We ate so much and so well on Taiwan that, in retrospect, it is hard to single out anyone dish or meal as being particularly memorable. All the fabulous banquets run together into a delicious blur, and, strangely enough, what stands out the most is the simple dish of chaomian, or fried noodles, that we ate in a tiny hamlet on the east coast of Taiwan. We had just emerged from a hike through the uninhabited mountains of central Taiwan and had reached the village, which consisted of eight primitive houses strung out along a poorly paved road, about lunchtime. Since we had to kill several hours there before catching the bus to the nearest railroad station, we headed for the only restaurant in town. It was not very promising. It had a few mismatched wooden tables and benches, no menu, and a pig living next to the washroom. Because we have strong constitutions, we are normally fearless about strange food, but even we had qualms about the hygienic standard of the place and so we ordered what we assumed would be the safest item in the house, fried noodles. We were rewarded with one of the most memorable meals of our lives. The noodles were beautifully cooked and had reached that state of perfection for fried noodles where they were crisp but not hard. What made the dish so spectacular was the flecks of strange dark vegetables with which the noodles had been fried. Their unfamiliar smoky taste hinted at rare mountain mushrooms and wild herbs. Such is the glory of Chinese cooking that one can encounter the most sublime food in the meanest of circumstances. Generations of Chinese gourmets have known this, and have always valued such ordinary dishes as chaomian as highly as shark’s fins.
Chaomian has been desecrated in America. The only thing less authentic than the thick gray glop irreverently called “chow mein” is the crunchy tidbits that are served with it in place of noodles. In Chinese, chaomian means, quite simply, “fried noodles.” And that is what the dish should be. A real chaomian consists of a batch of parboiled noodles stir-fried in a little oil with some vegetables or meat shreds and a few basic condiments. The noodles should be fried only until some of them become crisp, the rest remaining soft. There is no sauce; the noodles absorb the flavors of the ingredients with which they are cooked.
Put the tree ears and dried black mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Set aside to soak for about 20 minutes. Remove the shells from the shrimps, then rinse them and devein them, if you want. If the shrimps are large, cut them into pieces about ½ inch long. Add the salt to the shrimps, mix thoroughly, and set aside. (shrimps)
The noodles have to be precooked before they are fried; this can be done while you chop the rest of the ingredients. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add the noodles. Follow the directions on the package for the length of time needed to cook the noodles; fresh Chinese noodles take 5 or 6 minutes. (Don’t let any type of noodles boil too long or they will get mushy.) The minute the noodles are done, drain them and set them aside.
Pull off the tough outer leaves of the cabbage and discard them. Wash the other leaves carefully and cut them crosswise into pieces roughly 1 inch wide; you should get approximately 3 cups of shreds.
Cut the bone and fat away from the pork chops, then slice the lean meat into shreds about 2 inches long and ¼ inch wide. (The easiest way to slice meat into thin shreds is first to put it into the freezer for about 10 minutes, until it becomes stiff but not frozen.)
Clean the scallions, then cut them, both the white part and the green, into 2-inch lengths. Slice these lengthwise into fine shreds.
Add the shredded scallions to the pork, along with the soy sauce and sesame oil. Mix well and set aside.
Peel the ginger, then slice it into shreds about ⅛ inch wide, the width of a wooden matchstick.
(tree ears and mushrooms)
Drain the tree ears and mushrooms, then rinse them well under running water. While you are rinsing the tree ears, pick them over carefully to remove any impurities, such as little pieces of wood, that may still be embedded in them. Remove the hard stems from the mushrooms and slice the mushroom heads into slivers ¼ inch wide. Keep the mushrooms separate from the tree ears.
Add the wine and the cornstarch to the shrimps and mix well.
Put the tree ears and dried black mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Set aside to soak for about 20 minutes.
Remove the shells from the shrimps, then rinse them and devein them, if you want. If the shrimps are large, cut them into pieces about ½ inch long. Add the salt to the shrimps, mix thoroughly, and set aside.
Heat your wok or pan over a high flame for 15 seconds, then add the oil. It will be ready to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear.
(ginger and mushrooms)
When the oil is ready, toss in the ginger and the mushroom shreds. Stir-fry them for 30 seconds, using your cooking shovel or spoon to scoop them off the sides of the pan and then stir them around in the middle.
Add the meat mixture and stir-fry for 20 more seconds.
Now add the tree ears and continue to stir-fry all the ingredients together for another 30 seconds.
Keep on stir-frying while you add the shrimps. Stir-fry them for 45 seconds, then remove everything from the pan. At this point, the shrimps will only be partially cooked.
Rinse the pan out thoroughly and dry it with paper towels. Put it back on the stove over a high flame for 15 seconds, then add the fresh oil.
When the oil is hot enough for cooking, put in the sliced cabbage. Stir-fry it for a few seconds, scooping the cabbage shreds off the sides of the pan and tossing them into the center. Then add the salt and continue to stir-fry for about 1 minute.
Now add the drained noodles. (You don’t have to stir-fry something like noodles too energetically; just use your cooking shovel or spoon to spread them around and keep them from sticking to the sides of the pan.)
(meat and shrimp mixture)
After the noodles have cooked for 2½ minutes, return the meat and shrimp mixture to the pan. Stir the ingredients up so they are all evenly distributed throughout the noodles, then let everything cook for 5 minutes more, stirring the noodles occasionally to make sure that they all get fried; longer cooking will produce crispier noodles. Serve immediately.
This amount of fried noodles should serve four people as a main dish. The easiest way to serve it is to heap each individual portion on a regular flat dinner plate.
If these fried noodles are but one course in a multi-course meal, they will satisfy a larger number of people. Serve them on a large platter or, as Mrs.
© 1976 Ellen Schrecker. All rights reserved.