Plain Jane Chow Mein

That most ubiquitous and basic of dishes from the Chinese takeaway, plain chow mein is actually a really good bench mark of the rest of their cooking – sadly, in the UK, it’s often swimming in oil and there’s never enough beansprouts for me, and by the time it gets home, usually the beansprouts are limp and the noodles too soft…whether that’s because they’ve been overcooked or because they were imprisoned in their container for too long, it’s hard to say.

Luckily, they are simple and quick to make at home – so quick, in fact, that it’s one of those recipes where you should have everything lined up and ready to go before you heat the wok – and when the recipe says 30 seconds, it really means 30 seconds.

If you want a really authentic Cantonese recipe, I highly recommend

I have never made her chow mein, but I’ve made quite a few other things from her site, and her recipes work. She is also from the ‘more beansprouts, please’ school of thought.

If, however, you don’t have all the sauces and oils her recipe uses, then this recipe might be the one for you.

Chow mein is traditionally made with egg noodles, fresh or dried – I hardly ever buy them myself, so I tend to use packet rice sticks…which would mean this should be called ‘Plain Jane Ho Fun’ – but that doesn’t scan so nicely….(might also attract spam from ‘adult content’ sites, and heaven knows, I get enough of that already.)

At a pinch, you can use the bargain basement 15p a packet instant noodles – it won’t win you any Michelin stars, but it makes them edible, and means you can throw away that disgusting sachet of soup base.

Ingredients – makes 1 portion as a main, enough for two or three as part of a meal with other dishes

1 portion of noodles – about 100g of dried noodles

1 large handful of beansprouts – about 150 g

½ medium onion

1 tablespoon of kecap manis or 1 tablespoon light soy sauce mixed with 1 teaspoon dark soy and 1 teaspoon of sugar.

1 ½ -2  tablespoons cooking oil – sunflower or peanut

To garnish – spring onion oil, optional


Precook noodles as per the packet instructions, but just slightly underdone – drain and run under cold water, and drain dry again. If you are using packet rice sticks, pre soak for 30 minutes in cold water and drain. Cut onion in half lengthways, and then slice lengthways. Line up all your ingredients, including the beansprouts in a heat proof bowl, as you’ll transfer them back, hot from the pan.

Wipe the wok with a scrap of kitchen towel dipped in oil. Heat the wok until there is a heat haze, and add the onion and allow to sear – not burn! You want them to stay crisp, but their natural sugars to be released. Add ½ tablespoon of oil and swirl around, then add the beansprouts and stir/toss quickly for 30 seconds – no more. The sprouts should just lose their raw taste, but stay white and crisp – cook them any longer and they start to leach out water. Transfer onions and beansprouts back to the bowl, add the rest of the oil to the wok and then the noodles – stir/toss continuously, so that they don’t stick together in a blob – a minute or so, slightly longer if you’re using rice sticks. Add the sauce and toss through for about 15 seconds – add the beansprouts and onions back, toss through and serve.

If you buy your beansprouts, make sure they are not soggy in the bag. If you sprout your own, the secret to getting them long and straight, is to put a slight weight on top of them – a damp clean dish cloth folded over should do, and sprout them in a dark cupboard, as though they were pushing up through the earth.


Home-made Chilli bean paste with garlic

Most chilli-bean-garlic pastes/ sauces you can buy have way too much msg in them – totally unnecessary. I’ve got quite a laissez-faire attitude to a little bit of msg as a ‘umami’ flavour in pre bought food – but like all flavour/mood enhancers, less is undoubtedly more. 🙂
Too much msg makes my tongue feel burnt. Yuck.
This sauce is definitely a condiment, rather than something you use as a foundation in cooking, but I use it all the time – in fact, on toast, it’s kind of become my replacement for marmite/vegemite, so I tend to make it on a 1:1:1 ratio of chilli, black bean and garlic – however, Lottie and Special K, the two mates who I swap homemade stuff with most often, are both diehard chilliheads, so I make a 2:1:1 version for them – you can make it as hot as you like, but the method and the type of pan you use are pretty much set in stone.

Ingredients – makes 2 small jars – about 500 ml.
1-2 generous handfuls of regular dried chillies (red, about 5-6 cm long and 0.75-1 cm wide)
1 large or 2 small whole bulbs of garlic
1 handful fermented black soya beans
300 ml cooking oil – I use sunflower oil, but you could use canola or peanut – the main thing is it should be flavourless and be able to withstand high heat. Use 50-100 ml more oil if you’re using 2 or more handfuls of chilli.

I am hoping that if you’re making Chinese style condiments, you already own a wok, but you could also use a karahi or something similar – the main thing is, the pan should be considerably bigger than the volume of ingredients, as they fizzle and bubble up when you add them to the oil – and there should be a relatively large surface area in relation to the amount of oil you’re using, to allow moisture to escape, otherwise the flavour will be too broiled/boiled.

Break off any stalks on the chillies and twizzle between your fingers to remove most of the seeds – you won’t get rid of all of them, but as they don’t plump up when you soak the chillies in hot water, leaving them all in will make your sauce too crunchy – like deep fried granola, and get stuck between your teeth. If you want a hotter sauce, just use more chillies. CAUTION, if you think you might rub your eyes/nose/tender parts in the near future, you might want to wear rubber gloves for this bit.
Place chillies in a bowl and cover with boiling water – set aside for 30 minutes, then drain.
Peel all the garlic.
Rinse black beans – you can soak them in hot water to plump them up a little bit, but for no longer than a couple of minutes – I don’t bother. When drained, mash lightly to break them up a little.

If you haven’t got a machine, chop the chillies and the garlic quite finely – keeping them separate. Even if you’re going to blitz them, it is worth roughly chopping them before adding them to the machine, so that they end up being evenly finely minced not part puréed with some big chunks. Blitz in short bursts.
When you’ve got these 3 ingredients lined up in separate bowls, put your clean, dry pan on quite a high heat, until you see a heat haze coming off it, then turn heat down slightly and add oil – heat until you see a heat haze coming off the pan and the oil starts to gently shimmer – you have to pay attention because you don’t want it to get to a smoking point – turn off the heat immediately, and if you’re cooking on electric, remove from the hot ring. Straight away, add the chillies – they will fizzle up and spit a bit, so be careful. The oil will turn orange, and when it begins to calm down, but is still bubbling, add the garlic. Stir a couple of times and add the beans.
The addition of each cold ingredient brings down the heat of the oil, so this needs to be done in quite quick succession. Leave to cool, then bottle.
As long as the paste has a good layer (1 cm) of oil covering it, it doesn’t need refrigerating and will easily keep for 2-3months. If you find you have an excess of oil, you can scoop this off and keep it as plain chilli oil for cooking/dressings.
Black beans are available in small bags or cardboard tubs in Chinese stores – they’re dead cheap and last indefinitely. Once you’ve opened them, store in a screw top jar as they smell quite strong. One of the best brands is Pearl River preserved black beans with ginger, which seems to be available all over the world.