If you’ve ever gone on teh interwebs and tried to find a good recipe for takeout style Lo Mein, odds are you’ve been as disappointed by the results as I have.
It’s not our fault though. The recipes I’ve seen (and I have searched through a TON of them) have largely sucked.
There are a variety of reasons for the suckatude of these recipes, but primary among them is the overweening need the authors seem to have for making them totally accessible and “makeable” immediately, regardless of what you may or may not have in your pantry.
They achieve this goal by offering substitutions for even main ingredients or skipping the substitution game all together and creating a recipe that fits what they assume is in most western pantries.
Now, I’m all for accessibility, but when you offer substitutions for stuff that ends up ruining the actual dish, you’re not doing anyone any favors.
Best case scenario, the cook acknowledges that something is wrong with the recipe and tries again. Worst case, they blame themselves for their soy-drenched sadness pile and don’t try making Lo Mein or anything similar ever again.
What you can and can’t substitute when you make Lo Mein
If you lack the following two things, don’t even bother trying to make Lo Mein:
- Oyster or hoisin sauce
- Some kind of alkaline egg noodles.
The thing is, these are the MAIN INGREDIENTS in the Lo Mein you get from your favorite takeout joint and replacing the oyster sauce with soy sauce and sugar, which several blogs seem to recommend, or replacing the alkaline egg noods with pasta, which they also say is fine, will produce a result that is completely different from what you’re craving.
The Importance of Oyster Sauce
Oyster sauce is an absolute staple of Cantonese cuisine, from which the majority of our American Chinese food stems. It’s a flavor that is indelibly linked to classics such as egg foo young, chow mein, moo goo gai pan and so many other dishes we grew up eating. The dominant flavor is not soy. It’s this stuff and you WILL miss it if you don’t have it.
You can use hoisin sauce instead of oyster sauce if you’re vegetarian. It has a sweeter flavor profile, but still has a nice kick of umami and will thicken the sauce sufficiently that you don’t need to use corn starch or other thickeners.
The Importance of Alkaline Egg Noodles
And the idea that you can replace alkaline egg noodles with pasta is ridiculous.
Pasta is made with semolina flour which has a REALLY distinct flavor. Chinese alkaline noods on the other hand are made with common, high gluten wheat and an alkaline solution that also has a really distinct, mineral-y flavor that you definitely will miss if it’s not there. Also, the texture of the cooked noodle is entirely different.
The alkaline solution and low hydration of the dough create a bouncy, chewy noodle that sort of stands up to chewing, as opposed to the al dente quality of Italian pasta, which is supposed to snap in your mouth as soon as you bite down.
This chewy quality is so important to Chinese cuisine that it has it’s own term: Jian Jing or Chew Power. The Taiwanese call it QQ.
There have been many studies done that prove that texture, rather than taste, is the most important factor that affects the acceptance or rejection of food, so you can’t tell me this isn’t important!
How to Make Really Good Lo Mein
So now you know what fundamental ingredients you absolutely need. Let’s talk about the OTHER ingredients and the method.
The veg doesn’t really matter. You can use any leafy green but I prefer crisp ones like nappa cabbage or bok choy. Sugar snap peas, julienned carrot, and bell peppers are also common ingredients. Lots of the broken recipes out there call for spinach or mushrooms, but I don’t find that these two things go well in Lo Mein. Spinach wilts too quickly and the mushrooms don’t really have enough time to cook and crisp up in a quick stir fry so they end up sort of slimy.
The oil DOES matter. You need to cook this dish on as high a heat as possible, so you need oil that has a really high smoke point. I like using peanut oil because I like the flavor but you can use canola oil, un-toasted sesame oil or rapeseed oil. (the toasted sesame oil is more of a flavoring rather than a cooking oil.)
And speaking of heat, how are you supposed to get the ripping hot pan temps necessary to create the all-important wok hei effect without an industrial strength wok burner and a carbon steel wok??
The closest I’ve been able to come to wok hei on my normal stove has been by using a cast iron pan super heated prior to beginning cooking. It’s not perfect but it definitely allows me to sear veggies before they start to overcook and get mushy.
I also have an industrial strength portable wok burner, but I can really only use that outside because it’s on a propane tank. Most people have grill season. I have wok season!
ANYWAY. Here’s the recipe!!
Homemade Takout Lo MeinCourse: MainCuisine: Chinese, Chinese-AmericanDifficulty: Medium
2 Tbsp peanut or other high smoke point oil
Ginger, finely chopped
Garlic, finely chopped
Bok Choy or Nappa Cabbage, Stems separated and thinly sliced
Scallion, white parts separated and coarsely chopped
Canned baby corn, drained
340 g. / 12 oz Alkaline Egg Noodles, boiled, drained and rinsed
- For the Sauce
1 Tbsp Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tsp Sugar
1/4 cup chicken stock*
- Ingredient Prep
- Mince your garlic and ginger and set aside
- Separate out the stems from the cabbage or bok choi and slice thinly. Set aside.
- Thinly slice leafy greens and set aside.
- Julienne carrots and toss them in with the stems. They will cook together.
- Drain the baby corn and toss it in with the stems. They will cook together.
- Coarsely chop the scallion whites and toss them in with the leafy greens. They will cook together.
- Add all sauce ingredients together and stir until the sugar dissolves. Set aside**
- Stir Frying
- If you don’t have a wok and a power-burner, heat a heavy-bottomed pan or cast iron skillet over high heat.
- Add the cooking oil and immediately toss in the garlic and ginger. Allow the garlic and ginger to cook for 20 seconds or so until fragrant.
- Add the sliced stems, carrots, and baby corn and stir fry for about 1 minute.
- Add the leafy greens and scallion whites and stir fry for about 30 seconds
- Turn the heat off. The residual heat will warm the noodles and sauce through without burning them
- Add the noodles and toss to separate.
- Add the sauce and toss all ingredients together until well combined.
- Serve immediately
- * you can’t substitute western chicken stock here. The mire poix flavors will mess up the taste of the whole dish. If you don’t have chicken bone broth, you can use 1/4 cup water and Chinese chicken bullion since it is basically just pure chicken flavor. Otherwise, just use water. Honestly, I promise it won’t matter too much.
- *It’s important to mix the sauce ahead of time so you’re not doing it while everything else is burning in a hot pan. Also, you can’t add the constituent parts separately or they won’t combine in the dish correctly.