The Food Maven Diary
Chinese-American Chow Mein
I just got an email from an Israeli reader. She is a native of New York, and she bought a copy of Arthur Schwartz's New York City Food on Amazon.com. (By the way, if you order a book, any book, CD or DVD by clicking on the Amazon logo on my website, I get a tiny, tiny commission that helps pay for the maintenance of the site. Also, whenever I highlight a title to connect you directly to Amazon, I also get a miniscule commisssion. But every penny helps.) The book is waiting for her in NYC. She'll get it when she visits her family. Meanwhile, she wanted to know if it has a recipe for chow mein. As a kosher vegetarian with nostalgia for old-time Chinese-American food, she would like to make it for herself and family. I have to say it is the perfect dish for vegetarians and for those who keep kosher. It may be Chinese, but there is nothing trayf about it, and it can easily be served without any meat or poultry product. (For those of you not in the tribe, trayf is the Yiddish word for forbidden food, foods that are not allowed according to Jewish dietary laws.)
Actually, chow mein, and the interesting story behind it, was one of the recipes that was cut from my book. My editor from Iowa didn't seem to think it was as important as some other less important stuff. To be fair, I wrote way too much. If everything had been included, you wouldn't have been able to lift the book, much less afford to buy it. Something had to give.
I have to confess that for at least a year, until the book won the highest cookbook award there is -- Cookbook of the Year (2005) by the International Association of Culinary Professionals – I could only see what was not in the book instead of being proud of what was in it.
In any case, I just re-read what I wrote about chow mein. All the cut stuff is still in my computer. And I want to share it with you all. I haven't made the recipe in a long while, but I do remember liking it enough to make is several times, actually many times. It is extremely simple and a very good everyday dish. It is mostly onions and celery on a bed of fried noodles. My one digression from the old-time recipe, my one update, is that I would, if at all possible, use fresh waterchestnuts and fresh bean sprouts, not canned as we used to. They are both readily available these days.
For a vegetarian chow mein, I would garnish it with tofu (easy and in keeping). Or how about a thin egg pancake (okay, let's call it a frittata) cut into strips. Hard-cooked egg would be a nice garnish, too.
The following is directly from my manuscript:
Chow Mein and Chop Suey may not have started out as the same dish, but eventually they were practically the same thing in New York's Chinese-American restaurants – and the rest of America.
Chow Mein is a mélange of vegetables – mostly celery and onion, but also bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and mushrooms -- in a cornstarch-thickened sauce, mainly seasoned with soy sauce and served on fried noodles, topped with any number of protein add-ons. This could be chicken, pork, beef, or shrimp, or all of the above, in which case the dish would called Sub Gum Chow Mein. Chop Suey is also a mélange of vegetables, with the same protein additions, but served on rice instead of noodles.
There is a general understanding that both of these dishes were totally fabricated by Chinese cooks in the U.S., but that's not entirely true. Neither are exactly the same as their authentically Chinese counterparts, but they do indeed have Chinese precedents.
Chop Suey means "miscellany," "this and that," or, literally, "different" (chop) "pieces" (suey). In Mandarin, the word is za sui. It is used to refer to organ meats, or offal – the innards or miscellany of an animal, including tripe (which is stomach), intestines, liver, heart, spleen, kidney, chicken gizzards, etc. The word chop suey could be applied to any dish made with these ingredients. In the U.S., it came also to mean a dish composed of leftovers.
On the other hand, Chow Mein made in China would be pan-fried noodles topped with a stir-fried and sauced vegetable combination, with or without meat or poultry. Real Chow Mein didn't exist in New York until the revival of Cantonese food (Hong Kong style) in the late 1980s, but the dish is common these days in New York's Chinatown restaurants. The Chinese-American dish deviates from the original. Instead of a pancake of pan-fried wheat noodles, crunchy on the surface but soft in the center, American Chow Mein is a topping on crunchy deep-fried noodles.
Chop Suey and Chow Mein were probably not invented in New York, but who's to say? There is a legend that makes New York the place where Chop Suey did at least became known to the world at large, consequently becoming the most famous Chinese dish ever.
The story goes that Li Hongzhang, a special envoy of the Chinese emperor, came to New York in 1896, after attending the coronation of the Russian Czar Nicholas II. (He supposedly didn't go to San Francisco, which had a larger Chinese population, precisely because of that fact: He was embarrassed by the Chinese Exclusion Act and the discrimination the Chinese were suffering in San Francisco.) This much is fact. Naturally, goes the legend, he was feted with huge banquets. Naturally, also goes the legend, he didn't like Western food. He liked instead, says the legend, to eat in Chinatown, where he enjoyed the American creation, Chop Suey. Because he was always being followed by journalists – celebrity journalism was apparently as aggressive then as now -- and they reported the great diplomat's every bite, Chop Suey became the most famous Chinese dish in the country.
There are several flaws in this story. For one thing, Hongzhang is known to have brought his own cooks with him, and they prepared his meals every day. In fact, Li Hongzhang's cooks were the first non Westerners to work in the kitchens of the Waldorf-Astoria, where he stayed. There are photographs to prove that they did. And then there is this report in the New York Times: "For the first time in the history of the Waldorf, Chinese chefs have prepared Chinese dishes in Chinese pots, pans, and skillets. And the dishes they have cooked have created more curiosity and consternation than the great Viceroy himself."
Also, according to a published newspaper story by an early Chinese-American journalist, Wong Chin Fu in 1888, eight years before Li Hongzhang arrived in New York, "A staple dish for the Chinese gourmand is Chow Chop Suey, a mixture of chicken livers and gizzards, bamboo buds, pig's tripe, fungi, and bean sprouts stewed with spices. The gravy of this is poured into the bowl of rice … making a delicious seasoning to the favorite grain."
Created or not in New York for Li Hongzhang, his visit gave impetus to Chinese businessmen to promote their Chinatown restaurants. Signs were put out that more or less said "Li Hongzhang ate here – and loved our Chop Suey." The dignitary's visit created new interest in China and made going to Chinatown to eat Chop Suey a new middle class tourist activity. It was a day of fantasy and recreation.
It didn't take long for Chow Mein and Chop Suey to capture the taste buds of New York. The dishes weren't served only at Chinese restaurants, but at all kinds of restaurants. Eventually, you could get a form of Chow Mein at Café Society haunts like The Colony. Sherman Billingsley at The Stork Club served his version of Chop Suey (see page tkt). Longchamps was famous for Chow Mein (see page tkt), and Broadway hangouts like Reubens served it, too.
One of New York's strangest dishes is Chow Mein on a hamburger bun with Chinese fried noodles. You could get one of those at Nathan's in Coney Island, or at the lunch counter at Woolworth's.
According to Ed Schoenfeld, who has been New York's most prominent non-Chinese, Chinese food maven for nearly 30 years, there are American regional differences to Chow Mein. In Boston, for instance, they like a brown Chow Mein with a lot of soy sauce. In Chicago they use soy sauce, too. But New York's Chow Mein is white, without soy sauce. "In New York it's about the sweet vegetable juices – the celery, onion, and garlic -- flavoring good chicken stock. The pepper should be white, and it always has MSG. Whenever you want good vegetable taste, there's MSG," says Ed. "And chopped scallion."
Chinese-American Chow Mein
Serves 3 or 4
There's only a medium amount of soy sauce in this recipe, which is why I always end up adding more at the table. If you like, you won't be overdoing it if you add as much as two tablespoons more when preparing the dish.
2 tablespoons peanut or corn oil
2 medium-large onions, peeled, cut in half through the root end, sliced thin crosswise (about 3 cups)
4 ribs celery, cut thinly on a sharp diagonal (about 2 cups)
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups sliced white mushrooms (about 5 ounces)
1 1/4 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons dry sherry
4 teaspoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup fresh bean sprouts
1/2 cup sliced, fresh waterchestnuts
About 2 cups white meat chicken, cooked any way, and cut into strips (or red-roasted Chinese pork, or sliced steak)
Fried Chinese noodles, available at any supermarket
In a large skillet, over medium-high heat, heat the oil until very hot but not smoking. Add the onions and celery and stir-fry for 4 to 5 minutes, until the onions are slightly wilted.
Add the garlic and mushrooms and stir-fry just 1 minute.
Add 1 cup of the chicken broth, cover the pot and simmer 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Meanwhile, in a small cup, with a fork, blend together the remaining 1/4 cup chicken broth, the sherry, soy sauce, and cornstarch.
Uncover the pot and stir in the bean sprouts and optional water chestnuts.
Give the cornstarch mixture a final stir to make sure the starch is dissolved. Add it to the pan and stir it through until thickened. Taste for seasoning. You may want to add more salt or soy sauce.
Serve immediately, topped with strips of white meat chicken (roasted, broiled, poached or boiled) or other meat or garnish, on a bed of fried Chinese noodles. It is best when eaten immediately, but you can reheat it, gently, if need be, adding a tiny bit more liquid as necessary.