The KKNY Retro Recipe Project: 1949 Chow Mein

As Mandy volunteered to come help with the first installment of the KKNY Retro Recipe project, I decided to go with a recipe from a book she gave me: Richard Wong's Enjoy Chinese Cooking at Home (Copyright 1949, 14th and Improved Edition published by Mon Fong Wo Co., 36 Pell St., New York 13, N.Y.). Richard Wong was the "founder" of Dragon Inn, a popular restaurant that was located at 140 West 4th Street, which, at the time of printing, had been around for more than twenty years. (Interestingly, a quick Google search of the address shows that the location is currently home to another Asian restaurant, Red Bamboo. I'll have to go check it out.)

The book's introduction, written by Lewis E. Christian, Minister of the Washington Square Methodist Church (where Mr. Wong was a member), notes that through his work, Wong wanted to "acquaint the American public with the fine art of Chinese cooking." A book tour was planned, and it was reviewed in The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune, so Mr. Wong must have had some sort of decent-enough reputation in the restaurant world.

Though I was tempted to choose "Moo Goo Guy Pan," "Beef Cake," "Woh Mein," or some version of the old Chinese-American favorite, Chop Suey, I decided to go with Chow Mein, another old-school favorite.

While the chow mein itself didn't seem all that exciting, I was intrigued by the fried noodle recipe at the top of the left page. In Chinatown, I'm always envious of the tables enjoying the dishes of stir fry served on beautiful fried noodle cakes. I've only ever managed to order something like them once, so when I saw this recipe, I was psyched.

I also decided to pick up the ingredients for number 52 (Chinese Roast Pork Chow Mein), figuring if I was going to stick to Mr. Wong's recipe, the plain chicken option would be really, really boring.

The other ingredient I had to get was something with a fairly bad rap: MSG. While I understand that some people have a bad reaction to it, it's not the scary chemical most detractors would have you believe. Discovered in Japan, it was originally a seaweed product, but is now produced by fermenting some sort of starch or sugar. Connected in many minds to Chinese food, it's used to enhance many processed foods, and was, I've discovered looking through many of my old cookbooks, suggested for use in homes throughout the mid twentieth century. (Check out this New York Times story from 2007, which takes a closer look at MSG and debunks its bad reputation.)

Beautifully, Mr. Wong calls it "gourmet powder," and the bag of Aji no moto ("essence of taste") I found at Hong Kong supermarket referred to it as "Umami seasoning." I'm actually excited to have it among my seasonings now--it'll be interesting to figure out how to use it.

Back to the recipe itself... After group vegetable chopping (Sté is a cabbage-chopping master), Mandy attacked the noodles and produced beautiful single-serving cakes that will now be standard fare in my kitchen. They were crunchy on the outside, still chewy on the inside, and added a wonderful texture to the finished dish.

Cooking the chow mein was a little problematic. I think the addition of two cups of stock created way too much liquid, and for whatever reason the sauce didn't thicken. So...we ended up with a sort of soup. But we ultimately agreed the final product was pretty yummy. The roast pork was definitely a great idea, and Mandy thinks the MSG helped spread its flavor throughout the dish. It totally brought me back to the dishes we'd get from place we'd frequent when I was a kid, the leftovers totally look like something you'd get from a typical takeout joint, and my apartment still smells like a cheap Chinese restaurant.

I'd call it a success!

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