an ordinance that forced all business within the city to display English language signage on their signs. By 1990, the city became the first in the continental United States to have a population with an Asian/Asian American majority. There is a large Taiwanese community there and the city is even known as "Little Taipei". 

The Dish: Chop Suey and fried rice

Why Chop Suey, you might ask. Well, for one thing, I've never had it before. I've never made it before. For another, I am intrigued by its history. Nobody actually knows the true origin of this dish. In case you did not know, this dish, along with the fortune cookie, are actually American dishes. They are not Chinese at all. So why do it for Lunar New Year? Because America is about blending things together. People from other nations come here and they bring their own culinary traditions with them and from there they are altered to fit the tastes of their local communities. These Americanized dishes are a success story. They show how we all fit in together and work together and come together, particularly at the dinner table. I think it's beautiful and worthy of celebrating. That's the entire point of this blog series. 

Legend has it that chop suey, which basically means a hodge-podge of leftover vegetables and meat, stir-fried and served with a sauce, was created at a restaurant in Chinatown in San Francisco in the late 1800's. It was a great way to use up all of one's inventory and pass it off as authentic to unsuspecting American tourists. It became a great hit. But another legend says that it was created at a hotel for a Chinese diplomat who had come to visit. The chef invented the meal in hopes of appealing to both Chinese and American taste preferences. Some say that it really was invented in China and the name has been changed over the years. Nobody truly knows, and that's what makes it fascinating.

The dish itself is rather uneventful. I found a good recipe online to base mine off of but I changed a lot about it. The biggest alteration I made was to veganize it. It called for pork tenderloin, but that can be so expensive and also depending on how it's prepared, the flavor can get lost. Since this was going to have a lot of other flavors vying for attention, I didn't want to spend all that money on something that would be drowned out in the end. I am not a tofu fan, so I chose tempeh, which is a fermented soy bean product that has a nice firmness to it that tofu doesn't have. I got the kind that is marinated in a soy/ginger sauce and it turned out to be pretty good. I used vegetable broth instead of chicken and oyster mushroom sauce instead of oyster sauce, which I can't bring myself to eat. I already had the mushroom sauce on-hand. As for the vegetables, the biggest one I swapped out was the celery. Celery is a big component of chop suey(probably because it's cheap), but I cannot stand celery. I put in carrot slices instead and I think it was fine. I left out the green bell pepper since I'm not a huge fan of those either. (The name of this blog is "Persnickety" and now you are learning why...!) I used baby bok choy, cremini mushrooms, snow peas, onion, green onions, a can of water chestnuts, a can of bamboo shoots, which for some reason do not smell good at all, and canned bean sprouts. Yes, canned bean sprouts...We now live in a world where I cannot get fresh bean sprouts from a grocery store because everybody is afraid of getting sick from them. I cannot even begin to express my outrage and dismay over this. Do you know the horror of using bean sprouts from a can? Probably not...But I do, and it is not ok.

To accompany the chop suey, I made homemade fried rice. I have made this in the past, though I have usually used one of those mixes from the store for the flavoring and I think this recipe was good and easy enough that I would never need one of those mixes again. Actually I'm a bit ashamed to admit to having used a mix at all now that I know how simple it truly is. I kept this one vegetarian too, though I included the scrambled egg, so it depends on your definition of "vegetarian" if you consider it to be truly so or not. The biggest alteration I made was to switch out the frozen peas for snow peas that I trimmed and sliced thinly. I have never liked frozen peas and knew I'd just pick them out if I used them. I love snow peas and thought they would work just a well, and they did. They gave it a little added crunch which was very nice. I used reduced sodium soy sauce and found it needed a lot more than the one teaspoon the recipe called for.

The actual assembly of the food was pretty simple, though it took a bit of time to stir-fry each item individually and take it out of the pan before moving onto the next. The biggest time consumer was the prep work. It took nearly an hour and a half to prep everything for both dishes. The above picture, from end to end, is all the food that went into the meal. At the bottom are the eggs and veggies for the rice. Next to that is the veggies for the chop suey. The smaller bowls are the bean sprouts, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots, the sauces, and the sliced tempeh that was later marinated. And at the far end is the pre-cooked rice I made earlier this afternoon. I portioned it out and spread it flat on a sheet pan that I put in the fridge to cool down properly. I can see now why Chinese food at restaurants is so expensive. It's a very labor-intensive cuisine. They definitely earn whatever profit margin the dishes are set to.

I'm not sure I would ever make chop suey again or even order it in a restaurant when there are other more interesting dishes out there, but it was a lot of fun to make and enjoy today. It was a good way to celebrate the Lunar New Year, in my opinion. The holiday is becoming more and more popular in America, and will probably evolve and change into something unique in time, just like dishes I made tonight did, once upon a time.

Gung Hay Fat Choy/Gong Xi Fa Cai!





  1. Fun!! I usually skip the egg (like in Pad Thai) but sounds yum!!) We'll take you to Chan's in Woodinville someday!!! ~G

  2. I grew up with Chop Suey, and all I basically remember is the celery, which I don't like either. :)