This basic, homey and satisfying Chinese dish can easily become part of your weekly repertoire. What I like about it is that it also can be modified to be vegetarian, substituting the pork and shrimp for tofu. And better, it completely takes the intimidation out of Chinese cooking, which, I admit, has up until now been an issue for me. As long as you can devote 20 – 30 minutes or so to some precise chopping preparation in advance (think of it as meditation), the actual cooking comes together in a flash.
My charming and lively friend Babeth Lafon guided me through this fine dish one rainy Saturday night, before some six guests showed up for a casual dinner at her place in Kreuzberg. Having grown up in Paris in a Vietnamese family, Babeth’s entire being exudes passion for great food. I think it is partially a testament to this background in multiple strong food cultures that she is not afraid to experiment with a variety of different cuisines. (Not to worry, though. I fully intend to get to the very root of her culinary expertise in the near future, pestering, bribing her if need be, for her mother’s Phò recipe or perhaps a classic Coq a Vin.)
For newcomers to Chinese cooking, I will emphasize two of the most crucial factors for success with this recipe. One is preparation. Preparation, preparation, preparation. The cooking time is relatively fast, and it is very important when you add what. Making sure your vegetables are cut in the proper manner, herbs are chopped and ready to go, eggs and meats are properly prepared and noodles are soaked will enable you to just run with it, enjoying the last minutes, the quick and furious fry. Secondly, invest in a wok. It seems to me that this particular kitchen utensil goes in and out of fashion in the Western world, much like fondue sets, but for many Chinese recipes such as this one, it really is the best tool to use. The sloped sides of a wok allow the food inside to heat up evenly. Furthermore, when quickly stirring ingredients around, the shape prevents food from ending up all over the stove around the pot. When adding oil, always drizzle it down the sides of the wok, so that it heats faster.
Babeth has wonderfully small and agile fingers, enabling her to do the finest chopping by hand. She also admitted to me that she had a bit of practical training, having chopped garlic for a living for a few months. When she was 19, Babeth found herself stranded in London after a long trip to Asia, with no money for a ticket back to Paris. Her only recourse was to find a job quickly, working her way up the ladder to the chopping station in a tiny French restaurant. Even if your knife skills are not as advanced as hers, give it a try and use the photos below to see how the ingredients should be cut.
Also, Happy Lunar New Year! My fortune cookie, by the way, read “You should talk about your desires.” I have to think that one over for a while first, but at this very moment, I can say that I am desiring a plate of this noodle dish again…
2 large carrots, julienned
2 small-medium zucchinis, thinly sliced rectangles
a small bunch of spring onions, thinly sliced, diagonally (white parts separated from green parts)
a small bunch of soybean sprouts
a big bunch of each: mint, cilantro (coriander in Europe), chopped medium-fine
a knob of ginger, coarsely chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
½ kilo quick-cooking Chinese noodles
½ kilo pork belly, thinly sliced
1/3 kilo shrimp, washed and left pressed between paper towels to dry, removing all excess moisture
1. Slice/chop vegetables, herbs and meat, setting them aside for later frying.
2. Make omelets: Whisk four eggs in a bowl with salt, pepper and few drops of fish sauce. Heat a small non-stick pan to medium and add a bit of butter. Pour a small amount of the egg mixture into the hot pan, quickly swirling around to coat the bottom evenly, then dump out any extra liquid back into the bowl. When just cooked through, fold over and slide out onto a plate. Continue with the remaining egg mixture. The idea is to make approx. seven or eight very thin omelets from these four eggs. When all omelets are prepared, slice them thinly, lengthwise. This will result in a textured, savory addition to the final dish.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the quick-cooking dried noodles by placing in a large bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Soak for five-ten minutes, then drain.
4. Heat neutral oil in the wok on high and fry the shrimp with salt and pepper for two minutes only. Set shrimp aside.
5. Using the same pan as the shrimp, cook the meat, adding more oil if needed. Add in salt and soy sauce. When the meat is almost cooked, put in the garlic and stir. When it has cooked through, one teaspoon of sugar followed by a bit more salt (as the Mama of Babeth says, “when you put sugar, always put salt”) finishes the pork. Set meat aside.
6. Again, using the same wok, add a bit more oil, followed by the carrots. A minute or so later, add the zucchini, then the white parts of the spring onions. (Here it starts to get more loud and fun.) Keep in mind that you should always add more oil if you think it is needed. There is a bit of an intuitive art to knowing exactly when to throw in each ingredient, but once these vegetables have cooked almost through, add the ginger, most of the mint and cilantro, as well as more soy sauce.
7. Remove the wok from the heat and toss in the sprouts, followed by the meat and shrimp, and finally the omelet pieces. Gently stir the fry together and serve with the remaining mint and cilantro on the side as garnish.