Perceive the humble Hakka Chow Mien. It looks deceptively simple - vegetable, protein and noodle tossed together - but when its being made, that's when the equation gets ruined. Soggy noodles, half-cooked vegetables (or worse, mushy vegetables), sauces distributed unevenly - the saga continues. However, there are some foolproof methods that can really help make the noodle exactly as you want it to be. But what may be those foolproof methods? That remains a question that a few may be able to answer.
Choosing the Right Instruments
The first thing that helps make a really great Hakka-style chow mien is by picking the right kind of instrument, because you will be dealing with high heat. One of the things a good Hakka chow should ideally have what's called "wok hei", loosely translated to "the breath of wok", indicating towards the smoky char that hits the nose the moment it starts cooking. The other thing that is important is the surface area of the vessel. Noodles need a bit of space to ensure that they don't stick to each other. This results in a lovely, perfectly cooked, chow mien. Ideally, look for a carbon-steel or iron wok, preferably Chinese-made. Now, in case you don't have a wok, a large pan which can withstand high heat will work, too.
"Remember to keep your wok seasoned," said Chef Rahul Arora, "A well-seasoned wok can last a good period of time, provided you are cooking in it regularly, and seasoning it from time to time. Heating salt in a dry wok at an extremely high heat also results in a good clean wok, much like a clean canvas."
Selecting the Right Kind of Fat
"Generally, to make a good chow mien, you would need a fat which would have a high burning point. This is because the wok will have to be heated till its really hot, then some fat will be added to it and the wok taken off heat. The fat is then swirled around the pan before it is put over the fire again. This procedure helps make the wok quite non-sticky. The fats used to make Hakka-style noodles include peanut oil, sunflower oil, lard, and other neutral-smelling fats that have a high tolerance for heat. The reason is simple - without high heat, the 'breath of wok', or the slight char will not be achieved quickly, the sauce poured in will not be quickly evaporated, and there will be no caramelization of sugar," noted Anand Puri of Trincas Restaurant. One may also add flavoring fats, like sesame oil, or chilli oil, which would be added at the very end, to finish the dish. Choosing the right kind of fat, therefore, is actually extremely important to get the perfectly tossed noodle.
Cooking the Noodle Perfectly
"I prefer a double-egg, yellow noodle. It is really springy, and I like it cooked till its al dente, no more, because otherwise the noodles start to become mushy," said Shiladitya Chaudhury, Director, Platter Hospitality Pvt Ltd, which, among others, features Chowman, one of the popular chains of Chinese restaurants of Kolkata. "Whatever noodles you may pick, make sure you don't cook it fully, but rather, leave it just a notch underdone. It will be finishing cooking with the vegetables and protein," he added. The other key is to ensure that after cooking till the desired doneness, the noodles are immediately removed and put under running water to stop them from any further cooking, and many restaurants tend to add a few drops of oil to ensure the noodles doesn't stick to each other when they get cold and dry out slightly.
The Order of Vegetables
"The vegetables need to be in a certain order," said Adarsh Bhargava, owner of the newly-open Tsao's Kitchen. "You can't put the hard vegetables at the end, because then you will end up with them remaining uncooked while the rest of the dish is ready. The idea is to keep all of the vegetables cut in the same size, so that they cook together and doesn't look odd, and also to put the harder veggies first and the quick cooking ones at the end." Things like carrots should go in first, while spring onion greens should be reserved for the end. This would ensure even cooking and the vegetables should ideally be cooked, but remain slightly crunchy, and not mushy. Also, using quick cooking vegetables is the key - broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, pak choy, green beans, carrots, capsicum, mushrooms are all great additions to a good Chow Mien.
Picking the Protein
The proteins added to the Hakka Chow Mien mostly include chicken, prawns, egg and pork. Tofu is sometimes used in the vegetarian version, but it is not very popular. "Generally, for a Hakka-style noodle, you cook the vegetables and protein separately, and add the protein near the very end of the cooking. Also, its important to ensure the pieces are of around the same size as the vegetables. This looks really nice, and also the dish ends up cooking evenly," said Richeek Dey, partner at Kimli Restaurant, Tangra. "We generally like a combination of two or three proteins, but no more."
Season in Steps
"Don't begin seasoning at the very end. In the end, that may result in the chow mien being under-seasoned. Rather, get all your sauces mixed and ready to go. Also, get all the other seasonings out before you start cooking, because this is a high-flame recipe," noted Janice Lee of Pou Chong Sauces. This step is crucial because the high flame results in food getting charred in just a few seconds, and a few seconds can take that char to a full-fledged burn.
Chicken Hakka Chow Mien
150 gm. egg noodles
100 gm. boneless chicken breast, cut against the grain in small slices (about 3/4-inch)
50 gm. carrots julienned
25 gm. mushrooms, sliced fine
50 gm. cabbage, julienned
10 gm. spring onion greens, chopped fine
25 gm. onion, sliced fine
5 gm. minced garlic
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
2 teaspoon vinegar
1 teaspoon oyster sauce (optional)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder
1/2 teaspoon chicken stock powder (optional)
Salt to taste
4 tablespoon Peanut or Sunflower oil (for cooking)
Cook egg noodles according to package instructions, but pull them when they are still slightly underdone, about 1 minute before the indicative cooking time. Wash well with cold, running water, apply a spoon of oil and massage it in, so that the strands don't stick to each other.
Mix the soy sauces with vinegar, sugar, chicken powder, oyster sauce and white pepper with 2 tablespoons of water. Apply 1 tablespoon of this seasoning on the chicken. Reserve the rest.
Heat the wok till its really hot. Add oil, swirl it about, then remove the excess oil, leaving about 1 tablespoon in the wok. Add the chicken and stir fry over high heat till the chicken changes color, about 2-3 minutes, depending on the heat of the wok and the size of the chicken pieces. Remove the chicken. To the same pan, add the remaining oil and immediately add the garlic, without waiting for the oil to heat up. Stir the garlic for 15-20 seconds, or until it is fragrant.
Then, add the carrots. Stir fry for 60 seconds, then add the mushrooms, onion and cabbage, stirring each vegetable in before every new addition. Add a pinch of salt and stir fry them till the cabbage wilts and smells slightly charred, about 1 minute.
Add the noodles, stir it in with the vegetables, then add the sauce and stir well to ensure the sauce coats the noodles and vegetables well. At this point, check for salt and sugar, add more pepper if needed. This is the point when the chicken should be tossed in along with any accumulated juice, and the noodles will be tossed for 1 more minute to incorporate the chicken well.
Finally, finish with the spring onions, stir them in, then remove from heat and serve immediately.
About Poorna BanerjeePoorna Banerjee is a food writer, restaurant critic and social media strategist and runs a blog Presented by P for the last ten years where she writes about the food she eats and cooks, the places she visits, and the things she finds of interest. She is deeply interested in culinary anthropology, and food history and loves books, music, travelling, and a glass of wine, in that order.