Sunday, April 29, 2012

Crunchy HK fried noodle nest

Just the name of this dish in Chinese gets me salivating: "two sides yellow" (liangmian huang). Why? Because that means a pillow of fresh noodles has been fried into a maximum level of crispness on the outside, while the inside is soft and chewy. Life doesn't get much better than this.

I used to enjoy "two sides yellow" noodles at least twice a week during my first year in Taipei, as this little noodle shop was on Songshan Road, meaning I passed it twice a day walking to and from school. It got so I didn't even have to order. I'd just sit down, and the nice lady who ran it would flash fry some sliced beef with thick tomato wedges. 

The salty sweet gravy would mingle with the brittle noodles and soften them into gorgeous slurpy mouthfuls, and I would have this contest going to see how fast I could devour them before they turned into mush. I like these kinds of tests of skill and timing because I can't lose.

You get to top this, though, with whatever either catches your fancy or cleans up your fridge. I tend to pursue the latter option, as leftovers can tend to be a sorry lot that need all the help they can get.

A specialty of Hong Kong and other areas of the more than gastronomically endowed area of China known as Guangdong, this is a skill you can learn to master in about the same time it takes for the rest of the household to set the table. All you need is a package of fresh, thin, egg noodles, and the rest can be done practically in your sleep. Except that you will wake up when the aroma hits your nose. 

Most people who mess up this dish do so because they cook the noodles first. The cooked pasta will then congeal into a solid mess in your wok, and while I'd probably still eat it anyway because badly fried pasta is, after all, still pasta, the delicious point of this glorious Cantonese noodle dish would be totally lost.

Fluffed up fresh noodles
No, you want to use the noodles that are dried out but still supple, packaged in plastic bags in the refrigerated case of a Chinese grocery store. This work perfectly, especially if they are nice and thin and yellow in color. (Fatter noodles will work, but they won't be as light, in my experience, but experiment once you're pleased with how these turned out, as you might find something you like even better.)

The first secret to this dish, then, is the packaged noodles, and the second is fluffing up the strands so that they are a light mass when you pat them down into the hot oil. If there is air all around the noodles, they will have an opportunity to puff up as they fry, and that is a very good thing. Contrariwise, if you just place the packed skeins into your hot wok, you will end up with a fried hockey puck. I am not kidding.

Crisp up the noodles
How do you fluff up the noodles? Simple: just take a wad out of the package, place it in a large work bowl, and then run your fingertips through it until all of the strands loosen up. Repeat with however many of the noodles you want to prepare. That's it. This is also a good technique to use when you are slicing green onions, leeks, or green garlic, since your can easily separate the layers into an airy pile that then cooks quickly and evenly.

Today's recipe calls for a very simple meatless topping, one that pretty much can be pulled together from stuff that is hanging around in your refrigerator bins. It ends up being something completely delicious and satisfying, though, one that you will look forward to making because you simply can't get better fried noodles than this in a restaurant.

Crispy fried noodle nest with mushrooms and bok choy 
Suhui liangmian huang 素燴兩面黃 
Serves 2 to 3 as a main dish

3 green onions, or 2 stalks green garlic, or 1 leek
5 large fresh Chinese black mushrooms
8 ounces or more baby bok choy (or any other leafy green vegetable, like spinach)
2 tablespoons fresh peanut or vegetable oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
3 tablespoons oyster sauce or oyster-flavored sauce, or to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons stock or filtered water
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
7 to 8 ounces fresh, thin Chinese egg noodles (egg or plain pasta okay)
¾ cup or so fresh peanut or vegetable oil
Drizzle of roasted sesame oil

1. Clean and trim the onions, green garlic, or leek, making sure that there is no sand among the leaves. Slice the green onions into 1-inch pieces, or cut the green garlic or the leek on the bias into thin slices. Remove the stems from the mushrooms and reserve for your stockpot. Cut the mushroom caps into thick slices about a quarter of an inch thick. Clean and trim the bok choy, cutting the little heads into halves or quarters as needed; be sure to get all the grit out of the leaves as you are washing them, and then shake them dry in a colander.

2. Heat the 2 tablespoons oil in a wok over high and add the ginger and green onions/green garlic/leeks. Stir-fry these quickly to release their aroma, and then add the mushrooms. Stir-fry them for about a minute more, and then pour in the rice wine. Immediately cover the mushrooms for a few minutes to rapidly steam them and release their juices. 

Oyster sauce on the veggies
3. Remove the cover and add the bok choy. Quickly stir-fry the vegetables together to wilt the bok choy, and as soon as it is a lovely jade green, add the oyster sauce and stock or water. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Bring the wok to a boil and stir in the cornstarch mixture. Keep tossing the veggies until the sauce has thickened and is glossy. Pour the veggies into a clean bowl and wash out the wok. (Keep the veggies hot.)

4. Fluff up the noodles in a large work bowl so that each strand is separate. Return the wok to high heat, and when it is dry, pour in the oil for frying. When the oil is hot enough to immediately fry one of the noodles, add the rest to form a wide pillow that is less than an inch in depth (so that it cooks evenly). Lightly pat the noodles down with your wok spatula and swirl the oil and wok around so that every strand on the bottom gets fried. When the bottom is golden, flip it over and fry the other side. The noodles are ready when both sides are a lovely, crispy gold. 

5. Place the noodle nest on a wide plate and, preferably in front of whoever is eating with you, pour the hot veggies on top of the noodles, which will sizzle happily. Dribble a bit of sesame oil on top and serve.


Fresh Chinese pasta with or without eggs is fine here; just be sure and get thin noodles that have a yellow color, as these tend to fry up very well.

Keep any leftover fresh pasta in a sealed bag in the refrigerator, and use it up quickly since it will go bad relatively soon.

Feel free to use whatever you like as the topping. If it tastes good as a stir-fry, it will most likely taste incredible over crispy noodles.

Don't worry about the amount of oil in the dish; lots will be left over after the noodles are fried, and this can be used in stir-fries.

As you fry the noodles, be sure and hit every part of the noodles with the hot oil. You can tell when they have been fried because they puff up, while thin strands tell you that they are still raw.  The best way to do this is to roll the wok around on the heat so that the entire edge gets puffed up, and this also helps protect the center from burning.

Briefly covering the mushrooms with a bit of liquid in there helps get mushrooms to release their juices, which is the fastest way to get them to brown nicely.

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