Chinese Noodles 101: Crispy Pan-Fried Noodle Cakes With Seafood
From crispy pan-fried noodles to a bowl of wonton noodle soup, fresh Chinese egg noodles are a staple of Chinese restaurants. Just like Italian pasta or ramen, when cooked properly, they should have a firm bite and springy texture, and the wide variation in thickness and springiness makes Chinese egg noodles some of the most versatile to cook with. All week, we've been talking about the various types of noodles you might find at a good Chinese market and how best to cook them. Check out the whole series here.
Crispy and a little saucy, egg noodles pan-fried until they form a crunchy-on-the-outside, tender-in-the-middle cake is a classic Hong Kong and Guangzhou dish. A nest of egg noodles are fried in a wok until golden brown and topped with a combination of stir-fried meat, seafood, or vegetables. Here's how to make my favorite version, topped with seafood in a light gravy.
When buying the proper noodles for this dish, look for thin egg noodles that are labeled Hong Kong Style Pan Fried Noodles or Chow Mein. You could also use fresh wonton noodles, but the main benefit of using the pan-fried variety is you don't need to boil them before frying (check out our Chinese Egg Noodle Style Guide for more info).
Making the Noodle Cake
There are two important elements to this dish, the noodle cake and the toppings. We'll start with the noodles. The method to get it crispy and golden brown is called leung mein wong (both sides golden) in Cantonese, and oil and heat control are very important when trying to achieve this.
Start by gently separating a half pound of noodles by hand, working any large clumps. The goal is to have a light, air-filled cake.
Next, heat up a tablespoon of oil in a wok until it's shimmering. Keep in mind that you are pan frying noodles and not deep frying them, so you don't need to use a ton of oil. Two tablespoons of oil (one tablespoon per side) is enough to get it nice and crispy without being oily.
Gently slide the noodles into the oil, swirling them around to get a nice even shape, then turn the heat down to medium. With stir-frying you're usually told to keep the heat on high, but when pan-frying noodles in non-restaurant size woks, cooking on high heat is not ideal. Woks used in Chinese restaurants are big. They're deeper and larger than the standard home woks. This large cooking surface area means the noodles have more room to move around which prevents them from burning. With a home-size wok, the cooking surface area is smaller. If the noodles are pan-fried on high heat the entire time, you'll end up burning them before they can get evenly brown and crisp.
Cooking the noodles at a slightly lower heat gives you more control, allowing you to check on their progress along the way.
Next, add a quarter cup of water to the pan to help create some steam. This will heat the noodles in the center without allowing the outer noodles to burn. You'll also want to continue sliding them around now and then to ensure that they're crisping evenly.
Use a spatula to carefully lift the bottom and peek underneath. Keep in mind that the center of the wok is the hottest part, so you want to check under there and slide the edges of the noodle cake towards the center to get them nice and crispy. If your wok begins to get smoky, turn down the heat a little.
When the bottom of the noodle cake is golden brown, slide it out of the wok and onto a plate. Working quickly so that the bottom stays crispy, place a second plate on top of the noodles and flip.
You should end up with the crisped side facing up.
Wipe the wok clean so that there are no little pieces of noodles remaining, then heat it up again with 1 tablespoon of oil over high heat until smoking. Swirl the oil around the wok and slide the noodles back in. Move the noodles around so that the bottom part is covered with oil. Turn down the flame to medium and continue cooking, swirling regularly, until the noodles are completely cooked and crisp on both sides. Slide the cake out onto a plate, and keep it warm while you prepare the sauce.
The second element of this dish is the topping, and the varieties are endless. Shredded pork with yellow chives is a classic, as is chicken with mushrooms, and I've had ones topped with chunks of lobster in a ginger scallion sauce. But my favorite one is seafood. You can add a mixture of different ingredients. Can't find fish balls? Try crab sticks or just add more shrimp. Not a fan of shiitake mushrooms? Substitute it with cremini or none at all. Instead of choy sum, you can use bok choy.
When cooking with shrimp, I always soak them in a bowl with baking soda, a technique that helps keep them extra plump (read more about the science in Kenji's article on wonton soup). A 30-minute soak in an ice cold baking soda solution is enough.
Next, I blanch my other ingredients. Choy sum is simmered just until tender.
Then I reheat the water and simmer squid, scallops, and fish balls for under a minute. Though you're cooking in water, this actually helps expel some of their internal moisture, allowing you to stir-fry them more efficiently.
Finally, we're ready to stir fry. Start with the fresh shiitakes, stir fried in hot oil until tender and nicely browned. Remove them from the wok.
Reheat the wok with some more oil until smoking hot, then add the drained, soaked shrimp and stir-fry just until barely cooked, about a minute. Add them to the bowl with the mushrooms.
The goal here is to cook all of our ingredients in batches to ensure that the pan stays extra hot. This helps color them and develop flavor without overcooking them.
Reheat the wok with more oil, then stir-fry the par-boiled seafood. Add it to the bowl with the shrimp and mushrooms.
Our sauce consists of a mixture of chicken stock, oyster sauce, soy sauce, white pepper, garlic, and sesame oil, all lightly thickened with cornstarch.
Cornstarch needs to come to a boil to fully thicken, so add your sauce and heat it until it starts simmering.
Finally, return your mushroom and seafood to the gravy and toss them to coat.
Th seafood is already mostly cooked through, so don't let it simmer for too long or it'll get tough&mdahs;just enough to heat it through.
Pour the sauce and seafood over your crisp noodle cake, and serve immediately with your blanched greens.
About the Author: Shao Z. was born in Guangzhou, the birthplace of dim sum, and raised in the Chinatown neighborhood of Philadelphia. As a sibling-less child, cooking was a way to cure after school snack attacks and a way to keep herself entertained. That's how her love for food and cooking started, and it continues to grow. She blog at friedwontons4u.com and is on Twitter at @friedwontons4u.