I don’t know when the last time I ate Chinese food in a restaurant was. Actually I take that back. We ate at Lao Shanghai last night and it was good, very good. I had not had the same experience at Lao Beijing, where they served tortillas with the Beijing Duck. Tortillas! This was not supposed to be fusion food for Pete’s sake. Lao means “old” in Chinese, “classic”. We go out for Thai food and Vietnamese food a lot, but rarely do we go out for Chinese food. Laurent being from Taiwan and then living in LA and San Fran during his formative years is not so impressed with the Chinese food in Chicago. He complains that it is mostly old school Cantonese which tends to be heavy and goopy. My experience with Chinese food before I met Laurent was chop suey, egg foo young and bad fried rice at Golden Dragon. (Laurent deemed it inedible when I took him there.) He also informed me that Chop Suey means miscellaneous leftovers, or scraps! Not something you really want to order at a restaurant and it is prevalent on Chinese menus here in Chicago. He also said that he had no clue what egg foo young was!
With the slim pickings for good Chinese food in Chicago, we started creating our own. We modernized old school classics like Ma Po Tofu and Ants Climbing up a Tree, (which is much more appetizing than it sounds! It is so named as the ground pork on top of the cellophane noodles looks like ants climbing on tree branches.) by replacing ground pork with diced tofu and lightening up the sauce. Our version of congee, classically a peasant dish consisting of a tiny bit of rice and watered down pork stock, thousand year old eggs and scallions tastes nothing like the MSG laden versions in restaurants. It took me years before I would even taste it when Laurent made it. It is now my “go to” comfort food when I am sick. Made with a rich homemade chicken stock and lots of ginger, it is the perfect cold buster. Again, we skip the pork and double up on the ginger, although we do leave in the thousand year old eggs, as I have developed a taste for them. Don’t ask; Google it. I am not even going to provide a link because you probably won’t associate with me after you do read about them. They are not as gross as they sound. It’s really more of a texture and visual thing to get used to. Now stinky tofu, that’s another story. I spit that out and am traumatized forever from it. It may smell like a good stinky taleggio, but trust me; it does not taste like one, AT ALL! Shudder! Even Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain can’t handle it. So there.
To figure out how to make these classic dishes, we have a collection of very simple cookbooks from the Wei-Chun Cooking School in Taiwan which are written in both Chinese and English The recipes are easy and clearly written, at least Laurent says the Chinese part are. In all fairness, the English translation is not that bad, I can figure out what “crash into powder and cut into slanting slices” means. The directions are concise and no nonsense, very Chinese.
While we may not ever attempt Intestine Rings on Green Onion Fingers or Orchid Ham, even though the picture is quite “beautiful”, we have perfected and modernized Spicy Cold Chicken Noodles. It’s the perfect dish to bring to a potluck in the summer, just ask our friends. They are probably sick of it by now.
You only need a few special ingredients for this dish and you could probably make it without them. It would definitely change the flavor, as the ingredients are very distinct tasting, but, you know what, “whatever”. You will have created a new dish and not known what it should have tasted like, so it’s all good! These “exotic” ingredients are sesame paste and Szechwan peppercorns. I love sesame; Sesame oil, sesame paste, sesame candy. (Damn I should have gotten some sesame candy when I was at the Asian grocery store. It’s like peanut brittle, but better.) You may be saying “tahini is sesame paste, could I just use that?” Yes, you could. I prefer the Chinese sesame paste, though, as it is roasted. Because it is made from roasted sesame seeds, the flavor is deeper, richer and more intense, just like I like it. You know I am not much for subtle. The other ingredient that will give this dish a very distinct flavor is Szechwan peppercorns. I know no substitute for them, although I have used Grains of Paradise before, not that you can find that in the McCormick Spice Rack at The Jewel either! The recipe calls for Szechwan peppercorn powder which I could not find for the life of me in my pantry or at Asian market. I just ended up crushing the whole peppercorns with a knife steel. I prefer the powder, though, as it more evenly distributes the distinct flavor. We also use one other specialty ingredient, which is a roasted chili flake. The only English writing on it says Hot and Spicy Sauce; not so descriptive. It’s sort of scary, as there are peanuts in it too, but they are not listed anywhere on the ingredient list. I do put out the warning when I use this condiment. The only way I find it every time in the store is by the weird black and white picture of the solemn Chinese woman on the front! I like it because it is pure roasted chili flavor. I don’t like the vinegary tang of Sriracha or Tabasco in this application. You can use regular chili flakes or some sort of dried chili powder also.
So, finally, here is the recipe, after yet another tangent filled blog post.
The amounts on the veggies are guesstimates. Use as much or as little as you like. There is plenty of sauce. Feel free to sub veggies, use different noodles, sub tahini, use veg stock, however you feel like altering it. Make it yours; we made it ours.
Spicy Cold Chicken Noodles
3-4 oz soba noodles
2 chicken breasts
2 cups of mung bean sprouts
1 English cucumber, peeled
½ bunch of watercress leaves, picked from the main stems
2 carrots, peeled
Small red pepper
2 cups snow pea pods or green beans
3 Tbl minced green onion
2 Tbl minced ginger
1 Tbl minced garlic
2/3 cup cold chicken stock
5 Tbl soy sauce
3 Tbl and 2 tsp sesame paste
3 Tbl sesame oil
2 Tbl lime juice
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp chili paste (depending on what you are using, you may want to start lower and ramp up!)
1 tsp crushed Szechuan peppercorns (reduce to ¾ tsp if you find the powder)
1 ½ Tbl white vinegar
½ tsp salt
Boil the noodles until cooked, drain and rinse under cold water, drain and pat dry.
Coat with a little sesame oil, so they don’t stick together.
Add chicken to boiling water and poach for about 10 minutes or until cooked through.
Let cool and shred.
Julienne the carrots and cucumber on a mandolin.
Thinly slice the red pepper and snow pea pods on the bias
Mix all the ingredients in section two together to make the sauce. Adjust taste as needed.
Toss together the noodles, veggies and chicken.
Toss with the sauce.
Garnish with sliced green onions or mint or cilantro.
Notes: The noodles tend to soak up the sauce, so I wouldn’t toss it until you are almost ready to serve it. You may want to use thinly sliced grilled chicken or pulled roasted chicken. The poached chicken has a distinct texture that may take some getting used to.
Thanks for playing “Yen Can Cook” and have a nice day.