The late-Qing Dynasty politician, Li Hongzhang visited the United States to meet with President Grover Cleveland at the turn of the 19th century. Often tasked with representing China’s interests to foreign powers, he was China’s most influential foreign diplomat.
Li was born in Anhui, but the dish that now bears his name has more obscure origins. A conceit of American Chinese food, chop suey is perhaps the most influential Chinese dish abroad.
His visit to the USA was a huge diplomatic event – much like Nixon’s visit to China a century later – and sparked unprecedented interest in China from the American public. The canny Chinese restaurateurs of New York used his visit to promote their cuisine. A native of Anhui, the restaurateurs created a story that Li HongZhang had visited a New York Chinese restaurant late at night, and finding the kitchen closed, the chef created a dish from leftovers in the style of Li’s home province of Anhui. The chef called it ‘za sui’, later westernised to chop suey. Literally meaning ‘entrails’ or ‘miscellaneous bits and pieces’ chop suey is a hodgepodge of ingredients thrown together and bound with a starch-thickened sauce.
In fact, Li travelled with three private chefs and the only restaurant he’s known to eat at was one in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It’s very unlikely he ever popped down to Chinatown for a sneaky feed.