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solving mysteries

Recipe: chow mein

How can so much time have passed so quickly? Jeremy and I puzzled over this on our 25th wedding anniversary earlier this month. We celebrated with a low-key home-cooked meal. My parents congratulated us. The pups were business as usual.

The past several weeks have been busy and roller coaster-y (and that’s without considering the insanity of the world). I switched to a new primary care physician who helped me untangle some nuisance ailments. I’ve changed my diet and exercise patterns to fast track myself to a healthier me in the last month. It’s a lot of work, but I’m here for it.

chinese new year’s eve dinner: potstickers, mochi rice, stem and leaf mandarin oranges, cellophane noodles soup, lucky ten vegetables

chinese new year breakfast: sweet red bean rice balls, sesame balls, oranges, steamed barbecue pork buns, moon cakes, peanuts

neva and yuki couldn’t be happier

a tired dog is a good dog

the powder, it is fun

yuki test drives her warm coat on a frigid day

At the end of last year, I finally tackled my decades-long mystery of how to make chow mein. I know there are many interpretations of chow mein out there because I have ordered them at various restaurants throughout my adult years. The soft, barely seasoned noodles or crunchy pre-fried crisps from a bag tossed with gloppy sauce were not what I had in mind. I wanted that plate piled high with savory thin noodles lightly adorned with slivers of green onion and stray bean sprouts, trundling past on a dim sum cart.

dark soy sauce, light soy sauce, chow mein (hong kong style noodles)

Turns out, chow mein is rather simple to make once you procure the right noodles. And look, chow mein literally translates to fried noodles, so it could be and sometimes is, ANY noodle that is stir fried, deep fried, or pan fried. If you are like me, you’ve scrutinized the dozens of packaged fresh noodles in the refrigerated section of the Asian market, scanning for recognizable English words on the labels while remaining skeptical of the original translator’s qualifications, and wound up making your best guess. A little time spent on the internets guided me to the right noodles. In this case, Hong Kong-style or chow mein is what you seek, but take care because I’ve seen chow mein labels on all manner of noodles. We want thin egg noodles (thin like angel hair pasta). You can also purchase them dried, but I have yet to try those.

And while you are at the Asian market to get your Hong Kong-style noodles, you might as well pick up a bottle of dark soy sauce and a bottle of light soy sauce. Dark soy sauce is thicker with more soy flavor and deep caramel color. Light soy sauce is thinner and closer to regular soy sauce. Does combining light and dark soy sauce equal regular soy sauce? No. If you had to sub regular soy sauce for light soy sauce, okay – but the dark soy sauce is what gives the noodles that special umaminess.

sesame oil, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, vegetable oil, mung bean sprouts, chow mein, green onions, chinese broccoli (gai lan), shiitake mushrooms

always prep your ingredients before you start cooking

mix the soy sauces and sesame oil together

One of the reasons I am keen on making chow mein at home is that the restaurant versions NEVER have enough vegetables. My favorite green to add is Chinese broccoli or gai lan for the slight sweetness and crunch of the stems, but feel free to use bok choy, Napa cabbage, broccolini, cabbage, kale, etc. It’s really up to you what to include, but green onions are the bare minimum and mung bean sprouts if you can get them (I cannot always procure these). And if you want some protein like fried or baked tofu, beef, chicken, shrimp, pork – these all work great with these noodles. Make it what you want.

The first time I made these noodles and photographed the process, I didn’t cook my noodles because the package claimed they were ready to fry. The resulting chow mein was fine, but… I have since learned – and prefer – to cook the noodles in boiling water for about a minute or two until al dente, then drain and rinse in cold water. So be sure to have your noodles cooked and drained, and your vegetables ready to stir fry.

stir-fry the chinese broccoli (gai lan)

sauté the mushrooms, mung bean sprouts, and green onions

Even when using my 13-inch nonstick sauté pan, it is impractical to cook the entire package of noodles (in this case, 400 grams or nearly a pound) in one fell swoop. Cook half at a time, adding half of the cooked vegetables to each batch. The sauce will have a better distribution and you will avoid overcrowding and uneven cooking. Avoid doubling the sauce and pouring half of it into each batch of noodles because the sesame oil separates from the soy sauces and you won’t get the right proportions. Simply mix up a single batch of sauce for each round of noodles for maximum happiness.

pan-fry the noodles

add the sauce and cooked vegetables

toss to coat the noodles evenly

a recent version with properly cooked noodles

Well, one more of (my) life’s mysteries solved! The recipe was truly quite simple and quick to make once I figured out the right noodles and how to prep them. The packaged noodles freeze well, too, if you want to keep a few handy without making that extra trip to the Asian grocery.

great for lunch, dinner, and especially leftovers

Chow Mein
[print recipe]
adapted from Soy Sauce Chow Mein in To Asia, With Love by Hetty McKinnon

1 tbsp light soy sauce*
1 tbsp dark soy sauce*
2 tsps sesame oil

7 oz. (200g) Hong Kong-style chow mein noodles (not the fried crunchy noodles you sprinkle on stuff)
3-4 tbsps vegetable oil
3-4 cups gai lan (Chinese broccoli), or bok choy, or Napa cabbage, cut into bite-size pieces
2 green onions, sliced thin
7 oz. mung bean sprouts
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced

*You cannot substitute 2 tablespoons of regular soy sauce for 1 tablepoon of light soy sauce and 1 tablespoon of dark soy sauce. Soy sauce doesn’t work that way. You should be able to find light and dark soy sauces at an Asian market. Sometimes they are in bottles, sometimes they are in jars.

Stir the sauce ingredients together in a small bowl or cup. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles to the pot and cook until al dente. If you use dried noodles, this will take several minutes. If you are using par-cooked or pre-steamed noodles, this can take anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute or more. Drain the noodles, rinse with cold water. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat (use less oil if using a non-stick pan). Add the gai lan (or whatever green you are using) and stir fry. Sprinkle a little salt and continue to stir fry until cooked. Remove the greens from the pan and set aside. Heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in the same pan over medium high heat and sauté the green onions, mung bean sprouts, and shiitake mushrooms until cooked. Remove from pan and add to the greens. Wipe down any liquid from the pan.

Heat another tablespoon of vegetable oil in the same pan over medium-high flame. Add the noodles to the pan and stir to coat in oil, allowing the noodles to fry undisturbed for several seconds at a time. Pour the sauce over the noodles and stir to distribute evenly over the noodles. Add the cooked vegetables and stir fry for a few (2-3) more minutes. Serve hot. Serves 2-4.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

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chinese cold noodles

13 nibbles at “solving mysteries”

  1. Bette says:

    Happy anniversary, and so good to see you back with this newsletter. Chow mein — yum. And LOL that it’s not just me puzzling out crazy translations on noodle packages. ;-)

  2. Stephani says:

    Looks delicious! The kids always love noodles, and I love more veggies than the restaurants put in too. I can’t wait to try this recipe.

  3. Veronica Woo says:

    Happy Anniversary !

  4. M. K. Euler says:

    Oh Joy! I so love catching up on your life and times, Jen. The photos are very dear and this recipe amazing. Congrats on 25 yrs of “wedded bliss”! I, too, have just begun to change my diet + adding exercise in order to counteract a health issue. Thanks for sharing the comments re your journey as it’s provided extra incentive to be “here for it” myself!

  5. Tonya Allen says:

    Congratulations on your anniversary! Love your beautiful photos as always. The chow mein looks wonderful!

  6. Mary says:

    Have you ever stopped at the Asia Pacfic Market in Colorado Springs in your travels? They have a good produce section.

  7. Carole says:

    Best recipe note: make 2 batches of sauce for maximum happiness :)

    This is why I read your posts all the way through. Hidden gems abound.

  8. Colleen says:

    Wowie!!!!! Thank-you! I want to make “perfect Chinese noodles.” Have tried, failed! I know where to look for these chow mein noodles and with your excellent instruction, I will try again.
    As always, I look forward to your shares! It is beautiful where you live! Or, is it that you know how to live beautiful? Yes, of course, and why we love coming here to visit. Warm congratulations on your Silver! Colleen

  9. Hanna says:

    Glad to see a new post and that all is well. Belated Happy CNY and Happy Anniversary!~

  10. jenyu says:

    Bette – I always considered it part of the “excitement” factor while grocery shopping for Asian ingredients!

    Stephani – same!

    Veronica – Thank you :)

    MK – So glad to hear it has helped. I debated whether to share publicly and decided that doing so might reach someone else in a similar situation – and perhaps let them know they are not alone! xo

    Tonya – Thanks xo

    Mary – I have not. I rarely ever drive over there, but now I know what to check out the next time I’m by the area :) Thanks!

    Carole – :* xoxo

    Colleen – That “these noodles aren’t what I wanted” journey is *so* frustrating! I hope this gets you the noodles you want and the noodles you deserve! :)

    Hanna – Thank you! xoxo

  11. irma says:

    Greetings from the Netherlands. I’ve been reading you posts for many years now and love them. Thank you! I wonder if light soy sauce can be replaced by Japenees soy sauce, the less salt version like Kikkoman. This is because off our health I have to use less salt.

  12. jenyu says:

    irma – yes, you can substitute regular or low-sodium soy sauce for the light soy sauce. And you could also further reduce it “to taste” to suit your dietary needs. xo

  13. Nush says:

    Hello, Im a fan of your blog i guess for more than a decade now, I am from Mauritius, just want to share here we always beat eggs into omelettes and cut in strips and top the noodles and add carrots and cabbage too hmm yummy.

    Thank you <3

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