My American friends used to be surprised when I told them that egg foo young is the name of an authentic classical Chinese dish, but that what they were served in Chinese restaurants bore no relation to the original. The Westernized version represents the worst aspect of the tendencies of Cantonese cooks to give the foreign customers what they wanted – in this case dry, crispy omelettes drenched in a brown sauce, served with plenty of soy sauce on the table. From the proprietor’s point of view, this dish was cost-effective because the omelette could be prepared ahead of time – as if such a thing were really acceptable! – and its deficiencies buried under a sloppy brown sauce next to mounds of rice. All that the customers knew was that it wasn’t what they got at home, so it had to be Chinese.
The original Cantonese version is a work of culinary art. The ‘Foo Young’ in the name of the dish is really furong and literally means ‘egg white’, which is also used to describe hibiscus, commonly known as the ‘white Chinese rose’.
Eggs are remarkably nutritious and versatile. They are good boiled or poached, fried or scrambled, by themselves or mixed with other foods; they are used to thicken liquids into solids, to lighten the texture of a foam, and to stabilize oil-and-water sauces. But they require delicate treatment if they are not to harden into a tasteless gummy mass.
Thus, in the Chinese version of egg foo young, the eggs can never be prepared ahead of time. The omelette will fail if proper care is lacking. But the true version is a beautiful as well as a delicious dish, as pretty as a hibiscus, its delicate flavours dancing lightly on the palate. In today’s Chinese restaurants, you can now experience the delightful original.
Though there are many versions of egg foo young, which may include mushrooms, almonds, prawn, crab, etc., this version, which consists of chicken and vegetables, was the most popular at the restaurant I worked in.
© 1998 Ken Hom. All rights reserved.