Chop Suey vs Chow Mein: What’s the Difference?

Chop suey and chow mein are two classic Chinese-American dishes that have left an indelible mark on American cuisine. For many, the distinction between the two dishes may be unclear, as both feature stir-fried ingredients and savory sauces. However, there are subtle differences in their ingredients, preparation, and history that make each dish unique.

Chop suey traces its roots back to the Chinese immigrants who arrived in America during the late 19th century, and it consists mainly of mixed vegetables and a protein, which is either meat or tofu. On the other hand, chow mein, which translates to “stir-fried noodles,” has a more unmistakable identity due to its signature noodles, which can be either soft or crispy. With an even longer history, chow mein can be found in multiple variations throughout Asia that feature different ingredients and flavors.

Key Takeaways

  • Chop suey and chow mein are distinct Chinese-American dishes with unique histories and ingredients.
  • While chop suey typically contains mixed vegetables and protein, chow mein is characterized by its stir-fried noodles.
  • Both dishes have deep cultural roots and can be found in numerous variations worldwide with different tastes and textures.

Origins of Chop Suey and Chow Mein

When you delve into the origins of Chop Suey and Chow Mein, you uncover the fascinating history of Chinese cuisine and its journey to America. Chop Suey, often thought to symbolize “miscellaneous broken pieces,” is believed to have been created in the midst of the California mining camps. These cramped environments fostered culinary innovation as Chinese immigrants cooked with limited resources and adapted their dishes.

In contrast, Chow Mein has its roots in northern China, where its traditional preparation method involved frying noodles until crispy. As it made its way to US shores, specifically in San Francisco, Chow Mein captured the taste buds of Chinese Americans and the general population, becoming a mainstay in Chinese-American cuisine.

An interesting anecdote is often mentioned when discussing Chop Suey—Chinese diplomat Li Hung Chang unknowingly popularized the dish during his visit to the United States in the 1890s. Although unconfirmed, the story goes that he had his chefs create a dish using local ingredients and vegetables, thus introducing Chop Suey to a wider audience.

Chop Suey and Chow Mein have both transformed numerous times since their humble beginnings. The former, originally a mix of meat and vegetables, has evolved into several variations that cater to regional preferences. Similarly, Chow Mein has adapted to Western palates by incorporating a plethora of sauces, vegetables, and other ingredients.

In conclusion, the origins of Chop Suey and Chow Mein reveal an intricate narrative of cultural exchange, adaptation, and perseverance. These dishes embody not only the flavors of Chinese cuisine but also the resilience and creativity of the people who introduced it to America.

Main Ingredients and Variations

When comparing Chop Suey and Chow Mein, it’s essential to know their main ingredients and variations. In both dishes, noodles, vegetables, sauce, and protein are common elements. However, there are some differences in how these components are used and combined.

Chop Suey is a versatile dish made with bite-sized protein, such as chicken, beef, pork, tofu, or seafood, alongside a variety of vegetables like cabbage, bean sprouts, celery, mushrooms, carrots, onions, and bell pepper. These ingredients are cooked together in a sauce typically consisting of water, ketchup, and vinegar. The dish can be served over rice or, in some versions, with soft egg noodles. There are countless variations of Chop Suey since its ingredients can be easily personalized to your preference.

On the other hand, Chow Mein features stir-fried noodles as its primary component. These egg noodles are often served crispy but can also be found soft in the lo mein variation. Proteins in Chow Mein may include chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, or tofu, while the vegetable mix may contain cabbage, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, carrots or onions. The sauce in Chow Mein is slightly different from Chop Suey; it typically contains soy sauce, oyster sauce, and other seasonings, giving it a savory and bold flavor.

Although there are some differences between these two dishes, they share similarities in their ingredients, such as noodles, vegetables, and protein. Here’s a table to provide some quick comparisons:

IngredientChop SueyChow Mein
NoodlesServed over soft egg noodles (optional)Stir-fried egg noodles (soft or crispy)
VegetablesCabbage, bean sprouts, celery, etc.Cabbage, bean sprouts, shiitake mushrooms, etc.
SauceWater, ketchup, vinegarSoy sauce, oyster sauce, seasoning
ProteinChicken, beef, pork, tofu, seafoodChicken, beef, pork, shrimp, tofu

In conclusion, both Chop Suey and Chow Mein are delicious and versatile dishes that allow for a wide range of ingredients and variations. By understanding their main components, you can cater to your taste preferences and even create your own delicious combinations.

Nutritional Aspects

When comparing Chop Suey and Chow Mein, it’s important to consider their nutritional aspects. Both dishes have their own unique nutritional values, but there are some key differences.

Chop Suey is a mix of sautéed vegetables and protein, such as chicken, shrimp, or tofu, served with a flavorful sauce. In general, this dish is lower in calories and fat, making it a healthier option for those who are watching their intake. A typical serving of Chop Suey contains around 350-450 calories, 15-25g of fat, and 30-40g of carbohydrates. The protein content varies depending on the choice of meat or tofu.

Chow Mein, on the other hand, features stir-fried noodles with a variety of veggies, protein, and a savory sauce. While Chow Mein is not as calorie-dense as other dishes such as fried rice, it does contain more carbohydrates due to the noodles. A single serving of Chow Mein typically has 400-600 calories, 15-30g of fat, 50-70g of carbohydrates, and only a small amount of sugar.

When it comes to nutritional content, both dishes offer an array of vitamins and minerals from the vegetables included. Some common nutrients found in these dishes are:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Folate
  • Potassium
  • Iron

Adding more vegetables to your dish can increase the overall nutritional value. It’s also advised to be mindful of the sauces used in both dishes, as they may contain higher levels of sodium or sugar.

In conclusion, while both Chop Suey and Chow Mein have their merits, Chop Suey is the healthier option in terms of calories, fat, and carbohydrates, while Chow Mein offers more carbohydrates but has similar nutritional content. You can further enhance the nutritional value of both dishes by opting for more vegetables and paying attention to the sauces used in preparation.

chow mein recipe

Comparison of Cooking Techniques

When it comes to chop suey and chow mein, the cooking techniques employed play a significant role in defining the distinct tastes and textures of these dishes. Both are stir-fried dishes, but there are some notable differences in their preparation methods.

In the case of chop suey, you begin by stir-frying an assortment of vegetables and protein in a wok. The ingredients are cooked quickly over high heat, allowing them to retain their freshness and color. Once the vegetables and protein are cooked, a sauce made from soy sauce, oyster sauce, and cornstarch is added to the wok, which thickens as it heats, coating the ingredients and forming a cohesive dish.

Chow mein, on the other hand, involves two primary cooking techniques: stir-frying and pan-frying. The dish starts by stir-frying vegetables and protein in a wok, similar to chop suey. However, the noodles used in chow mein are usually either steamed or boiled to soften them before adding them into the stir-fry. Once the ingredients are combined in the wok and the sauce has been added, the dish undergoes a second cooking technique – pan-frying. This process involves spreading the ingredients evenly in the wok, allowing the noodles to develop a crispy texture as they fry in the pan.

The use of the wok is essential in both dishes, as its shape and high heat cooking ability allow for even and quick cooking of the ingredients. This ensures that the vegetables and protein remain tender while imparting a smoky, slightly charred flavor characteristic of these Chinese American favorites.

Ultimately, the key differences in cooking techniques between chop suey and chow mein lie in how the noodles are prepared and incorporated into the dish. Chop suey consists mainly of stir-frying vegetables, protein, and sauce together, while chow mein involves two steps of cooking: stir-frying and pan-frying.

Typical Differences in Taste and Texture

When comparing chop suey and chow mein, you will notice some differences in taste and texture. Chop suey, a dish with American-Chinese roots, consists of stir-fried vegetables, protein, and a thick sauce, typically served with rice. Chow mein, on the other hand, hails from traditional Chinese cuisine and features stir-fried noodles with vegetables, protein, and a light sauce.

Regarding texture, you will find that chow mein offers a crispy and slightly chewy experience. The noodles are often pan-fried or deep-fried until golden brown and crispy before being stir-fried with other ingredients. In contrast, chop suey has a variety of textures, such as the crunchiness of vegetables and the softness of the protein, all coated in the sauce.

Taste-wise, chow mein noodles are known to deliver a balanced flavor profile. The noodles absorb the flavors from the sauce and other ingredients, creating a harmonious blend. Chop suey, however, tends to be more focused on the sauce. The sauce itself can range from sweet and sour to savory, depending on the ingredients and preparation methods.

As for stir-fried noodles, since chow mein is a noodle-centric dish, they are crucial to the overall taste and texture. The noodles should be of high quality and cooked just right to achieve the ideal balance between chewiness and crispiness. In chop suey, the focus is not on the noodles but the combination of vegetables and protein.

In summary, understanding the differences in taste and texture between chop suey and chow mein will help you determine which dish better suits your preferences. While chop suey features a wide variety of vegetables, protein, and a thicker sauce, chow mein highlights the crispy and chewy texture of stir-fried noodles.

Global Popularity and Adaptations

Chop suey and chow mein are both popular dishes in Chinese cuisine that have found their way into many households and restaurants around the world. You may have noticed their widespread presence on menus in Chinese restaurants and often enjoy them as leftovers or takeout, giving testament to their global appeal.

In the United States, chop suey is often considered an American creation rather than a traditional Chinese dish, while chow mein has its roots in Hong Kong style Chinese cuisine. Both dishes have adapted to suit Western tastes, with a variety of additional ingredients and sauces that may not be found in their authentic Chinese counterparts. This adaptability has made these dishes popular in various countries beyond the US, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and Brazil.

When you visit Chinese-American restaurants in the United States, you’ll find that many offer their own version of chop suey and chow mein as they’re very popular take-out orders among Western clientele. In the United Kingdom, you’ll also see these dishes on the menu with slight regional variations. Australia and Brazil are no exception, with fusion cuisine and adaptations that cater to local preferences.

In Hong Kong-style Chinese cuisine, chow mein is prepared as a versatile and adaptable dish. You can often find it with different meats, vegetables, and sauces, depending on the restaurant and the region. The flexibility of this dish makes it a global favorite, as it easily caters to the varying tastes of people around the world.

Lastly, some may argue that the popularity of these dishes has reached a level where they have become iconic dishes served at prestigious establishments. For instance, in the early 1900s, chop suey and chow mein were said to be served in the famous Palace Hotel in San Francisco. This adds to the rich history of these dishes as they continue to gain global recognition and appeal to diverse audiences in various countries.

Debate on Healthier Option

When comparing chop suey and chow mein, you may be wondering which dish is the healthier option. To determine this, let’s consider the ingredients and the way each dish is prepared.

Chop Suey is a stir-fried dish consisting of meat, such as chicken, beef, or pork, and an assortment of vegetables like bean sprouts, cabbage, and bell peppers. The ingredients are cooked together in a light sauce made of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and garlic, among other flavors. The dish is typically served over rice or noodles.

Chow Mein, on the other hand, has the main focus on the noodles. These stir-fried noodles include vegetables and meat, similar to chop suey, but the sauce is usually thicker and contains more oil. The dish can be found in two variations: soft or crispy noodles.

When examining the healthier option, the grains used in both dishes should be taken into account. Chop suey provides you with a choice between rice and noodles. Opting for brown rice or whole grain noodles can significantly increase the nutritional value of the dish. Chow mein tends to be based solely on wheat noodles, which might not be as favorable for those looking to consume more whole grains.

Considering the preparation, chop suey and chow mein both involve stir-frying the ingredients. However, the sauce used in chow mein is generally heavier due to its oil content. This extra oil may contribute to an increased calorie count and may not be as healthy as the lighter sauce used in chop suey.

Furthermore, when it comes to vegetables, chop suey usually contains a higher quantity than chow mein. Including a larger variety and amount of vegetables not only enhances the nutritional value but also provides additional vitamins and minerals.

To make either dish healthier, consider the following tips:

  • Choose lean protein sources like chicken or tofu
  • Use whole grain rice or noodles
  • Incorporate an array of colorful vegetables
  • Limit the amount of oil and sodium in the sauces

In summary, while both chop suey and chow mein have their merits, chop suey appears to have a slight advantage when it comes to providing a healthier option. However, by making conscious choices and customizing your dish, you can enjoy either meal with confidence in its nutritional benefits.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the main differences between chop suey and chow mein?

Chop suey is a dish made from various stir-fried meat, vegetables, and sauce, served over rice. In contrast, chow mein is a noodle dish that features stir-fried noodles mixed with meat, vegetables, and sauce. The main difference between them lies in the base of the dish: rice for chop suey, and noodles for chow mein.

Which has more calories, chop suey or chow mein?

Generally, chow mein tends to have slightly more calories than chop suey due to the noodles. However, the exact calorie count depends on the ingredients and serving size of each dish. For a healthier option, opt for vegetable-rich versions of either dish and avoid excessive amounts of sauce or oil.

How do the ingredients in chop suey differ from those in chow mein?

Chop suey typically consists of various cooked meats (such as chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp) and an assortment of vegetables (including bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, bell peppers, and celery) stir-fried in a thick, savory sauce. Chow mein shares many of the same ingredients but is primarily a noodle dish. The main difference is the addition of stir-fried noodles made from wheat flour mixed into the dish.

What sets chop suey apart from lo mein?

While both chop suey and lo mein involve the use of stir-fried ingredients and a flavorful sauce, chop suey is served over rice and features a more diverse range of vegetables. Lo mein, on the other hand, is a noodle dish that is prepared with softer noodles, which are often tossed together with the sauce and other ingredients.

How does chow mein’s preparation differentiate from stir fry?

Chow mein is a type of stir-fried dish that specifically features noodles as its main ingredient, along with meat, vegetables, and sauce. While the cooking method is similar, stir-frying in general refers to the process of quickly cooking ingredients in a hot pan or wok with a small amount of oil, resulting in a dish that is not necessarily focused on noodles.

What is the distinction between Subgum and chop suey?

Subgum is a Cantonese dish similar to chop suey, consisting of stir-fried meats, vegetables, and sauce. However, subgum typically uses a wider variety of vegetables and places more emphasis on achieving a balanced blend of flavors and textures within the dish. It also often includes nuts, like almonds or cashews, to add texture and crunch.

Chop Suey vs Chow Mein

Here's a simple recipe for chop suey:
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes
Course Main Course
Cuisine Chinese
Servings 4
Calories 310 kcal


  • 1 pound boneless chicken breast or pork loin cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 red bell pepper seeded and sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper seeded and sliced
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms
  • 1 can 8 ounces sliced water chestnuts, drained
  • 1 can 8 ounces bamboo shoots, drained
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Cooked rice for serving


  • In a large skillet or wok, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat.
  • Add the chicken or pork and stir-fry until browned, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the onion and garlic and continue to stir-fry for another minute.
  • Add the bell peppers, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and bamboo shoots and stir-fry for 2-3 minutes.
  • In a small bowl, whisk together the chicken broth, soy sauce, cornstarch, and water.
  • Pour the sauce over the vegetables and meat and stir to combine.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and cook for 1-2 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened.
  • Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • Serve hot over cooked rice.


Calories: 310kcal
Keyword chop suey vs chow mein
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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
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