Making Jewish Chop Suey for a Summer Supper

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews 

An easy-to-assemble Jewish-American seasonal salad!

This simple dish, also known as “Farmer’s Chop Suey,” is, to my vegetable-centric taste, terrific! Although it was a mainstay on the menus of Jewish dairy restaurants in the first 50 or 60 years of the 20th century, of late it seems to have fallen off most culinary radars. In the interest of tradition and great taste, it feels like it’s time to bring it back. A bowl of cut-up fresh vegetables dressed with an abundance of dairy—generally sour cream and/or cottage cheese. Fresh, creamy, and crunchy at the same time, it can be put together in a matter of minutes. It’s a delightful way to dine at any time of the day!

Its origins? In the early 2000s, food writers (and big fans of the Bakehouse’s Jewish Rye Bread) Jane and Michael Stern, wrote: “Farmer’s Chop Suey: No one knows how this simple dairy salad came to be, but it has been a hot-weather favorite in Jewish-American kitchens for at least a century.” If you want a celebrity endorsement, it was apparently a favorite of Harry Houdini (himself, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant to the U.S.) The name? Best I can tell, it was a coming together of two immigrant groups—Eastern European Jews (like my family) and Chinese. They came around the same time, and both communities were victims of bias—anti-Semitism, anti-Asian, and anti-immigrant. And in Manhattan, it happened that the most prominent part of town for poor Eastern European immigrants was not far from China Town. Chop Suey’s origins aren’t actually all that clear either. Many historians have said it was created in the U.S. by Chinese immigrants, but there are those who say they ate a similar dish in Taishan, in Guangdong province.

Dairy dishes and dairy restaurants (of which New York’s Ratner’s was probably the most famous) have a long tradition in the Jewish community. Since keeping kosher means meat and milk cannot be served in the same restaurant, there were restaurants for each. In 19th-century Russia, many anarchists and revolution-minded activists became vegetarians to position themselves in opposition to mainstream meat-eating, from which dairy restaurants often became hangouts for radical communities. (A good number of dairy restaurants were named after Tolstoy, who wasn’t Jewish but was a long-time vegetarian.) Eating fresh vegetables with sour cream or fresh cheese would certainly have been a popular item in those dairy restaurants.

I decided to make Jewish Chop Suey the other evening when Tammie brought home her first tomatoes and the Silver Slicer cucumbers from Tamchop Farm. While most Americans haven’t had the opportunity to try one, an heirloom cucumber picked a few hours before you eat it really is something special! I used Tammie’s tomatoes and cucumbers along with fresh radishes. You can pretty much add any vegetable you like. Local celery, fennel, bell peppers, scallions… Sprinkle the vegetables with sea salt and a good bit of freshly ground black pepper. Drizzle on a little olive oil. Then spoon on a bunch of sour cream and/or cottage cheese and/or farmer’s cheese and/or yogurt. Of course, the better the quality of the sour cream or cheese the better the dish will be. I garnished the salad with some of Tammie’s terrific fresh dill! It’s great with those Greek sesame seeds we stock at the Deli as well!

I like to eat the dish with a slice of Bakehouse bread on the side. Caraway Rye, Pumpernickel, Vollkornbrot are all great. The Potato Dill bread above would be a marvelous match for the salad! If you want to do the meal like a bruschetta, you can toast the bread and then serve the salad on top!