When I left for Taiwan, what I knew as chow mein was a concoction of tinned, fried, and vaguely rancid brown noodles, topped with a taste-free chicken and celery sauce and served up proudly in high school and museum cafeterias. What naïveté!
Cook and drain the noodles as directed. Toss well with 1½ teaspoons sesame oil and 1 teaspoon kosher salt, gently so as not to break the noodles. If working in advance, bag the noodles airtight in plastic and refrigerate up to 2 days. Bring to room temperature before stir-frying.
Chill and shred the chicken.
Whisk the marinade ingredients until smooth and thick and combine with the chicken, tossing well with your fingers to coat and separate the slivers. When the chicken is supple, seal airtight and refrigerate 4–24 hours, stirring occasionally. The longer the chicken marinates, the plumper and more tender it will be.
Soak the mushrooms in cold or hot water to cover until fully soft and spongy, 20 minutes to an hour. Drain, snip off the stems with scissors, then rinse the caps to dislodge any sand trapped in the gills. Cut the caps into neat long slivers ⅛ inch wide.
Cover the tree ears with a generous amount of cool or warm water (they will expand greatly), and soak until supple, about 20 minutes. Drain, rinse well to remove grit, then discard any very tough or gelatinous bits. Rinse a second time and drain. Tear, if needed, into nickel-size pieces. Combine the tree ears and the slivered mushrooms.
Cut the snow peas on the diagonal into thin slivers a scant ¼ inch wide. Or, shred the carrot to yield 1½ cups shreds. Or, peel the broccoli stem of its woody outer bark and cut it crosswise on a diagonal into thin coins a scant ¼ inch thick, then stack several coins at a time and cut them lengthwise into slivers a scant ¼ inch wide. Cut the flowerets into small, dainty pieces the size of a marble. Altogether, you should have 1½–2 cups broccoli.
Mince the ginger and garlic in a food processor or by hand. Put aside on a small saucer, with the chili sauce if you are using it.
Stir the sauce ingredients to combine. Stir the cornstarch mixture to blend and leave the spoon in the bowl.
All the above may be done up to a full day in advance. Except for the cornstarch mixture, seal everything airtight and refrigerate, and bring to room temperature before cooking. The cut vegetables should be misted before bagging to keep them moist.
About 20–30 minutes before serving, bring the water for velveting to a near-simmer in a large saucepan, stir in the oil, and adjust the heat so the water does not boil. While it is heating, put a colander in the sink and a serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm. Have all the ingredients for the dish and an extra plate to hold the vegetables within easy reach of your stovetop. Stir the chicken to loosen the pieces.
With the water at a superficial simmer—rolling but not quite bubbling on the surface—slide the chicken into the oil. Stir gently with chopsticks to separate the shreds, then drain the chicken into the colander as soon as it turns 90 percent white, in about 15–20 seconds. The chicken should be only part-cooked; if you are in any doubt, drain it sooner rather than later. Proceed immediately to the stir-frying.
Put a wok or a large, deep, heavy skillet, or wide heavy stockpot over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. (You will need the roominess of a large wok or pot in which to tumble and shower the noodles.)
Add 4 tablespoons oil and swirl to coat the pan. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a bit of ginger on contact, add the minced aromatics, nudging the chili sauce in last. Stir gently until fully aromatic, about 10 seconds, adjusting the heat so the mixture foams without browning. Add the snow peas, carrots, or broccoli, then toss briskly to glaze with oil, dribbling in a bit more oil from the side of the pan if it becomes too dry. When the vegetable is evenly glazed with oil, add the mushrooms and tree ears and toss briskly to mix, adjusting the heat to maintain a merry sizzle without scorching the vegetable. Toss a minute longer if you are using broccoli, until it is just tender-crisp, then add the chicken. Toss briskly to combine and heat the chicken through, about 10–15 seconds, then scrape the mixture onto the waiting plate. The vegetables and chicken should still be undercooked, so they will cook to perfection (not overdoneness) when combined with the noodles.
Quickly wipe the pan clean, then return it to high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add 1½–3 tablespoons vegetable oil, depending upon whether you want soft or crisp noodles (more oil for crisper noodles), then swirl to glaze the pan. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one strand of noodle on contact, shower them into the pan. Toss and shower them with rapid scooping motions, using one or two spatulas or spoons, to glaze them evenly with the oil and heat them through. For soft noodles, work over moderate heat and toss quickly and constantly. For crispy-edged noodles, raise the heat to medium-high and press the noodles repeatedly against the pan to brown them in spots. Dribble in a bit more oil from the side of the pan if they are sticking and lower the heat if the noodles begin to scorch.
When the noodles are hot and as crisp as desired, give the combined sauce ingredients a stir and add them to the pan. Toss gently to mix, then raise the heat to bring the liquids to a simmer. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine, then add it to the pan. Stir until the liquids turn glossy and slightly thick, about 20 seconds, then return the chicken and the vegetables to the pan. Toss and shower the noodles in large scooping motions to mix, then remove at once to the heated serving platter.
Serve at once, while hot and fragrant, pausing only to arrange things nicely on the platter with a few quick moves of chopsticks or tongs.
Leftovers keep 2–3 days and are very tasty (though not traditional) eaten at room temperature. Toss well before eating.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.