Anyone traveling to China, and Asia in general, will notice that noodles are everywhere, at all hours, in every variety. It is an understatement to call it a staple--it is more like a way of life, especially among the working classes. Nevertheless, perhaps no Chinese dish has suffered more in its passage from the mainland to the West than chao mian (Chow mein). In China, particularly the north, chao mian is a mainstay dish akin to fried rice (chao fan) in its simplicity and adaptation to the ingredients on hand; with this freedom in mind, one would have thought “Chow Mein,” as it is seen in Chinese-American restaurants, would bear at least a passing resemblance to those versions on the mainland. In a very few cases, this is true, but most Americans have experienced “Chow Mein” as a sodden, glutinous mass of starchy sauce, overcooked bean sprouts and any number of ingredients standing in for fresh noodles. In parts of the Eastern and Southern United States, chao mian will be served without any noodles whatsoever! In these places, one must order “Lo Mein” to receive noodles.
Chinese chao mian may differ widely from household to household, restaurant to restaurant, and north to south. If there is a tradition to chao mian, it may be limited to the following: fresh wheat noodles or egg noodles, fried, with some vegetables and flavoring ingredients; its sauce will serve to season the dish, subservient to the noodles, not to overwhelm or bind it together. With this in mind, one has a great deal of leeway; almost any kind of meat or vegetable can be used, as well as the type of noodle and technique for its frying. In Southern China and elsewhere, it is more customary to see a thin egg noodle, fried crisp on one or more sides, (Cantonese: Leung Mein Wong) with the meat, vegetables and sauce applied to the top after it’s plated. In other parts of China, the noodles are fried in the wok along with the other ingredients, and may or may not be crisped, but only heated through and saturated with flavor. It should also be noticed that while countless traditional recipes exist with the above characteristics, the term chao may not appear in the name, in recipes or menus, though it certainly falls within the category of fried noodles.
One can—and has—written books on the subject of Chinese noodles. [See Florence Lin's Complete Book of Chinese Noodles, Dumplings and Breads.] Making noodles at home, however, is an activity reserved for die-hard food enthusiasts, ones that don't mind the near destruction of their kitchens. No matter how much care is taken, flour inevitably winds up on the floor, ceiling, clothing, hair and walls. In China, cooks seem to know better: folks rarely make their own fresh noodles, they are cheap and available on nearly every block. Here, the faint of heart can buy fresh wheat noodles at any Asian grocery. The version below is based on chao mian I’ve enjoyed in several Sichuan street restaurants. Keep in mind, you may want to vary the meat, or omit it for a vegetarian version; chilies, dried mushroom, red or green peppers, doufu, can all be utilized if desired, without changing the essential tradition of Chao mian. It is recommended however, that the garlic, ginger, yellow onion and sprouts be retained, since their flavor and texture is a key to the character of this dish.
Homemade Fresh Noodles
- 3-1/2 cups flour (approx.)
- 1 cup water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp oil
The amount of flour used in this recipe will depend on the type of flour, its age, and humidity. Adjust as necessary. Combine the flour, water, salt and oil and knead until the dough roughly coheres in a ball. The dough should be dry and somewhat stiff. Begin running the dough through the machine on the largest setting, folding it each time, until it is smooth and begins to feel slightly sticky. Dust the dough repeatedly with flour as you do this, until it will not absorb any more. The idea is to make a very strong dough with a high proportion of flour to water. Wrap and allow the dough to rest for several hours—this will relax the gluten and distribute the moisture. You can now repeat the process of rolling and adding more flour, until you have a very strong, elastic dough. Now divide the dough into 3 or 4 equal parts and run it through the machine, trimming the width if necessary, dusting with flour when needed, and decreasing the dimension, until the sheets are approximately 1/16” thick and at least 15” long, depending on the type of noodle desired. Run the sheet through the narrow cutter attachment, producing a strand approximately 1/16” by 1/16” in diameter, and 15” to 20” long. Dust with cornstarch. The dimensions of a chao mian noodle can vary: it can be flat, like an Italian fettuccine, or somewhat larger, resembling a Japanese udon; the Chinese, however, consider a long noodle best, as it traditionally symbolizes long life, and is a customary—we should say, mandatory—dish served at Birthday celebrations.
The noodles should be refrigerated, dried, or frozen, however homemade noodles do not hold up as well as commercially made, so it is best to use them as soon as possible.
Xia ren chao mian:
15 oz fresh noodle
7-8 oz shelled de-veined shrimp or prawn
2-3 garlic cloves, very finely minced
1” x1/2” pc ginger, peeled and finely minced
1/2 yellow onion, cut into small wedges
8 oz beansprouts
3 green onions
4 oz green cabbage or bai cai
1 Tab ground bean sauce
3 Tab soy
1 rounded tsp sugar
1 tsp sweet vinegar
A few shreds sweet red pepper
A few shreds green tops of green onion
Boil fresh noodles for two minutes, checking them every quarter minute for desired doneness. They should be slightly undercooked, since they will undergo a second cooking in the wok. Remove the noodles when they are done, drain, and spread on a countertop to cool and dry. As soon as the surface of the noodles have dulled, drizzle a small amount of peanut oil on them to prevent sticking.
Meanwhile, prepare the other ingredients: wash and trim shrimp, if necessary, and drain thoroughly. Cut yellow onion into wedges along its axis, and separate them. Cut green onions into 2” sections; cut white portion into quarters lengthwise, then shred 2 or so tablespoons of the green portion to use as a garnish. Shred a few pieces of sweet red pepper for garnish. Cut the cabbage into 1/4” shreds. Combine the sauce ingredients.
Dredge the shrimp or prawn in cornstarch and thoroughly shake off excess. On high, heat wok til it begins to smoke and add 2-3 Tab of peanut oil; add dusted shrimp and stir fry quickly just until they loose their transluscence. Remove and set aside. Add another tablespoon or two of oil and when wok is very hot, toss in yellow and green onion but do not stir—you want to achieve some caramelization on the onion pieces (if you have a professional wok burner, this will not be necessary); when wok is hot again, add ginger and garlic, toss, then cabbage and sprouts and stir fry for 1 or 2 minutes until sprouts barely begin to wilt. Add the noodles and begin tossing with the other ingredients. The noodles will tend to roll up and turn over without suspending the other ingredients; it is necessary to gently pull the noodles apart as you stir fry, to combine it all. Using large chopsticks rather than the shovel, is sometimes helpful. After 2 minutes or so, add sauce ingredients and continue mixing, trying to pull the noodles apart as you go, until the noodles and ingredients are thoroughly heated through. When you plate the dish, roll the mass onto the platter and heap any remaining onions or flavoring ingredients onto the top of the noodles. Arrange the shrimp on top as well, before garnishing with shredded onion, red pepper and sesame oil.