Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Faux Chinese Goodness - Paying It Forward

There's one problem with growing up in small town Idaho. Ok, so there are a lot of problems with that scenario, but today I'm focusing on possibly the most important issue. Once you escape into the big wide world, you can no longer find the terrible, faux "ethnic" food you grew up loving. Here I am in San Francisco surrounded by wonderful, authentic Chinese food (as well as dear-lordie-that's-going-nowhere-near-my-mouth authentic Chinese food), and sometimes all I can think about is that fake crap I grew up chowing down. I am not the only one with this problem. A couple of fellow Idahomies in the area and I even had a Chinese a la IF potluck a couple of years ago. We each brought the home versions of our favorite Idaho Falls Chinese dishes, dishes with neon sweet & sour sauce, thick coatings of greasy fried batter, too much sugar, and heavy on the soy sauce. These are the dishes it turned out we'd all been secretly recreating in the deep dark corners of our own homes where no urban foodie could discover our shameful cravings.

But now I'm outing us. A high school bestie now a fellow expat recently reached out to me with a desperate text, "do you have a good recipe for crunchy cantonese style chow mein? im craving it so bad and dont know a place in denver that serves it." I knew immediately he meant the sloppy plate of cheap veggies over stale salad noodles served at all Idaho Falls "Chinese" establishments because this, too, is my shameful addiction. This is the dish I learned, through great trial and error, to create at home to the worst of my culinary abilities. I now realize the need for this recipe out in the ether. The demand may be niche, but it surpasses the supply.

The main hurdles I ran into during my years perfecting this "chow mein" were finding a meat that approximated the flavor of the shredded pork/ham the fake Chinese restaurants used and finding the right "sweet" to add. Recipes I found online suggested sugar or even molasses syrup, but they didn't quite get the flavor right. Out of frustration one day I used agave nectar and somehow this worked perfectly, though somehow I'm pretty sure it's not what the restaurants used. My friend said he would try the ultra fine confectioner sugar used in many recipes in his more authentic "Chinese food bible" cookbook. Also, I added snap peas because I love them. They're the only real departure from making this as close as possible to the chow mein we ate growing up, but they're easily left out if going for genuine artificial authenticity.

Before attempting this dish at home, I must give fair warning to anyone not raised on fake Chinese food. My husband grew up in San Francisco with the real stuff and I only make this when he won't be home. He wants nothing to do with it and would rather go to bed hungry than partake in my childhood delight. Which means... more for me.

Crispy Noodle Chow Mein a la IF

  • 2 Tblspn peanut oil
  • 6 slices Canadian Bacon (I like Rose's brand for this recipe - not too smoky or too sweet), sliced into thin 2-3in long strips - you could also use Chinese BBQ pork
  • 1 12oz. bag mung bean sprouts
  • 1 bunch celery, chopped into 1/4in slices on the diagonal
  • 1-2 handfuls of shredded carrot
  • 1 onion, chopped into 2-3in strips
  • 1-2 handfuls of snap pea pods, de-stringed and sliced on the diagonal
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 2 Tblspn soy sauce, more to taste
  • 1 Tblspn agave nectar
  • 2 Tblspn corn starch

Heat oil in large wok or pan on high heat. Combine 1 1/4 cup broth, soy sauce, and agave nectar in a bowl or measuring cup. Separately, combine remaining broth and corn starch. Meanwhile, add vegetables and meat to hot oil and stir-fry until vegetables just start to soften, about 3-5 minutes. Add broth/soy sauce mixture and continue to stir-fry until liquid reaches a boil, about 2 minutes. Then add well-blended broth/corn starch. Stir-fry until boiling, reduce heat and simmer for a couple minutes more until liquid is thickened. Serve over crunchy chow mein noodles, such as the La Choy brand found in any grocery store across America. Add soy sauce to taste.


  1. AH! This is hilarious!!! Now I need your mission to be recreating the sweet and sour sauce. I want to make sweet and sour "chicken"!!! I miss it...

  2. Sweet & sour chicken was one of the dishes Alan & Mel brought to the "Chinese" potluck! I'll get a recipe worked out, but to truly match the inauthentic glory we grew up with, you're probably best just buying a huge tub of the stuff from Cosco, lol!