Julie Van Rosendaal's Newfoundland-style chow mein
Some chow mein was made with cabbage because noodles were harder to find
A conversation with Globe and Mail food reporter and author Ann Hui, after reading her book, Chop Suey Nation, had me reconsidering a dish I haven't given much thought to in years: a simple stir fry, or bowl of chop suey.
Hui spent 18 days on the road driving across Canada — traveling 9,625 kilometres from Victoria, B.C., to Fogo Island, N.L., in search of the origins of what she calls "chop suey cuisine" — that westernized version of Chinese restaurant food that includes chop suey, sweet and sour pork and other dishes you wouldn't find in China.
The dishes were developed by early Chinese immigrants who arrived in Canada when laws barred most Chinese men from pursuing most professions, so they were limited to a few options when it came to making a living.
"Most owners weren't trained chefs — many had only started restaurants because they had no other options, because the work didn't require formal training or much English," she wrote.
Without access to the same ingredients, they made dishes up that they thought would appeal to western palates — often a delicious combination of sweet, sour, salty, crunchy and chewy — and learned by improvising and imitating others in the business.
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On her road trip, Hui defines a very ubiquitous Canadian cuisine with regional specialties including fried macaroni in Quebec and ginger beef in Alberta.
In Newfoundland, chow mein — which literally translates to "fried noodles" — is commonly made with cabbage, due to the unavailability of noodles.
The discovery reinforces her realization that her dismissive attitude toward this food was wrong.
"This ad hoc cuisine and the families behind it were quintessentially Chinese," she writes.
"Out of cabbage they made noodles.… They created cuisine that was a testament to creativity, perseverance and resourcefulness. This chop suey cuisine wasn't fake Chinese — it was the most Chinese of all."
Newfoundland-style chow mein
Chow mein literally translates to "fried noodles," so this technically might be more accurately described as chop suey (a similarly quick stir-fry seasoned with oyster and soy sauce — just add bean sprouts) — but in Newfoundland, they make it with sliced cabbage, which mimics the shape of noodles.
Whatever you call it, you can use whatever veggies you like, or have on hand — mushrooms, pea shoots, zucchini, bok choy, gai lan, rapini — anything goes.
It can also be made with any kind of protein — chicken, pork, beef and shrimp are common. If it's something you make often, shake up a jar of sauce to keep in the fridge and free pour as you stir-fry. If you want to use actual noodles, stir-fry them first in the oil until heated through and starting to crisp at the edges.
As with the rest of the ingredients, the sauce measurements don't need to be strictly adhered to.
1 tbsp cornstarch
1 cup water or stock
¼-1/3 cup oyster sauce
1-2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp maple syrup or honey
a slice of ginger
Canola or other mild vegetable oil, for cooking
Sesame oil, for cooking
1 carrot, sliced diagonally
1-2 celery stalks, cut into chunks
a few Brussels sprouts, halved
a handful of broccoli or cauliflower florets
a handful of pea pods or kohlrabi, cut into sticks
¼ green or savoy cabbage, sliced about ½-inch thick
1 green onion, chopped
¼-½ lb of steak, chicken, pork or shrimp, cooked or not
In a bowl or jar, whisk or shake together the cornstarch and water. Stir in the oyster sauce, soy sauce, maple syrup and ginger. If you want to make it ahead, stash it in the fridge for up to a week.
Prep all your veggies so they're ready to go — a stir-fry comes together fast. Heat a generous drizzle of both oils in a large skillet or wok set over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, add the sturdiest vegetables to it (carrots, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower) and stir fry for a minute or two, moving them around the pan.
Add more delicate veggies (pea pods, zucchini, peppers, kohlrabi) and cook for another minute or two.
Add the sauce — it will boil and thicken immediately. Ditch the slice of ginger, or hold it back in the jar. Add a splash of water or stock if it seems too thick. Remember — the veggies don't need to cook for very long, you want them tender-crisp.
If you have cooked meat, stir it in and you're done. If the meat needs cooking, add them to the pan (this works well with shrimp, which are best when they gently steam), or shake all the veggies out of the skillet onto a platter and add the meat to the pan with a little more oil, and cook it for a few minutes, until it's just cooked through.
Add it to the platter with the veggies. If there are lots of flavourful browned bits in the bottom of the pan, add a splash of water or stock either as you cook the meat or after it comes out of the pan, scrape up the flavourful bits and pour it over the meat and veggies.
Serves two to four people.