05 March 2012

The most well-travelled dish in Tonga

Sapasui: it generally tastes better than it looks
Pop quiz: where does Tongan chop suey come from? Ask where sapasui gets its origins, and some people might say, "That delicious mix of glass noodles, kapa pulu (corned beef), veggies, and soy sauce? It's Tongan, of course." And they would be absolutely right about this global dish, in a way. It's usually a side dish that always shows up at feasts, to be eaten ostensibly with the huge pile of fluffy baked yams and roast suckling pig, and something I thought had come from the influence of the large handful of Chinese immigrants who have made their lives in Tonga.

And so when I offered to make sapasui for a welcoming party that On the Spot held last night for some incoming volunteers, I expected to find a similar dish's Chinese equivalent. In hind sight, it is hard to believe the exact magnitude of my sapasui naivite.

Little did I know the controversial past of sapasui when first researching this recipe. Although no one is quite sure where it came from, most seem to agree that it was either created in the US for the American palette by a Chinese cook, or that a heavily changed version was popularized in the US from an original dish that may have been called, at some point, za sui, which apparently means "cooked entrails." Yum.

Origin stories abound. Some tongue-in-cheek storytellers propose it came from an angry chef at a San Francisco restaurant who threw leftovers together and creatively changed "Chopped Sewage" into a more palatable name. Others cite the creative efforts of a Chinese chef trying to feed drunken miners, another substitutes the miners for rail workers. Yet another favourite is the Chinese man who was invited to the US White House to dine with the President. When he found the food unpallateable, he went in to the kitchen to throw something together himself. Perhaps, I speculate, this was during Eleanor Rosevelt's stint at the White House? Although these seem to be nothing more than creative stories, they do demonstrate the extent to which Chop Suey had entered the American consciousness, even by the mid 20th century.

And then somehow, sapasui leaped to the Pacific. Based on the fact that most sources for other countries' versions refer to the Samoan sapasui, I would make a strong guess that it made its way to Samoa and the rest of the Pacific through American Samoa. And from there, Tonga appropriated it. In complete storytelling fiction, I can just imagine that some Chinese cook made it in San Francisco, and years later, some American government worker brought it to American Samoa, and then after the dish having spread to the rest of Samoa, some Tongan member of the royal family on a visit to Samoa discovered the joy that was sapasui.

And so this Chinese, then American, then Samoan, then Tongan dish was discovered by myself, a technically American making it for an "all Tongan welcome dinner," held by a Tongan arts group for three Kiwis.

An important ingredient in sapasui
The original recipe I found was one I knew had to be authentic: it called for 4 full packages of glass noodles and its other ingredients included 1/4 cup of oil, 1.5 cups of soy sauce, and one pound of canned corned beef. To my joy, my search results also pulled up a Sapasui Myspace page, as well as a Sapasui blog site. Clearly their authors are afeccionados.

The easiest (and perhaps most shocking) method of cooking is this: boil a pot of water. Throw in a package of glass noodles. Wait until they get soft, then drain the water. Empty a small can of corned beef into the noodles, along with one can mixed veggies and as much soysauce as you need to make it salty enough. Mix and mix. Eat. But unless you're a poor bachelor, don't do that. Like what most people do for Tongan feasts, I cooked and drained the corned beef, chopped up fresh veggies, and spiced it up with garlic, onion, and some ginger, and it was delicious.

What's the history of sapasui? "If it taste good, it's history!" in the words of one gleeful website. And that's all that needs to be said.

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