Throwback Thursday: Chow Mein

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When people left their homes in China for the gold rushes in California and Melbourne in the second half of the 19th century, they took their kitchens with them. It was a time when the centuries-old government of the Qing dynasty pursued the growth of a Chinese diaspora, with the understanding that it was, as Wikipedia puts it, a bridge to foreign knowledge and foreign investment. It would bring a material return, but people would stay in their new countries and cities and enrich their new local cultures.

The UN records more than 10 million Chinese-born people in the diaspora, and that doesn’t count those born overseas. The Chinese traveled everywhere, for disparate reasons, and wherever they went their cuisine accompanied them. Thailand, with the largest diaspora community in the world, has over nine million Chinese. Singapore is the only country where the Chinese represent the majority of the population, at 76%. The New York metropolitan area is home to the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. The largest Chinatown in Europe is in Paris. Peru has the largest Chinese community in South America.

And Chinatowns abound. Binondo in Manila, Philippines, is the oldest, established in 1594. Those in San Francisco and Melbourne are among the oldest on the planet, both from the gold rush. California is by far the US state with the most Chinese, although New York is the US city with the largest Chinese population, with many Chinatowns, including three in Queens and three in Brooklyn. From Liverpool and Dublin to Trinidad and Tobago, from New Delhi to Kathmandu and from Lagos to Johannesburg, there are Chinatowns that lure us in with the unmistakable aromas of delicious wok-cooked dishes.

Not the least of these dishes that have crossed the world is chow mein, or more traditionally chaomian, which has become a staple of Chinese restaurant menus everywhere, often adapted to local tastes and ingredients. The American style often has carrots and celery with chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp; in India, it consists almost entirely of vegetables but sometimes also paneer (cheese); in Mauritius, it has become part of the national cuisine as mine frywhile in Peru it is part of traditional cuisine and a dish known as tallarin saltado which contains chicken and red peppers, often tomato.

And the noodles remain, and should remain, at the heart of it, whatever your variations. Food refers to frying, while me refers to noodles; so chow mein in its simplest form is stir-fried noodles. In traditional Cantonese chaomian the noodles are fried until crispy, although chow mein in much of the world mixes them only with vegetables in a chow mein sauce for which the condiments are mixed with corn flour .

A chow mein sauce consists of soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, a little brown sugar and cornstarch; it’s the last ingredient that gives that typical silky finish to the dish.

For my recipe, I opted for egg noodles, which are traditional, as well as cabbage, carrots, celery, spring onions and mushrooms. I also used chicken and shrimp, while the sauce strives to be perfectly traditional because the noodles and this sauce is really what it’s all about.

You can chop and change as you wish, as long as you keep the noodles, the sauce (with its cornstarch), the cabbage, the spring onions, the garlic and the ginger. For the rest, you can play around to find what appeals to you the most.

Ingredients

200 g chicken breast fillets, thinly sliced

1 cup frozen blanched shrimp, thawed

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and very thinly sliced

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into thin julienne strips

1 stalk of celery, in sticks and thinly sliced

2 large brown mushrooms, thinly sliced

4 or 5 spring onions, cut into 3 cm pieces on the diagonal

2 cups green cabbage, shredded

Peanut oil, as needed

200g egg noodles

3 tablespoons of water

For the chow mein sauce:

2 teaspoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons of soy sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon of sugar

1 teaspoon sesame oil

White pepper to taste

Method

Have two bowls or bakkies next to the stove to put cooked food in while you work.

Cut the chicken into thin julienne strips.

Mix the sauce ingredients with the cornstarch using a whisk.

Coat the chicken strips in 1 tablespoon of this sauce and marinate for 10 minutes or more. Pat the thawed shrimp dry with paper towel and toss with 1 tablespoon of the cornmeal mixture. Save the rest of the sauce to use later.

Prepare noodles according to packet instructions and drain.

Heat a drizzle of peanut oil in a wok over moderately high heat.

Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until they begin to brown. Remove and add more oil.

Fry a few chicken strips at a time, stirring constantly for about 2 minutes, then remove.

Brown the shrimp in the pan for a minute and remove.

Add the carrots and celery and sauté until slightly softened but still retaining some crunch. Remove.

Add the cabbage and the spring onion and sauté for 1 minute (it should not become too soft). Place it in the second container as it will be mixed with other ingredients at the end.

Now sauté the mushrooms and remove them to the first container.

Add the drained noodles to the wok with the rest of the sauce and a little water and sauté for a minute or two.

Add the contents of the first container and stir for about 30 seconds.

Mix cabbage and spring onions and serve immediately. DM/TGIFood

Statistics from Wikipedia.

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM store. Buy it here.

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